One morning in late September, as Libyan rebels launched their final advance on Sirte, Muammar Qaddafi's hometown, Hisham Matar explained to a small, rapt audience at the century-old Chicago Club why the removal of repressive long-time dictators, though great, had not been the most meaningful achievement of the Arab Spring. "Our collective imagination - a whole array of expectations about our governments, our institutions, our dreams - has just shifted," he said. "The horizon has moved much further than even the most audacious of us would have suggested."
Matar speaks softly, but with confidence and precision. "You can see it on people's bodies, in their eyes and their faces, hear it in their voices," he adds during an interview in the lobby of his downtown hotel later that morning. "It's as if these regimes were sitting literally on top of us. There's a new ease, a new optimism, a new sense of ownership of the future. That tiresome record of complaining with resignation at the end of it - that's gone, and it's quite an extraordinary thing to lose so quickly."
Little-known outside literary circles before this year, Matar seems to have surfaced at precisely the right moment to herald a new Arab modernity. Born in New York City in 1970, he moved with his family to Tripoli three years later when his father, Jaballa, resigned from a United Nations posting in objection to the Qaddafi regime. In 1979, Jaballa found himself on a Libyan government watch list and again moved the family, this time to Cairo. He wrote articles calling for democracy, and became a leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. In the mid-80s, Matar was sent to boarding school in the UK, where he stayed to study architecture at university.
On the afternoon of March 12, 1990, Jaballa was taken from the family's Cairo home by Egypt's mukhabarat, handed over to the Libyan government and deposited in Abu Salim prison. Two letters, smuggled out by fellow prisoners in 1992 and 1995, relayed stories of interrogation and torture. The family has not heard from Jaballa since. His fate remains unknown.
Matar's twenties fell away in a decade of hate for the Egyptian and Libyan governments. By 2004, he had moved to Paris, met his future wife and begun work on a novel. In the Country of Men, published in 2006, is the story of a sensitive Libyan boy experiencing the quiet panic of a childhood under despotic terror. The book made the Man Booker Prize shortlist and won the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize, honouring a work that evokes "the spirit of a place".
Released early this year, his second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, is also narrated by a sensitive Arab youth and has received strong reviews. The story pivots around his father's mysterious abduction and the long-held secrets it reveals. A "chronicle of the dead years", is how the poet and critic Luke Kennard described the book in his February review for this publication. Moving and impressively concise, what ultimately sets Anatomy of a Disappearance apart and makes it something of a modern classic is not just the universality of loss, but the deep humanity of Matar's prose. Written in English, that prose is simple, declarative, and all the more forceful as a result of his great care.
"Every word we utter betrays us, says a little more than what we think we are saying, reveals more than what we anticipated, exposes us further," Matar said during a recent lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Few better expose the long, dark reach of dictatorship than Matar, which is something of an irony, as Anatomy's publication coincided with the uprisings sweeping the region. Suddenly, Matar was everywhere: writing about Libya and his father in the New York Times, The Guardian and The New Yorker; interpreting the Arab Spring at think-tank discussions and literary festivals; chatting with the BBC, NPR and other news channels.