The Tensions of Not Knowing

Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance is not so much the narration or analysis of a person’s disappearance as a profound exploration of the psychological effects on characters whose lives have been brutally altered because of the disappearance of a loved one. The main character and the narrator of Matar’s wrenching novel is Nuriel el-Alfi, age twelve when he begins relating what happened when his father disappeared two years later in 1972. As he observes in the opening of his story,

“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.”

Nuri’s mother is dead and he lives in exile in Cairo with his father, once the advisor to the king of an Arab country—presumably Libya—his family fled when revolution ended the monarchy. Father (Kamal Pasha el-Alfi) and son travel around Europe and Egypt, where the two of them first encounter
Mona, at a small hotel on the beach in Alexandria. Mona is half European but speaks Arabic. Nuri and his father are both attracted to her, though the boy is only twelve and his father is much older. Nuri observes, “She was twenty-six. Father forty-one and I twelve: fifteen years separated them, and fourteen separated her from me. He scarcely had any more right to her than I did. And the fact that Mother was also twenty-six when she and Father married did not escape me. It was as if Father was trying to turn the clock back.”

The boy’s father succeeds in accomplishing that, marrying her two years later. But the marriage does not stifle Nuri’s feelings for Mona, which his father clearly understands, so he sends the boy to England for his education. It is during one of his father’s visits in London that he makes a remark that Nuri does not understand: “Don’t frequent the same places. Don’t make it easy for anyone to know your movements.”

Not much later when Nuri spends three days in Geneva with Mona, waiting for his father to appear, word comes that he has disappeared. Then several days later, Nuri and Mona return to Cairo, still waiting for Kamal, though details of foul play soon leak out. A family friend tells them, “The regime has issued a statement saying they have him, that he has, of his own volition, returned to the capital. But they didn’t show him. They could be bluffing. It’s possible.”

Months, years pass. Nuri is still drawn to Mona, sexually. On one occasion, the two of them have intercourse. The psychological implications are obvious. Does Nuri want his father to return, or does he want Mona? There’s a further account of Kamal’s assumed kidnapping, but as more years pass by and the past begins to blur, Nuri works out a context that he is able to live with: “The truth is, I don’t believe Father is dead. But I don’t believe he is alive either.” Yet there is something comforting about that limbo, as well as Nuri’s realization that Mona has become involved with another man.

What Matar captures so utterly convincingly in Anatomy of a Disappearance is the sense of conflict from not knowing. As he did so compellingly in his earlier novel, In the Country of Men (2006)—set in the country of his heritage, Libya—Matar explores the tortured dynamics of father/son relationships. The son increasingly begins to assume the personality of the father, implying that to do otherwise is impossible. And the language to describe–to chronicle all these interesting twists of fate and character–is elegant, lush, nostalgic.

Anatomy of a Disappearance
By Hisham Matar
The Dial Press, 227 pp., $22

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.