My Friends: A Novel, by Hisham Matar (Random House, 416 pp., $28.99)
All modern literature is, in a sense, postcolonial. I will explain. But Hisham Matar’s My Friends is a fine piece of postcolonial literature in the most literal sense, and we should start there.
A triangle of friendship has broken. Khaled has just seen Hosam off at the train station. Having departed some time ago, Mustafa is already in Libya, the trio’s native country—which often, in this novel, seems to represent hell. Hosam is headed to California—still heaven in this telling. Khaled remains trapped in London—the crossroads, limbo—where he has lived for more than three decades. As he walks home, Khaled reflects on his relationship with these men. The book is tinged with elements of magical realism: we’re following the thoughts of someone on a 394-page walk back to his apartment.
Khaled and Mustafa were students at the University of Edinburgh. One weekend in 1984, they venture south to London to attend a demonstration outside the Libyan embassy. The Gaddafi regime opens fire on the crowd (this actually happened), and Khaled and Mustafa get shot. While they recover in the hospital, the two men read a short story written by Hosam (whom they have not yet met). It is a strange tale of subdued rebellion, about a man who stops a cat from eating him alive by saying, “No.”
Traitors in the eyes of the dictator, Khaled and Mustafa can’t risk returning to Libya. On the phone with his parents, Khaled can’t even acknowledge that he was wounded at the demonstration; Gaddafi’s agents are listening. The pair are stuck in alien territory, forced to build what lives they can, severed from their culture and their families. Later, in what Matar nonchalantly concedes is “a most unlikely coincidence,” Khaled meets Hosam in a Paris hotel. Hosam moves to London, and the three press on, a small makeshift tribe, lost in the wilderness.
Then, in 2011, comes the Arab Spring, followed by the Libyan civil war. Mustafa and Hosam join the fight and—in another unlikely coincidence—play a central role in Gaddafi’s demise. Mustafa battles on as post-Gaddafi Libya sinks into chaos; Hosam makes his decision to strike out for America. (“My two closest friends have gone in opposite directions: Mustafa back into the past and Hosam out toward the future,” Khaled observes.) All the while, Khaled stays in England, convinced that, after all these years, there is no such thing as going home. (“Where an exile chooses to live is inevitably arbitrary.”)
What, Khaled asks his father, is a real friend? “Simple,” his father responds, “Do they give you pleasure and do you trust them?” That’s a sturdy shorthand, perhaps, but it’s insufficient. In this novel, friendship is writing a friend a fake job reference. It is accompanying a friend to the surgery she is hiding from her husband. It is accepting friends’ flaws; accepting when friends change; accepting friends for whom friendship “is a question of competing allegiances.” You don’t necessarily have to trust them (though you might have to threaten to rip someone’s arms off on their behalf). “Friend. What a word. Most use it about those they hardly know. When it is a wondrous thing.”
Matar contemplates friendship from many angles, as you’d expect from something called My Friends. But the title sells the novel short. This is a book about love and family, liberty and revolution, and dreams, in both senses of the word. It relays the fragility of existence and the “infidelities of translation.” It captures the urgency and poignancy of life’s key moments. (“If I missed my opportunity now, I thought, I would have to carry those words unspoken forever.”) It conveys the miraculous charm of young children. (“She looked small and formidable, not so much that the world was hers but that she, by some magical confluence, had become the world.”)
Matar establishes his postcolonial bona fides at the outset, when Khaled reports that his father “was obsessed with the political history of the Arab world, with a focus on the rise of nationalism, what he liked to describe as ‘the colonizers’ parting gift.’” My Friends is not just a work of postcolonial literature, but a work about postcolonial literature as well. An important character in the novel is a professor of the subject. Khaled’s thoughts and memories are suffused with references to Jean Rhys, Tayeb Salih, and other contributors to the genre. At one point, V.S. Naipaul speaks at an event. Khaled and Mustafa attend and see “the great man arrive wearing a hat that did not fit him.” Naipaul was clear-eyed about the iniquities of Islamic fundamentalism, and his writing could be tough on the colonized. In line with the literary zeitgeist, Matar strains to diminish him. Khaled and Mustafa feel “betrayed” by Naipaul’s lecture, with its criticism of Islam. “Why is it that all the writers we admire let us down?” Mustafa moans as they leave. “It’s all so fucking dismal.”
Many of the postcolonial classics take a dim view of the encounter between East and West, South and North. They focus on those who must forage in the middle, who don’t really belong in either place. And they depict this lack of grounding as a brutalizing condition. In Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway, a Creole, is born in the Caribbean but is not of it. To the former slaves, she is a “white cockroach,” and they treat her as such. Yet England, to her, is an illusion, even when she’s there. In Salih’s masterpiece, Season of Migration to the North, Mustafa Sa’eed is a child of Sudan, the recipient of an English education, and a monster. He drives three women to suicide, kills a fourth, and then loses the will to live himself.
As an obedient progressive, your average postcolonial studies major will energetically propose that this anomie and suffering is a direct outgrowth of the wrongs of the colonial oppressors and the wounds of the oppressed. To erect a colonial ideology, after all, you must first demolish a native one. The postcolonial scholar indicts the colonial governor for regicide, deicide, and cultural genocide. In Sudan, Salih tells us, the English “sowed hatred” for the old leaders, gave the “best jobs” to “nobodies,” and “left behind people who think as they do.”
This is not wrong, though it paints an incomplete picture of the colonial period. More than that, it is a woefully specious theory of modern life. Our world is the product of crisscrossing oppressions. (Naipaul, for his part, believed that “there probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs.”) The contemporary West is a scene of complex and often vicious cultural competition. Indeed, notice the resemblance between progressives’ portrait of the colonialist and progressives themselves. The elite Left, author Paul Kingsnorth observes, is busily rewriting our history, replacing our language, challenging our norms, demonizing our religions, dismantling our hierarchies, and undermining our traditions. They are “colonising—or should we say ‘decolonising’?—their own culture from within.”
In Season of Migration, Mustafa Sa’eed can exploit English women precisely because they are so unmoored, so lost. One of his lovers “had fallen under the influence of Eastern philosophies at Oxford and . . . was hesitating between embracing Buddhism or Islam.” He “says things about the spirituality of the East,” stocks his bathroom with “pungent Eastern perfumes, lotions, unguents, powders, and pills,” and becomes the “symbol” of his victims’ “hankerings.”
“Exile,” claims Matar, is “a thermometer of our times.” He is more right than he lets on. Most of us, fortunately, do not know real tyranny as Khaled and his friends do. But many of us live in-between lives in what is now an in-between society. “You sit,” in the world, “as a stranger would,” Hosam’s mother complains to her son. Khaled feels separated from himself by a “chasm” he is “unable to bridge.” It is a “myth,” he decides, that “you can return.” In the deracinated West, these are baseline preoccupations.
Matar is more optimistic than Rhys or Salih—but only slightly. His message: just keep moving. “Chiefly and above all else,” Hosam muses, “certainly above country and religion and our various affiliations, life is for the living.” Khaled concurs, finding purpose in personal obligation, in “the wants and demands of others.” And there is something exciting, he realizes, about a world where “nothing is fixed.” But none of this is very convincing, as Matar understands. “Life is for the living was hardly a philosophy one could rely on.”
The problems of postcolonial literature are the problems of our time. What we find in these novels—madness (Rhys), nihilism (Salih), and apathy (Matar)—can be deflating. But they report from the front lines. They are a preview of where we are headed, and they challenge us to find better answers.