More on Tropes; a First Look at Hisham Matar’s Missingness

Published by Robert Lunday on

I have come to write, think, teach, and believe according to categories of the world, and of the world as it recreates itself in my mind; those categories I call “tropes.” I borrow the word from rhetoric and literary studies, because they are two disciplines that have shaped me.

“Trope” feels like a shape – something that turns, moves – so it feels to me like a place, or series of places, as well. It is like the Aristotelian topoi, the rhetorical topics, but tropes in my mind are more dynamic: from a distance they’re spherical, like worlds spinning in the World; when they come closer, they’re rectangular, cabinet-like or drawer-like spaces – or honeycombed, hexagonal, or maybe doorways. In my mind they hover, vibrate, shimmer; they turn slowly as I study their shadows, crevices, and contents.

Some tropes are small and narrow, though any of them might expand and grow. Some are large, can be opened and entered, revealing smaller, more concrete tropes. The doors lead to more doors, often within long hallways, where walls are hung with images and objects representing secret passageways to other tropes. Or they’re like wooden or rusted-metal drawers, creaky or well-oiled, cluttered, but rich with ruined, whole, named and unnamed tools, devices, texts, lapidary things, talismans, everything imaginable but brought down to the size of the hand.

These cabinets and drawers are of nineteenth-century facture, I suspect. My mind chooses that century somehow, as a verge between the present and the endless past.

Often my dreams (last night, in fact, with a certain anxiety, as I have procrastinated in finishing this blog post) are of these doors, cabinets, passageways, or drawers. In excitement or frustration, I travel through those spaces and hesitate to wake.

I wrote Disequilibria in part by mentally traveling through the tropes I discovered/created along the way. Such is their main use: to recreate world in mind and mind in world, tentative and alert to change: to be there, awake or dreaming, ready to bind familiar to unfamiliar; to discover, to explore, but also to find order and comfort.

I have always had trouble finishing projects. My ambitions cannibalize me. My hard drive is filled with folders of failed and unfinished essays and poems going back three decades. I don’t fully believe that Disequilibria is a finished work – it got picked up for publication before I was completely done with it.

Blessedly! – because now I can procrastinate in writing a second volume.

Part of this as-yet-unwritten second volume, or the afterlife of Disequilibria itself, is the occasional discovery of authors and works that would be essential to the book if I could perpetually rewrite it.

The most exciting author I have discovered of late (how did I miss him before now?) is the Libyan-British (and American-born) Hisham Matar. To date, Matar has published four books: the novels In the Country of Men and The Anatomy of Disappearance, and the nonfiction works The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between, his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, and A Month in Siena, a thoughtful, delightful, and brief account of the author and his wife Diana Matar’s time in the Italian city.

Matar writes in Siena: “Perhaps each one of us carries, along with everything that has happened, a private genealogy of rooms.” This seems a good place for me to first connect with the author, because his rooms are kin to my tropes. “Genealogy” signifies, I suppose, the broader sense of a descent from one’s varied sources – a temporal taxonomy, or a progression. If it’s like Foucault’s use of the term, then the speaker himself is couched in “genealogy”: history as represented in the rooms (in its cabinets, closets, drawers, paintings, jewelry boxes, and such) is traced backward from the person himself, wandering through rooms of the present moment. This Foucauldian genealogy starts here and now, working backward. We can’t help but live forward as well as backward, and that, for me, is a crucial aspect of missingness.

(…and why “private,” if that isn’t redundant with “genealogy”? Perhaps because anyone else, even your twin, might find a different genealogy in those same rooms.)

Siena starts as a deceptively simple narrative account; having already read two of Matar’s other three books, I knew it would quickly move past a linear approach. Matar is sometimes a poet in prose, but his poetic imagery is precise, light, and striking. The lyricism is closely bound to the broader sense of perspective and understanding: the hard-won insights of an artist who has lived so long with such great loss.

I’ll provide just a few simple facts, allowing my reader the pleasure of reading Matar’s works directly, discovering the more textured, deep history he explores, as fiction and nonfiction, in his four books thus far (and in many essays here and there, as well).

Matar’s father, Jaballah Matar, was a colonel in the Libyan army, loyal to Gaddafi for a time, then a dissident in exile. The family lived many years in Egypt and the US until the father was abducted from Cairo in 1990 and most likely returned to Libya, where he was – again, most likely – tortured, detained, and ultimately murdered. His fate is uncertain: record of his death is lacking, his body unfound. He is one of the long-term missing.

We tend to seek a unitary perspective, to borrow a phrase from an essay Matar published in a Lithub essay on Joseph Conrad. Missingness as a master-trope – a drawer of drawers – is an elegiac manner of seeking such unitary perspective. But it’s also (as “cleave” contrasts with “cleave”) a tension against that desire. Ambivalence is its main energy. Sometimes we desire unitary perspective as much as we desire fragmentation – because in brokenness, in ruins, we still feel the power of return, of potential, of closeness, of remaking the lost world. It’s a tension between the local or the home-like and the global or expansive. If you’re a thinking person, the whole world is the greater frame for who you are, but that same world threatens to dissolve your solitary self.

Matar, in the essay on Conrad, captures that tension or ambivalence much more vividly and eloquently. It is another sense of the elegiac in his writings, and in how he views the world, and the artist’s place in the world: “He [Conrad] was fascinated by the vicissitudes of partially known facts, believing always that by merely standing to look at a situation one cannot help but cast one’s own shadow on the scene.”

In the opening to Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, the author eloquently establishes this poetic quality:

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 of 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.

It is not only the elegiac Matar defines here, but also, the broader artistic project, perhaps of the entire oeuvre thus far: the “possibility for resemblance,” which is for me the value of my tropic system – my way of understanding how art helps us live, which is by finding the tools that allow us to reconstruct the world itself – not as delusion, but as a workable if provisional access to the beauty beyond its horrors.

Looking at Matar’s four works, tentatively, I see tropes within the master-trope of missingness: space, a keen sense of scales – between close and near, home or family and the State, and the world – and frequently, a sense of the Abyss. Perhaps Matar’s main trope is the ways figures of time and space lead to a dynamics of scale; and how the human form, the body in its frailties and sensitivities, is at the crux between figurative framings of time and space.

But that crux, that point where the human finds its agency – when we seek to fit ourselves between family or community and that larger, terrible world – is an effort at balancing paradox, or the capacity we have as humans for living with paradox.

Matar constructs it in part through his aesthetics of scale between the insoluble or the inconsistent. Missingness bewilders; it’s anomalous yet ever-present. Missingness confounds our efforts at description and expression: “They vanished into thin air,” “She never returned,” “He was never heard from again” – these thin, reused epitaphs record the speaker’s failure to comprehend.

Matar finds words, images, and figures that capture the lyricism and the phenomenological truth of missingness as I feel it. One of the aunts of the boy in In the Country of Men, whose father has been taken by the regime, avoids the usual blankness of language when she says the man has “vanished like a grain of salt in water.” It’s a problematic figure, though it brings something new as a revision of the “thin air” cliché – problematic because it’s too quick and clean for the forcible removal of a man from his life. But it seems to me a true figure of the woman’s perceptions in the moment – of her effort to make meaning that gives the enormity some tangible life where brute absence threatens to destroy meaning and sensation.

“…like a grain of salt in water”: it captures the uncanny sense of scale – of the smallness of a life within the greatness of the world; yet intact, insistent on itself.

(My mind is racing over the many notes I have, but I want to post something today; so, I’m going to conclude with a quick leap into the trope of greatest interest to me in Matar – the Abyss.)

Let’s say the Abyss is a master-trope (framing, that is, several other figures), but also, that it fits into the greater trope of the Environmental (the World as we perceive it, as it surrounds our presence). I think of the Abyss, at least as a trope of Missingness, as the spatial sense of being lost, or of someone’s being-lost; it is one way we figure the world past the limits of our senses.

Perhaps the Abyss becomes a permanent feature of one’s mental landscape when we live with the long-term missing.

In The Return, the memoir about his father’s abduction and its effects on Matar and his family, we see the Abyss in those precise, vivid moments of lyricism: “Father’s delay was like a cloud that grew thicker with each passing day,” he says about a third of the way through the memoir. That cloud is a figure of the Abyss, an emblem of fear, and of the uncertainties of missingness. It creates a sense of scale, of depth, but also of hidden presence.

Earlier, remembering his boyhood experiences, Matar tells us of a solitary swim in the Mediterranean Sea:

For some reason, I remembered, more vividly than ever before, that it was my father who had taught me how to swim: holding me up, one open hand against my belly, saying, “That’s it.” I never feared the sea until he was gone.

Think of a father, the trope of the Father or Mother, then, as the tension between the present, the immediate, the familial and that great, frightening, maw of the world; and without that presence, we experience a loss of power, of agency (agency is another theme in Matar’s works, wherein the author constructs his political dynamics; but I’ll save that for another day).

As for the poetics of the Abyss, though Matar frequently enacts it, he also occasionally names it directly: “The abyss opens too when I think why I never searched,” he says; or: “When I think of what might have happened to him, I feel an abyss open up beneath me. I am clutching at the walls. They are rough and unreliable, made of soft clay that flakes off in the rain.”

The spatial textures in such a figure are important to the ways writing can allows the artist to cope. “Coping” is simply taking up one’s tools and working at the impossible. It is not closure; it is not solving the problem, resolving the paradox, or transcending despair or hopelessness. It’s the beauty that defies the ugliness, if nothing more.

I can see already that my study of these four works will need to cross through a few posts. I’ll return in coming months with more thoughts on Matar’s The Return and the two novels. I think my goal is shaping up, in part, as an effort at engineering my tropes – to tool-and-dye them, calibrate them as I go, aiming for the throughline of the second book I’ll write. So – more later.

[cover images are from Wikipedia)


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