Arriving into Absence: Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance

“When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”

Only Oscar Wilde could have come up with something so bleak and so subversive. And so true, as Nuri el- Alfi, would have added in writer Hisham Matar’s poignant bildungsroman Anatomy of a Disappearance.

Living in Cairo, young Nuri, finds himself unable to fully comprehend his parents. His mother seems to have a well of unhappiness within her and dwells in silence. His father, a political exile from an unnamed state (Libya? Iran?), seems uncomfortable in the boy’s presence. The only person with whom he can share his     happiness and sorrows is the maid, Naima. And then his mother passes away, just like that. Unable to forgive his father for his mother’s death, Nuri’s life becomes all the more empty.

Then the twelve year old boy’s eyes fall on Mona, a young woman sitting in her bright yellow swimsuit by the pool of a hotel in Magda Marina. Even as Nuri experiences a rush of emotions he is hard put to define, Mona grows close to his father, eventually marrying him. Full of conflicted feelings regarding his step-mother and hating his father first for filling his mother’s space so quickly and secondly for marrying a woman whom he had seen first, Nuri grows all the more embittered when his father packs him off to a boarding school in England.

Raging hormones get transformed into the Oedipal urge as Nuri wishes that his father just disappears so that he can be alone with Mona. And then his prayers are granted. The father just disappears from his life one fine day. And young Nuri realises what it is to live with an absence that crates a vacuum never to be filled.

The book with its poetic poignancy reminded me of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American where too a prayer answered goes horribly wrong. What renders the story even more poignant is the biographical detail of the author whose father too was kidnapped one day by the agents of Libya’s late leader, Muammar Qaddafi.

Also, I loved the writer’s way of describing things:

When I was in my room, surrounded by the smell of my aunts, I wept. (55)

The world had to be sliced into hours to fill. otherwise you could go mad with loneliness. (160)

I wanted to walk over to her table, but I was gripped by the conviction that any action I might take would cause the moment and its possibilities to vanish. (195)

How did we end up in this place, I wondered, where he was pretending to tolerate my illusions ? (213)

Everything I loved and all of what was lost was once here. And now I was arriving into absence, after everyone had gone. (227)

He looked more circumspect, but the eager envy had gone from his eyes. No doubt, one by one, he had let go of his expectations. (230)

I am looking forward to reading the author’s first book: In the Country of Men.


Opening Lines: 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.

Title: Anatomy of a Disappearance

Author: Hisham Matar

Publication Details: London: Viking, 2011

First Published: 2011

Pages: 247

Other Books read of the same author: None

New Words :

Bilharzia (Scistosomiasis): Parasitic disease caused by parasites that live in fresh water and which damages the internal organs.

Cairene: Relating to Cairo or its inhabitants.

Chiffonier: A narrow high chest of drawers or bureau, often with a mirror attached.

Galabia (Djellaba): A long loose garment with full sleeves and a hood

Molokhia: Leafy green vegetable similar to spinach.

Other books with similar themes

The Quiet American

Birds of Paradise



Is he really the son of Kamal Pasha? The book hinges on that but somehow I cannot see the father forcing (?) himself on a young girl. I don’t know but the last appearance of Abdu send warning bells ringing. Not only did I feel he was somehow involved with the kidnapping but that he might well have been the father though evrybody might have (including Naima and Kamal) thought of Kamal as the father. It is very far-fetched but I just can’t get it out of my mind.


The book is easy to purchase. I borrowed it from a library [823 M413A].


Submitted for What Countries Have I Visited 2013 challenge.

Also submitted for the following challenges: 52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2013 Genre Variety, 2013 Mystery/ Crime, European Reading, Let Me Count the Ways, Library Books, New Authors,

5 thoughts on “Arriving into Absence: Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance

  1. Neer, this does sound intriguing. Sad and intriguing and involving. I also think you may have come across another 'perfect' sentence. I haven't done a perfect sentence post since the one I did last year but \”When I was in my room, surrounded by the smell of my aunts, I wept.\” certainly qualifies as perfection.I won't use it though since it's your discovery and I haven't read the book yet. Wonderful review.


  2. Thanks Yvette for your very kind comment. It is a good novel full of poignant moments. Please use the sentence or better still read the book because the context of that sentence is wonderful too.


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