Literature and silence

How Libyan writers thwarted the Gaddafi regime.

With the end of Gaddafi regime in sight, the consequences for the Libyan people remain uncertain. What the cultural life of a liberated republic will look like is difficult to imagine, because almost no Arab literature has been as heavily marked by the history of dictatorship as that of modern Libya.

This has been, in part, down to the limits on free expression under Gaddafi. But some writers have managed to break the silence. Ibrahim Al-Koni, born between the end of Italian rule and the founding of the kingdom under King Idris, is a Tuareg, one of the nomadic desert peoples that supported the revolution in 1969; a number of his novels have been published in English, mainly by smaller presses. They draw heavily on Sufi mysticism and Berber folklore, and are best compared with Latin American magical realism or Mikhail Bulgakov's fabulous satires under Stalinism: the pressure of dictatorship provokes odd invention and irony. Alongside al-Koni, a number of voices have broken through over the last few years. The English-language journal of Arab literature, Banipal, published an issue in the spring dedicated to Libyan fiction, and included work from a host of previously unheard voices, and excerpts from translation work apparently in progress. Some of the more promising voices in the issue live outside Libya, or first found recognition outside the country, often in other Arab countries - or they came from the more independent areas in eastern Libya, the parts that started the uprising against Gaddafi.

It included a short story from Ahmed Fagih, born near Tripoli in the last years of the Idris regime, and a major figure in Libyan cultural life as a diplomat and founder of the Union of Libyan writers. His trilogy The Gardens of the Night was published in translation by Quartet Books in the 1990s, and they are now bringing out an English edition of his 2000 novel Homeless Rats. The novel describes the teeming life of the Libyan desert and its population of desert rats, or jerboas, who are engaged in a constant struggle with nomads, metropolitan Libyans and various predators. As Susannah Tarbush of the Saudi Gazette remarks, "the novel's desert battles, alliances, war crimes, emergency meetings, tribalism and waves of refugees resonate curiously with the war currently raging in Libya. Even the title of the book has a new timeliness, given Gaddafi's propensity in his ranting speeches to denounce his enemies among his own people as 'rats' and 'cockroaches'". Homeless Rats and a 12-volume novel called The Maps of the Soul were both published outside of Libya, in Egypt. As the apparatus of censorship assembled by Gaddafi begins to be dismantled, it seems wholly likely that this strategy will become less and less necessary. The possibility arises that Libyan writing will again belong to Libya.

One of the few Libyan novelists who has achieved major recognition in Britain is Hisham Matar. The son of Libyan dissidents, he was born in New York in 1970. His two novels, In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, have been published by Penguin, and their stories are marked by the shadow of the dictatorship. In the former, the nine-year-old narrator must cope with a father who is in and out of custody and an alcoholic mother, and a best friend whose father has been imprisoned for anti-Gaddfi activities; men as distant and cold as those who brought him up regularly search the house, and watch from the omnipresent images of the dictator. In the latter, the narrator looks back on his vanished father's affair with an older woman with whom he was infatuated. The difficulties and cumulative stress of everyday life under Gaddafi are brilliantly conveyed; Matar's own life was repeatedly touched by the regime even in exile. His father was disappeared by Libyan secret police in 1990. As he told the NS's Jonathan Derbyshire in 2010, his family feared that he had been killed in a prison massacre in the 1996; as he came towards finishing Anatomy of a Disappearance, he "was contacted... by a former prisoner who said he had seen my father at the high-security prison in Tripoli in 2002". The revolution spells the possible end for such agonies. As Matar wrote in the Guardian yesterday:

We got rid of Muamar Gaddafi. I never thought I would be able to write these words. I thought it might have to be something like: "Gaddafi has died of old age"; a terrible sentence, not only because of what it means but also the sort of bleak and passive future it promises. Now rebel forces have reached Tripoli, we can say we have snatched freedom with our own hands, paid for it with blood. No one now will be more eager to guard it than us.

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution