This is not review; it's more a meditation on the power of story in our lives. For a while I've found it hard to read a novel. It wasn't a deliberate evasion of fiction which I've always enjoyed, and just as importantly, learned from. Story is the way we think through our lives, encounter other possible selves, explore from both distance and nearness, the experience of others, and ask ourselves questions where it overlaps with our own, or diverges into territory we have never explored.
Anatomy of a Disappearance, by Hisham Matar, is a strange novel. I’m not sure what is to be assimilated as ‘lesson’ or ‘wisdom’; other than the recognition of complexity not only in our relationships with people, but in the mystery and experience of the people to whom we relate; and the puzzle all but insoluble, of our own selves, as that same complexity multiplied by our intermingled relatedness to all those others in our lives, for good or ill.
What is love? Does it change its forms as we grow and mature? Or is it us who change? How many kinds of human relationship are there in which we can still with confidence use the term ‘love’ as descriptor? Does love cause jealousy, or does the birth of jealousy kill love at source? As this story unfolded and the boy becomes a man, his mother dies, his father remarries the woman he wants for himself, then is discovered to have married her to secure her presence for his son, while he secretly loves and lives with the person he really wants to be with, but in the process his father then disappears as a kidnapped political dissident.
Emotional nuance, the dread and dream of desire, the embodiedness of love and yet the inadequacy of mere embodiedness to fully express it; the tension of father and son in this story; the ambivalence of stepmother and child growing into a man and the awakening of desire – all of these are beautifully portrayed in a story that describes the limitations which circumstance inevitably imposes on human love and experience, with resultant sadness, and inevitable if reluctant resignation, but which nevertheless, in the alchemy of human relatedness, enrich and change the protagonists.
And I guess in every human heart there is the intersection of these same fallibilities and possibilities. We love as we can. Occasionally we reach degrees of intimacy that truly satisfy, more often there is the restless attempt to understand, the yearing to build bridges, to reach out, but all the times the frustration of circumstance without and hesitations of confidence and trust within. I do wonder if Christian theology has often enough made allowances for the mismatch between love at its best and the human heart as it is; if our theology of love is adequate to the essential complexity of created being. And I wonder too if or when we might ever clearly understand and pay attention to the frightening precipice on which we all stand as we survey the world of people around us, with all of whom we share this mysterious potentiality that is our life from God, love as divine and human gift, divine grace and human longing, essential vocation and terrifying treasure which must not be wasted.
Psalm 51 with its profound anguish of guilt, shame and yet irrationally persistent hope of redemption, and 139 with its God hauntedness and its mixture of complaint and comfort in the omnipresence and omnisicience of God, are written from such a knowing heart. A heart familier with the confused complexity and inherent dignity in this bundle of longings and anxieties we call our humanity, and which nevertheless trust that God's mercy, grace and love can draw purpose and wsorth out of such a fankled existence.
This novel, with its tale of a son, a mother, a stepmother, a father, and the impact they have on each other at different stages of life, is a potent example of how story enables us to look with compassion on humanity, ours and others; and to be more patient and unjudging of human love in all its fallibility and mistakenness, because it is love in its mysterious reality that sounds the echo in our hearts that we are made in the image of God, and thus allows us to hear the footsteps of God in our lives.