Two sentences from the first paragraph of “Anatomy of a Disappearance” set the tone: “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest … There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him …” Hisham Matar, born to Libyan parents, tells the story of Nuri el-Alfi,a privileged Egyptian youth, who suffers more than his share of loss. Before the story begins, his mother has succumbed to an unexplained illness. At age 14, he and his stepmother Mona are eating breakfast at a seaside resort in Egypt when they learn that his father, a political dissident, has been taken from a hotel room in Cairo by police.
The early chapters emphasize the sexual awakening of Nuri, when he and his father meet the lovely woman who is to become his stepmother at a small lakeside resort in Switzerland. Mona, first glimpsed in a yellow bathing suit, becomes Nuri’s obsession, as he spends each day scheming how to run into her. Recognizing his infatuation, Mona teases him, accusing him of staring at her body and inviting him to brush her hair. Soon his father meets her, too, and before long they are married. Even into adulthood the phrase, “I saw her first,” comes to Nuri’s mind every time he recalls intimacy between Mona and his father.
At one point Nuri’s obsession with Mona is so strong that he wishes his father would disappear. After that actually takes place, the book becomes a search for answers. Apparently the father was close to the now dead king, in fact one the few who could enter the royal quarters without knocking. His exact work was never spoken of to Nuri, who had great curiosity about what his father did.
Now the story moves among different locales, including England, where Nuri is unwillingly enrolled in a private school; his childhood home in Cairo, where longtime maid Naima still wants to help; in Switzerland for holidays, and with Mr. Hass, Nuri’s fsather’s lawyer, who tries to help unravel the mystery of the disappearance and settle Nuri’s inheritance. Some questions remain unanswered while others come to light.
The theme of the vanished father is close to author Matar, as it formed the central plot of his first novel, “In the Country of Men,” which won six international literary awards. The level of writing in that acclaimed book carries over to this one, with a spare, precise prose that makes it hard to put down. Matar’s autobiography includes a similar loss, when his political dissident father was taken in Cairo and imprisoned. While he acknowledges the relation to his own father’s disappearance, he has stated that “Anatomy of a Disappearance” is not autobiographical.