"Naima" by Hisham Matar Originally published in the January 24, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Hisham Matar’s new book Anatomy of a Disappearance comes out in the U.K. in March and in the U.S. in August, and everything I see suggests that “Naima” is an excerpt from that book, or at least a bit of back story. It certainly reads like an excerpt, and at this point I’m ambivalent about whether to read the book, although it is possible we’ll hear more about it during Booker Prize season (Matar’s In the Country of Men was shortlisted in 2006, which means this book is automatically submitted for the judges’ consideration).
The narrator of “Naima” is Nuri who, now an adult, is looking back on his youth right before and after his mother died. Matar’s prose is strong, and from the beginning his mother is depicted as an almost ghost-like presence and absence. Though they are from Egypt, she prefers the cold, and on their yearly vacations she takes the family north to, say, the Swiss Alps or even northern Norway.
Some afternoons, Mother disappeared and I would not let on to Father that my heart was thumping at the base of my ears. I would keep to my room until I heard footsteps on the deck, the kitchen door sliding open. Once I found Mother there with hands stained black-red, a rough globe dyed into the front of her jumper. With eyes as clean as glass, wide, satisfied, she held out a handful of wild berries.
On some of the cold nights up north, Nuri would imagine that Naima was there. She was their maid (had been since before Nuri was born), and she remained in Cairo while they travelled. Though Nuri yearns for his mother, his relationship with Naima is more maternal: “But if I was ill it was Naima who would not leave my bedside. Mother would occasionally come in and stand at the foot of the bed, clearly concerned but awkward, as if she were intruding on a private moment.” Why this is the case is alluded to, particularly when his mother’s melancholy is most apparent.
I did not know then why Mother looked better in photographs taken before I was born. I do not mean simply younger but altogether brighter, as if she had just stepped off a carousel: her hair settling, her eyes anticipating more joy.
Before Nuri is born, his father was a goverment minister. When the king is killed, his parents and Naima escape to Paris, which is where Nuri is born. His parents avoid speaking about the city.
It’s strange. I found “Naima” very well written bit by bit, but, as a whole, as suffocating as anything I can remember reading. I had to keep taking deep breaths as the unvarying lugubrious tone sucked the wind out of me. It is better on a reread, and I am intrigued with where the story is apparently going. Here is what I gather from a synopsis of the upcoming book: several years later, another woman appears and both father and son fall in love with her; she falls in love with and marries the father; he disappears. I am interested, if I can manage to keep my breath.