Published by Penguin, 118 pages

“In the end, as it is in the beginning, love and art are an expression of faith. How else to function with the limited knowledge we have? … the whole history of art can be read as that: a gesture of hope and also of desire, a playing out of the human spirit’s secret ambition to connect … to traverse that tragic private distance between intention and utterance, so that, finally, we might be truly comprehended … to be seen, to be recognized, not to be mistaken for someone else, to go on changing while remaining identifiable to those who know us best.”

A Month in Siena is a slender work of non-fiction, which I had been planning to read, a decision hastened by the knowledge that many book bloggers have been reading ‘non-fiction novellas’ as part of Novellas in November (#novnov), encouraging engagement with other book-obsessed people (and especially valuable at a time during the global pandemic when life’s ‘real world’ experiences have narrowed so much!).

I really like Hisham Matar. His writing is lucid and engaging and vivid, and I have read a lot of his work. I would love to meet him, though he is much more erudite than me, so we probably wouldn’t get along. For example, he has impressive conversations with his wife Diana about the overlaps and contrasts inherent in the meaning of the terms “freedom” and “assertiveness”. My husband and I do not have conversations like that (probably for the best).

I started reading Matar when my son was tiny, with his pacy novels, literary political thrillers really, In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance. Later, when I read his memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography), I learned how much of his fiction was informed by his own experiences, and how he lives with a devastating, uncertain void where his father used to be. He is brave, or more accurately resilient, in that way that people who’ve been marked by life’s tragedies can be. I think it comes from the brutal reality of having no choice but to cope, together with a determination to seek out the beauty in life while never seeking to deny its horrors. (As an aside, I vividly remember a counsellor saying to me after my daughter was born very ill, having been diagnosed with a lifelong disability caused by a fetal stroke just before birth, that she thought the families of disabled children were “brave”. Irritated by her unhelpful platitudes I left and found a new counsellor…)

Matar has had, in so very many ways, a difficult life. He was born in the USA to comfortably-off Libyan parents during a diplomatic posting. However, on returning to Libya, Matar’s family were ultimately forced to flee the country. His father was a prominent dissident leader and a wanted man, amid the upheavals that ushered in the Qaddafi regime. The family were therefore dispossessed and exiled for much of Matar’s childhood, and at one point he didn’t return to Libya for some 30 years; growing up, Matar’s father would check the car for concealed explosives before allowing his family to get inside, and travelled under a pseudonym.

Matar writes that, in 1990, while studying in London, he became obsessed with the Sienese school of painting, spanning the 13th to the 15th centuries. This interest seems to have provided a means of coping with the trauma of the disappearance of his father, with which it coincided:

I had lost my father that year. He had been living in exile in Cairo, and one afternoon he was kidnapped, bundled into an unmarked airplane and flown back to Libya. He was imprisoned, and gradually, like salt dissolving in water, was made to vanish

Occasional letters reached the family from prison, but after 1996 there was only silence. The overthrow of the Qaddafi regime led to no answers, only more questions, as discussed in The Return. In middle age, and following the completion of The Return, Matar’s trip to Italy, to Siena, is on the surface inspired simply by his enduring love of Italian art from a particular place and time. He rents a flat that forms part of an old palazzo, with frescoes and beautiful proportions.

The place reminded me how the buildings we encounter, like new people we may meet, can excite passion that had until then lain dormant … [demonstrating] the transformative possibility of crossing a threshold

He discusses time spent wandering the city with his wife, the beauty of that and of the paintings he sees, and along with accounts of these experiences provides profound insights into the nature of art and the human condition. After his wife’s pre-agreed departure, Matar’s forges connections with local people, discovers treasured vantage points, and becomes familiar to gallery staff. The realization comes that:

“I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to consider how I might continue from here.

This is an intensely intelligent, beautiful and humane little book, which, ultimately, is much more than the sum of its parts.

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