First Paragraph review: In the Company of Men, by Hisham Matar

This is the first in an occasional series. I am far too lazy to review whole books, and, frankly, most of us know which way we’re going after about a paragraph or so anyway, so why bother?

The back cover says it’s ‘a devastating story, as unputdownable and heartbreaking as The Kite Runner‘. I stared at that sentence for a long time. In the end, I thought I might have gone for ‘a heartbreaking story, as devastating and unputdownable as The Kite Runner‘, but what you will.

I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy only arrived at night, a breeze chilled by the vacant desert, moistened by the humming sea, a reluctant guest silently passing through the empty streets, vague about how far it was allowed to roam in this realm of the absolute star. And it was rising now, this star, as faithful as ever, chasing away the blessed breeze. It was almost morning.

Yeah. We’re not getting on, me and this paragraph. It slightly bugs me how you can almost read ‘still’ as an adverb in that third sentence, so my brain has to take a moment to get rid of ‘Tripoli lay brilliant, and it was beneath the sun, still. It hadn’t gone anywhere’.

Then I’m getting more annoyed by that ant in the next sentence. I mean really, what’s he doing there? I’ve recently enjoyed reading this (PDF) sample chapter from The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and The Proto-Indo-European World, and it does mention somewhere that the worms & bugs/other animals distinction tends to come early into languages, so I guess fair play on treating ‘ants’ separately from ‘animals’, but why is one vague and one specific? I would like to know a little more about these animals of which he writes. Are they cattle? Goats? Sheep? Is it the animal-ant assonance & alliteration combo luring him in to this? Risky. It’s a bit too blatant: that kind of consecutive word snap can look a bit ‘oooh-I’m-a-writ-OR!’

And here’s one for the myrmidologists, or whatever it is you’re called – is this an accurate picture of Libyan ant behaviour? Do they look for shade? Do they do so desperately? Can ants feel despair?

I may be thinking about that last question for some while.

Here’s the thing that set me off on this cruel and almost pointless exercise: this ‘humming sea’ – where is it? I’m familiar with the sea: I’ve sat by it, sailed on it and stared across it lost in a melancholy dream inspired by the endless mutable majesty of ocean that annihilates time past, present and future in its barren grey expanse. I’m no expert, but I like to think I pay attention, and I’ve never noticed it humming. It generates white noise – so it’s a sort of hiss that can be quite bassy or very thin, depending on atmospheric conditions, listener’s location, etc. Not humming, though. Perhaps Mr. Matar was living close to an electricity sub-station in 1979?

This is a mean-spirited exercise, I admit, but it does have some semblance of a point. This is the first paragraph of a novel that, by the looks of things, is expected to move with a nice, semi-literary, better-sort-of-book-group crowd. Why the hell didn’t someone read it properly? Shouldn’t there be an editor somewhere going ‘Look. I’m not saying it’s bad – just calm down, take your time and stop trying the flash stuff. I know you want to make an impression, but you’ll go further by taking it easy.’ If someone’s writing like that, there should be alarm bells going off about potential confusing & mixed metaphors (see that ‘reluctant guest’ who gets booted out at the end. It’s the sun’s ‘realm’, so you’d think he’d have invited the guest in the first place, because someone has to, otherwise they aren’t a guest, they’re an intruder. But… Oh, enough), about word logic going loopy, etc.

It’s not meant to be picking on Mr Matar – it’s more an attack on lazy reading and editing, because believe you me this is not the only example of ‘page 1, para 1: The Howling’ that I’ve seen recently.

Review concludes.

You are dismissed.