The Globe’s Graeme Smith covered the Libyan uprising last year. As violence erupts in the country again this week, he weighs in on books that take readers beyond the headlines.
The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
This book saved my life during the Libyan uprising in 2011. Ondaatje’s classic novel, set against the Second World War, teaches caution about the harsh landscape of North Africa and looks at how fortunes can shift abruptly in desert wars. These were useful lessons for correspondents swarming in to cover the revolution, as battle lines moved swiftly – as they did during Rommel’s day – and journalists risked being killed or captured. A bonus read, for enthusiasts: The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories (2009), which contains explanatory notes and maps to guide readers through the “English” patient’s treasured book.
A History of Modern Libya, by Dirk Vandewalle (2006)
The standard text for a quick grasp of Libyan history, written by a respected scholar, starts with Herodotus and sweeps over Ottoman and Italian occupiers who left their mark on the territory. Vandewalle argues that the short-lived Sanusi monarchy, in the 1950s and 1960s, amounted to an “accidental state,” and devotes most of his attention to the regime of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. It’s impossible to understand the anger of the mobs that stormed Tripoli without Vanderwalle’s detailed look at Col. Gadhafi’s revolution and his bizarre ideas. Read this book for analysis of Libya’s political economy, then move along to other sources for the social life of the country.
In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar (2007)
This debut novel by a Libyan expatriate – which won a shower of accolades and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – serves a good introduction to the atmospherics of the country. It’s also a study in the way hard facts are digested into art. Like many Libyans, the author felt the effects of Col. Gadhafi’s police state: his father, a political dissident, went missing in 1990, likely imprisoned by the Libyan authorities. Writing in the Independent newspaper, the son asked, “How do we remain whole and free from hate, yet truthful to our memory?” He answered the question with his book.