A Month in Siena: Hisham Matar meditates on art and mourning

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – The writer Hisham Matar likes to visit art museums. His approach to paintings is by no means eccentric, but it is definitely unusual.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Return, the 2016 memoir about his long attempt to learn the fate of his father, the Libyan dissident Jaballa Matar, Hisham Matar explained that he used to wander through museums in the usual manner, moving from one painting to the next.

But after his father was abducted in Cairo and imprisoned by Moammar Gaddafi’s regime (Hisham was not yet 20), visiting museums in this way no longer felt tenable. Museums began to overwhelm him. So he took to visiting one painting at a time, returning regularly to that same painting for weeks or even months, before eventually moving on to another.

On the summer day in 1996 when, according to Human Rights Watch, approximately 1,270 prisoners were executed in the courtyard of Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison, Matar was looking (or so he realised years later) at Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. It appears very likely that Jaballa Matar was one of those killed on that terrible day. But the matter remains clouded in uncertainty. And in any case, what is the word “likely” to a bewildered son, unsure whether he should be grieving or hoping?

After writing The Return – afflicted by what he calls the “ardent and melancholy liberty of being between books” – Matar went to Siena, Italy. He had long loved Sienese painting, and in his new book, A Month in Siena, he explains why. But, as he also realised, “I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings (but) to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here.” The resulting book stands alone and also as a pendant to The Return.

I met Hisham Matar once – he was at a writers festival in Sydney, my home, where I had returned to live for a year. Our conversation was light on the surface. But it lodged with me, and in my memory it continues to reveal different aspects of itself.

A Month in Siena is in some ways the same. It is a meditation on solitude, companionship and civility. It reflects on the value of giving things their proper weight and of taking pleasure seriously – insights connected, perhaps, to the advanced stages of mourning. It has the weight and limpidity of a Sienese painting but also the soft, aerated touch of a Matisse and the brisk, conversational open-endedness of a Manet. And it acts (at least it acted for me) as an invitation to bask in the love of those who know us best.

Matar’s reflections on art are beautiful and full of insight. But the book, just over 120 pages, is about so much more.

During his weeks in Siena, Matar went on long walks every day, traversing the city and pushing out into the terrain beyond its walls. The book’s many digressions are keyed to the rhythm of footfall. But – as in the novels of Teju Cole or W G Sebald – casual-seeming asides and digressions are in fact deliberate and artful, and everything that is said comes round; it returns.

Matar writes about Siena and its inhabitants with the appreciation of a guest moved to find himself at home in a foreign place. A trip to buy groceries prompts him to marvel at “the way people are with one another, their open affections, the tied-up dried chillies, the biscuits with fennel seeds … the hours after lunch, the sounds and the silences and the sounds of silences, the sex on the surface of everything, the vulnerability, and the way cheeks redden.” He enjoys how everyone who sees the food he has purchased not only wants to know what he is planning to cook but also has helpful suggestions.

But A Month in Siena is no A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun. Its finest chapter, in fact, is a meditation on decapitations.

Matar begins it with a description of himself lying on the grass in Rome with his wife, the photographer Diana Matar, resting her head on his chest. “My head was now lower than my chest,” he writes, “and I could feel the blood gather between the temples.” They have just seen Caravaggio’s painting of a somewhat troubled David holding the decapitated head of Goliath.

In our own heads, reading this, we carry over from the previous chapter Hisham Matar’s description of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescos in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. In the Allegory of Good Government, the female figure representing Justice is flanked on her right by an angel who crowns one citizen while decapitating another.

So we have four images of vulnerable heads in our minds as Matar guides us, like a painter guiding the viewer’s eye, through a meditation on desire and frustration, on knowing and not knowing, and on personal transformation. The kind of transformation Matar has in mind is not the kind on offer in self-help books. It is the very deepest kind – the kind that alters our inner life and somehow turns what is inner into something outward-facing, like an ingenious origami fold.

This short and radiant chapter is a marvel of intellectual and emotional braiding. Matar finds correspondences among the author’s own personal transformation, resulting from his years of inquiry into the fate of his father; the transformation that murderers may undergo when they kill their enemies; and the transformation that lovers undergo when they are recognised, “truly comprehended”, allowing them to “escape the confines of (their) own existence.”

Such a crude summary fails to convey the measured beauty of Matar’s transparent prose, which rewards repeated re-readings. The same goes for the book as a whole.