If photographs of ‘the deal in the desert’ made you queasy — you remember, Tony Blair and Muammar Gaddafi shaking hands for the cameras in 2004 — imagine how you would have felt if you were in exile in London and your father under torture in Gaddafi’s cells at the time.
Now Blair is not looking forward to the Chilcot report, Gaddafi is dead and Hisham Matar, who was the helpless onlooker, has published The Return, a memoir about his father and about Libya which will attract many readers and prizes. It may also help focus our ideas about whom we protect, whom we betray, and how we deal with the devil.
Gaddafi’s death might not have been a source of sorrow to Blair (and co). But the fact that the details of Gaddafi’s dealings with our politicians and spies did not die with Gaddafi, and were exposed in the chaos surrounding his demise, must still sting. A cache of documents found in Tripoli detailed cooperation between MI5, MI6 and regime thugs. In their defence, MI5 admitted, via Eliza Manningham-Buller (whose agents provided Gaddafi’s with a list of 1,600 questions to be put to their victims) in her Reith lecture of 2011, ‘that there are questions to be answered as to whether the UK supped with a sufficiently long spoon’.
That sort of supping leaves a repugnant taste, which is one of many reasons to welcome The Return. Matar is the prize-winning author of a Man Booker-shortlisted novel, In the Country of Men. In this memoir, which is astonishing for its perception, control and technical excellence, often upsetting and entirely gripping, we begin to understand the modern history of Libya, how Gaddafi operated, and what it was like to be a dissident opposed to him, sheltered, or not, by Britain and other countries.