There’s a certain appeal to stories that keep us guessing; that take us beneath the surface to explore subterranean intrigue. Secrets and lies, betrayal and espionage: these are the tools perfectly wielded by Hisham Matar, who explores his father’s political kidnapping in his fiction, and spy novelist extraordinaire Stella Rimington.
Stella Rimington is the latest in a literary club that boasts the likes of Graeme Greene and John Le Carre as members: spooks turned spy novelists. Dubbed ‘housewife superspy’ when she was appointed director general of MI5, she was the first woman in the world to lead a major spy agency. Liz Carlyle, the intelligence officer heroine of her six novels, brings spy-lit up to date, out-thinking her enemies rather than shooting them. Her latest is Rip Tide, an adventure involving Somali pirates and Islamic terrorists.
‘The intelligence service of John Le Carre’s Cold War books really is quite reminiscent of the MI5 I joined,’ she told Kerry O’Brien on her last visit to Australia, in 2009. Rimington says that intelligence work is nothing like a James Bond adventure; she never used a gun in her time at MI5.
The agency still vets her novels to ensure she’s not giving away state secrets; which is somewhat ironic, given that they ‘outed’ her with little warning on her appointment to the top job. She had to move house after the media found her address; the IRA was still active in London at the time. She says it’s the only time she really felt her life was in danger.
Born to Libyan parents in New York, growing up between Tripoli and Cairo, Hisham Matar is perfectly placed to translate the tumult behind the Arab Spring to western readers. His perceptive, multi-layered novels evoke the knife-edge vulnerability of life under dictatorship – and in exile. Matar’s father, a Libyan dissident, was kidnapped and imprisoned in 1990; he is counted as one of Libya’s ‘disappeared’. This tragedy is at the heart of both Matar’s novels: the Booker-shortlisted In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance.
In an interview with NPR last year, he said, ‘I wanted to try to make something hopefully beautiful from this … being able to sing about the terrible things to me is an act of resistance. It is a way to say I will make art even out of this’.
Since the death of Qaddafi in 2011, Hisham has been a much-sought-after commentator on the country of his birth; he answered reader questions on the subject of Libya’s future for the New Yorker last year.
Hisham Matar appears with the support of British Council.
Dame Stella Rimington joined the Security Service (MI5) in 1968 and was appointed Director General in 1992, the first woman to hold the post. Her latest novel is Rip Tide.
Hisham Matar was born in New York City to Libyan parents and spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then in Cairo. His first novel, In the Country of Men, was published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Guardian First Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US.
Michael Cathcart presents the radio show, Books and Arts Daily for Radio National.
Sarah L’Estrange is a producer on Books and Arts Daily, ABC Radio National.