Hisham Matar is probably best known for his 2017 bookThe Return: fathers, sons and the land in between which describes his post-Gaddafi return to Libya to find out what happened to his father, a victim of Gaddafi’s rule.
Following his father’s disappearance, Matar became interested, obsessed with the paintings of the Siena School, religious paintings from around the fourteenth century. After The Return came out – still grieving, he finally visits Siena, and this 2019 memoir is of the month he spent there alone. It’s a short book, about art, about grief, about being alone and being a stranger in a strange city.
Matar makes his purpose clear, in this beautiful book. He finds a peaceful spot in the local cemetery where he was “… the mourner without a grave”, planning to “sit for a few moments and listen to the birds.” Going on he writes “I knew then that I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here.”
But the book is
also about art and includes many of the Sienese paintings, which he analyses, particularly the Good/Bad Government frescos, which stretch to 14.5 metres in the room that features Lorenzetti’s ‘Allegory of good government’ – part of which is pictured here. There’s also the “unsettling” ‘Madonna del latte’ by the same painter, which is as unsettling as he describes it. The publisher has done a good job on the reproductions in this inexpensive paperback, especially in bringing out detail, but of course I long to see the originals. Matar spent so long with the paintings that the guards gave him a folding chair so that he could spend even longer in front of a picture, which he then did. “Didn’t we tell you?” said one.
Matar did not remain completely alone. Hearing a family speak Arabic, he greets them and is invited home by Adam and his children Kareem and Salma. Though from Jordan – half a continent away from Libya – they welcomed him as if family, explaining the town’s complex contrada system of neighbourhood loyalties and competition. He walked back from the evening he spent with them holding their kindness to “my chest as though it were a precious object I had been given.”
Matar ends the book, back in New York, reunited with his partner Diana, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the Sienese painting ‘Paradise” by Giovanni di Paolo, painted around 1445, to return there weekly “as though we were going to see an old friend”.
A Month in Siena is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/a-month-in-siena/