A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar | Book Review

“I found something in Siena, for which I am yet to have a description, but for which I have been searching, and it came (…) at that strange meeting point of two contradictory events – the bright achievement of having finished a book and the dark maturation of the likelihood, inescapable now, that I will have to live the rest of my days without ever knowing what happened to my father, how or when he died or where his remains may be.”

“Then we sat in silence that seemed touched by an oblique sort of sadness, as though time itself were a burden that had to be carried doubtfully and with a quiet show of regret in case fate might decide to double the load. We said goodbye” 

A Month in Siena by the American-Libyan author, Hisham Matar explores the relation between life and art. It is also a meditation full of beautiful observations on grief, loss, solitude, belonging, linguistic identity, friendships as well as our relationship with our fathers. The book is full of references to art, music, and literature (Ibn Battuta, Montaigne, Camus, Ibn Khaldun). Art here constitutes a refuge for one’s emotions and the way one can connect with the oneself. Siena as a city offers “that unobservable emptiness” that many might have sought for many years.

A 𝐌𝐨𝐧𝐭𝐡 𝐢𝐧 𝐒𝐢𝐞𝐧𝐚 is a short, gentle read, with accompanying illustrations that Matar reflects on. I highly recommend this book so that you can join Hisham Matar on one of his daily walks and visits to the museums and look at the medieval paintings. While Siena and its art offered solace to this sensitive writer in a time of the great sadness, then his book is incredibly soul soothing for the reader and brings up calmness, even to the most cynical heart.

A Month in Siena is a recollection of Matar’s one month spent in Siena visiting museums every day to look at the paintings from the Sienese Painting School (from the period between 13th and 15th century).

His fascination with this particular period in arts started in London when he was 19 years old, once he saw the Sienese painting at National Gallery Museum. It was also the time when Matar’s father, an opponent of the Gaddafi regime, was kidnapped from Egypt where he lived in exile, taken back to Libya, imprisoned, and never heard of again. Matar’s dad “gradually, like salt dissolving in water, was made to vanish.” Those medieval Sienese paintings helped Matar to cope with the grief of losing his father – offered that safe refuge where he could find some sort of consolation.

It took almost a quarter of the century for Matar finally to visit Siena in Italy to see more of those Sienese paintings.
During his stay in Siena, he reflects on many similarities between this city and his home country, Libya: the way people are with one another, their warmth, open affection, dried chilies, biscuits with fennel seeds, the hours after lunch, the pride about one’s home and food, the sounds and silences, linguistic similarities between Italian and Arabic (caused by the Italian colonial rule in the early 20th century), the fact that random people seeing him carrying a shopping bag stop him to ask what he is planning to cook and are keen to contribute their ideas to meal preparation.

Looking at Lorenzetti’s fresco ”The Effect of Bad Government” showing the Tyranny as an evil, Matar notices its resemblance to the graffiti that covered walls across Libyan’s capital, Tripoli portraying the former Libyan dictator.

During the conversation with his Italian teacher, Sabrina, who is using a nickname – Sabri, Matar remembers one of the districts in Benghazi which was also called Sabri like his teacher.

On one of his walks, he has a random encounter with an older Nigerian lady, who spoke to him “with the generosity of outsiders” and has spent over twenty years in Siena and is now eligible for the Italian citizenship so she can finally “to return home”. Matar also meets a Jordanian family who has lived in Siena for thirty years. Upon meeting this family, Matar reflects that “everything we discovered about each other’s lives unfolded spontaneously and without suffering the demanding weight of questions”. He admires “their quality of lives together, the atmosphere they had created in their home, the unpretentious authenticity of their curiosities and the kindness of their human feeling”.

One of the Sienese paintings also makes Matar reflect on the 1346 Black Death plague pandemic which reduced the population of each country by the average of 45 per cent. He reminds the readers that the Black Death plague at that time had the similar consequences to those of a civil war – like those in our times, in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The Black Death and contemporary wars provoke violent sectarianism and social divisions.

In Siena, every day he makes walks to the edge of the city, which felt “as though [he] were tracing the limits of [himself]”. On one of his walks, he finds himself at the old cemetery where most of the graves had a “photographic portrait of the deceased”. Matar acknowledges the familiarity of the faces of women he sees on these headstones as “theirs were the same concerned faces of the women of [his] childhood, and of a Nigerian immigrant woman [he] met earlier (…) faces that worry, faces that are unsure of the prospects”. He also reflects on the fact that he has no father’s grave to go to – he is “the mourner without a grave”.

At the end of the book, Siena along with its paintings and frescos offered Matar a sort of solace and helped in some way to come to terms with the loss of his father.

After reading A Month is Siena, I will be definitely looking at the paintings differently from now on.

Also, if you are interested in learning a little bit more about Hisham Matar, I would highly recommend you to read this compelling and well-researched essay by Min from The Writing and The Book Blog

 “Perhaps each one of us carries, along with everything that has happened, a private genealogy of rooms. (…) Gathered in some imaginary museum, such a personal architectural inventory might be a compelling portrait of life or the lives of several individuals, whose trajectories, whether by fate or chance or deliberate intent, had been intertwined with one another as firmly as a vine with a trellis.” 

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