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The sentimentality of the present: A review of A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar

By Mariam Pari

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Healing of the Man Born Blind. Egg tempura on wood. 45.1 x 46.7cm. The National Gallery. Digitial Photograph accessed on 23.11.23 from https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/duccio-the-healing-of-the-man-born-blind#:~:text=This%20painting%20is%20from%20the,mud%20and%20his%20own.


The saintly are greeted and welcomed by angels; even their reunion is ecclesiastical. Then there are men and women, like the spouses buried together under the cemetery in Siena, holding hands and looking into eachother’s eyes. This surely is the way to be, I thought to myself, that one should take hold of those one loves most and simply look into their eyes for a long time or perhaps for eternity.


In 1990, Hisham Matar encounters the Sienese School of Painting. 1990 was also the year in which his life was pulled apart by the kidnapping and disappearance of his father. In 1996, Matar learns that his father was taken back to Libya and kept as a political prisoner; this was the last he heard from him. During this time, Matar begins to worship Siena although from afar, and spends his lunch break every day at the National Gallery, where he takes refuge in the suspended drama of the Sienese worlds, and escapes into the codes of symbolism.


Upon finishing the writing of his book, The Return (2016), and still unable to find any certain answers about the fate of his father, Matar decides to spend a month in Siena. Describing his connection with the art as an ‘uneasy reverence the devout might feel towards Mecca or Rome or Jerusalem’, he is captivated by the permeating sense of hope he feels from the art. Initially confused about his specific connection to Sienese art, he sees amongst the allegories a confrontation of human life and what it means to be human altogether.


In reading this book, I was overtaken by Matar’s understanding of art as an expression of faith and its inextricable link to hope. Throughout his time in Siena, Matar contemplates the end of his search for his father and his disappointment in not finding any answers. Matar suffers with immense feelings of grief, confusion, and heartbreak, yet the overarching feeling of A Month in Siena is a profound and inexplicable love.


During his stay, Matar encounters selfless kindness from strangers who quickly turn to friends. Enveloped in human connection and feeling, he contemplates whether he could have ever written anything if he had never loved. Matar believes that this sense of hope that is radiated from both love and art traverses the boundaries of humanity to create deep empathy and understanding.


The contradistinction of love and heartbreak, which Matar describes so elegantly in dialogue with Siena and its paintings, is transformed through his writings. The concept that these two notions are anything but completely intertwined is impossible to imagine; there can be no grief without love. Matar’s uncertainty about his father’s fate means that the distinction between what is true and what is false is a confused state. He is fascinated by the mystery surrounding Sienese art, which he describes as standing independently between the Byzantine and Renaissance, yet finds comfort in the solidity of walking round the edges of Siena, a city that ‘starts and ends so decisively’.


At one point in the book, when describing his feelings towards the Angelo Annunciate painting by Sano di Pietro (1450), Matar expresses how the more he looked at the painting, the more he felt a deep pain in his chest: ‘as though I were lingering for a specific person, a place or a time now forever gone’. He argues that this idea of nostalgia is the desire to be recognised through the passing of time by those we love. We want to be known no matter how much we transfigure and change. To remain familiar to those who love us and who we love in return is what we wish for most; Matar knows that the painting understands this.


Matar expresses the absurdness of being alive in the face of the undeniable fact that everything must pass, and how the attention and time that paintings ask for can help us focus on the intimacy and sentimentality of the present. He insists that only love and art can let us into someone else’s perspective and describes the longing to be able to see a painting, or even life itself, through the eyes of a loved one.


When he used to visit the National Gallery every lunchtime, Matar says he spent each hour with just one painting to really understand it. This care and interest that he takes with each painting and their sentiment, which stays the same although painted centuries ago, allows Matar to be let into the world of the paintings, and permits him to reflect on the beauty of simple moments and interactions. It is an honour to be able to be in Siena with Matar, to see what he sees, and feel what he feels as he deals with his grief but also his joy. His observations take us into a world where we can feel the closeness and beautiful heaviness of life. Amongst all the unknown aspects of this part of his life, the fleetingness of the present yet the certainty that he exists within allows him to subsist in a meaningful and immediate way.


Hisham Matar has such a gift of capturing tenderness in the small unseen moments that are so wonderfully universal but rare in articulation. His vulnerability in writing is admirable and there is so much value in his words that you almost have to read the paragraphs a couple of times to truly let the weight of his words sink in.


For me, this excerpt from when Matar is lying in a park in Rome towards the end of the book with his wife captures focusing on the small everyday moments perfectly:


“She looked out at the people passing by. Someone had been watching us all along: a man, about my age, sitting on a bench on the opposite side of the green. I wondered how we appeared to him. Perhaps Diana too was thinking the same. But then she lay back down again and her body found the exact places where it had been before.”


“And in that moment this seemed miraculous.”

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