Wednesday, March 24, 2010

*This Blinding Absence of Light, by Tahar Ben Jalloun

This Blinding Absence of Light won the Dublin IMPAC award in 2004.  The shortlist for that year includes

  • The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster (an incredible book, one not to miss)
  • Any Human Heart,  by William Boyd
  • Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros
  • Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (another not-to-miss novel)
  • The White Family, by Maggie Gee
  • Balthasar's Odyssey, by Amin Maalouf
  • Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry
  • Earth and Ashes, by Atiq Rahimi, and
  • House of Day, House of Night, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Ben Jalloun's novel is based on the story of one Aziz Binebine,  who was sentenced to a 20-year stretch of time in the hellhole prison of Tazmamart for his role in the 1971 attempted coup of King Hassan II's Moroccan government. You can read about it here, in this article written the same year.  The novel is fictional, but living conditions in the underground prison (now destroyed) are not.  It is a study of the  human will to survive under the most unimaginable and unspeakable conditions.

 The book examines the story of one character, who like others who were sentenced there, was living in an underground cell, so small that even something as ordinary as sitting was an impossibility. Cockroaches and scorpions were co-inhabitants, as was the constant darkness.  The food kept the prisoners alive, but just barely. Many of the prisoners turned to their faith in Allah and to the Qu'ran to make it through their ordeal, while the main character, Salim, turned deeply inward, letting go of both memory, because "to remember was to die," and of the physicality of his body.

This Blinding Absence of Light is one of those books you must actually experience for yourself -- book reviews and descriptions of it can't really do the story justice. If you have a low tolerance for human despair, or you're in the mood for something happy,  forget this one. Difficult to read at many points (and on many levels), this book left me considering the cruelty that can more often than not accompany power. It's also a reminder that in some cases, Hell already exists on earth.


  1. It was a very tough read. I really didn't know what I was in for when I bought it.


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