This Blinding Absence of Light

Tahar ben Jelloun

translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
Penguin 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
A low-ranking soldier caught up in a failed coup he barely understood, Selim is one of fifty eight prisoners incarcerated in a secret prison in the Moroccan desert at Tazmamart. For eighteen years they are held in the dark, in cells too small to stand up in, on a starvation diet with no medical care. Their only contact with the outside world comes at funerals when one of them dies, from occasional visits by birds, and towards the end through messages smuggled by their guards.

Nineteen of the twenty three prisoners in Selim's block die, from illness, gangrene, starvation, scorpions, cockroaches, constipation, and loss of the will to live. But Selim survives the physical tortures of toothache and joint pain, and the psychological pressure. He tries to separate himself from desires, ideas of revenge, hopes, and memories, but is not entirely successful: his thoughts return repeatedly to his father, a royal courtier who has disowned him, and his mother. He becomes the group storyteller and finds support for himself and others in religion and in the stories he remembers, more or less accurately: from the Koran, novels by Zola and Camus, and films such as A Streetcar Named Desire.

Based on the real experiences of a survivor of Tazmamart, This Blinding Absence of Light is a powerful condemnation of that prison and of the horrors of totalitarian prison systems everywhere. It is not, however, at all political, but rather an intensely personal story, a description of one man's endurance against despair. Moving between Selim's internal struggle and the fates of his fellow prisoners, it is fast-paced and never slow. This Blinding Absence of Light is a slender but haunting novel.

April 2007

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%T This Blinding Absence of Light
%A Jelloun, Tahar ben
%M French
%F Coverdale, Linda
%I Penguin
%D 2005 [2001]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0141022825
%P 195pp