I am writing the review of This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun eight weeks into the extraordinary lockdown we find ourselves stuck in. This remarkable, deeply unsettling novel, based on a true story, has reminded me of the incredible strength humans find in order to survive the darkest of situations. Strangely, although a harrowing and at times uncomfortable read, it has proved to be a perfect book for now. I hope you will feel the same.
The author Tahar Ben Jelloun traces the experiences of political prisoner Salim, who in 1971 took part in a failed coup to oust King Hassan ll of Morocco. With sixty others, at the whim of the king, Salim was incarcerated in a secret prison complex deep in the Moroccan desert. He was to remain in this hellhole, known as Tazmamart, for nearly twenty years.
Forgotten or simply ignored by the world, quite literally buried alive, the prisoners were held in tiny underground cells. Unable to stand straight, deprived of any light, given just enough food to stay alive and regularly bitten by scorpions, the only time they were allowed out was to bury a fellow prisoner. Jelloun’s sparse and unsentimental descriptions of these unimaginable conditions are chilling and his experiences at Tazmamart are a salutary reminder of man’s capacity for evil towards his fellow man.
Salim is the son of a feckless social-climbing courtier who disowns him and makes no attempt to have his son released. To keep himself sane in these most horrific of conditions, Salim tells stories to the other prisoners, everything from the Koran and The Arabian Nights to the plot of A Streetcar named Desire. He explains ‘The wind is heavy with sand and erases all footsteps, yet it carries my voice. You alone can carry yourself out of this tunnel.’ He is starved of everything a human being needs to survive, yet the quest for understanding never deserts Salim. His determination to live is astonishing and life-affirming. As one by one the other prisoners die terrible, agonising deaths, Salim finds escape in prayer, in stories and in forgiveness.
This humbling novel exposes the cruelty of mankind. But it also teaches the importance of the reliance on self in isolation and that it is hatred that will destroy us, not love. The ability of the human mind to endure in the most darkened of circumstances is a joy and an inspiration.
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun is translated by Linda Coverdale and published by Penguin, 208