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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Thursday, 20 November 2008

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun

November 21, 2008

by Suzan Abrams


"We live in an ephemeral existence, shouldered by any one number or more of varied transient tragedies that may be soluble and interchangeable in their masquerade to demonstrate the careful balance of ordinary life. We could bubble ourselves up into the fat round sphere of a still moment, engaging in its lively discourses and receiving in its meditative light; but only if we draw away the long evening shadows from curtains of the past. Then remembrances become impossible and time...once more unhurried and newly-born, succumbing to the infancy of the virginal." - suzan abrams -

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Originally translated by Linda Coverdale and already a bestseller in France, This Blinding Absence of Light by Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, won the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

The novel which establishes a consuming work of piercing Moroccan prison fiction spun from dark legacies of dramatic mental torment, would see Jelloun , a philosopher and scholar and himself a resident of France since 1961, receive 100,000 euros as his celebrated prize.

The plot spells literary fiction drawn from a rare sparkling prose that readily confronts a disturbing fraction of haunting and searching philosophies. Nothing short of Jelloun's luminous poetic eloquence helps the main character; the questioning and terribly despondent Salim; battle life's black failings when a present hope appears to have been eternally crushed and the survivor must quickly crusade for another to cling on with surety to his vain, feeble breaths.

The plot races back with heavy exposition scenes to 1971 when a young cadet and newly-promoted Lieutenant, Salim, takes part in a failed coup to overthrow King Hassan 11 of Morocco.

As punishment for being labelled a traitor - although Salim and his friends had been dressed as scapegoats for disgrunted and ambitious officers higher-up in the bloodthirsty power game, - he is now sentenced to 10-years in jail and subsequently locked in with 22 other comrades from the beleagured army, in the cursed cell block B in a wasteland, somewhere in the forgotten Moroccan desert. Here in no-man's land, they are housed in a secret prison complex.

These are the luckier men as others would be most certainly executed depending on ranks and roles played in the failed coup. Here the shocked, sorrowful band of purported accomplices, would live clouded together by a crowd of dishevelled thoughts, mental blindness and neurotic emotions as gatecrashing cellmates. Only 3 men including the narrator of the story stay alive long enough to be released after 18 years.

Salim will watch his other accomplices slowly drop off the land of living like a tattered pack of cards. This, as they struggle fruitlessly against brutal psychological torment in matchbox cells with no light and only a hole for a toilet. During those long years, they will receive very little exercise, and feast on starch and rationed water for meals. Their prison is nicknamed pit.

Insensitive, uncaring guards make for grim torture with their puffed-up ignorance and disinterest. Besides the usual meal rations, the prisoners are left like withering plants to face silent, insignificant deaths. As a result, they fall victim to malnourishment, illnesses or the magnifying fear of forever languishing in prison. As they lay dying, they would be pounced on by cockroaches and once even a bucket of scorpions that had been left in a cell by a callous guard. In happier moments, they would often get together in the pitch black darkness that made for their space, to engage in political and literary discussions.

Throughout the long years, words revive Salim in its new role as haloed guardian angel. Each prisoner would embark on his own survival plan. Karim for instance would keep vigil for time and be baptised as the talking clock. In the long years ahead, he would inform without hesitation, on the exact second, hour, date, time and year like a calendar that never lost its pages. His fading memory would soon affect the near-end of his mortality by hinting of his death.

Salim on the request of this little group, invents stories and recites plays and poetry to his cellmates and himself to stay alive. He remembers Camus. Later, he would seek absolution and turn to fervent prayer by recalling verses from his beloved Koran. He would at a young age suddenly feel ancient in spirit. Imbued with an unruffled wisdom, he would ready his body and soul for any unwelcoming crisis that may linger, although a dim determination to be released continues to hover.

In the face of pessimism, Salim's love of words, continued to compose optimism to playact a ray of light injecting a stubborn willpower. At times, he leaned on family life, remembering with bitter sweetness, his hardy mother and shiftless father. The reader is pulled slowly into the depths of his own lessons which inspected without flinching; the value of detachment and the drawing of harsh, painful memories with which to stay sane. The narrator would master the flawless ability in the face of enduring suffering, to puncture the darkness with a heightened brand of love and light.

Indeed, Jelloun weaves an incredible genius with his philosophy on spirituality that would command every reader to a deeper sense of the happy self, even in the face of immense tragedy.

The Book of Eccelesiastes in the Old Testament may have approached these horrors with the same knowing tone of resignation, acceptance and enlightenment that lie conjoined with Jelloun's smooth attempt at a paralleled symmetery with which to bless adversity and affliction.

In his story, Jelloun strips the darkness of all its horrors with his studied illumination of its essence and effect on the human soul. The writer's voice is is gentle, tender, kind and accepting.
It is of a man who knows much but will speak only when necessary. To project serenity is Jelloun's gift and it bounces from the pages as the reader follows the prisoner into a hellish abode and finally back again, into what could only be described as the paradise of normality, meaning the land of the living.

Jelloun forces the reader in no uncertain terms, to observe and rejoice at every trivial blessing lived and learned, even with the prospect of death round the corner. This after all, proves the rare gift of melancholy mixed with joy.

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