Sunday, December 20, 2009

TSS - Review - This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun
published 2001
195 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

An immediate and critically acclaimed bestseller in France, This Blinding Absence of Light is the latest work by internationally renowned author Tahar Ben Jelloun, the first North African winner of the Prix Goncourt and winner of the Prix Mahgreb. Crafting real life events into narrative fiction, Ben Jelloun reveals the horrific story of the desert concentration camps in which King Hassan II of Morocco held his political enemies in underground cells with no light and only enough food and water to keep them lingering on the edge of death. Working closely with one of the survivors, Ben Jelloun narrates the story in the simplest of language and delivers a shocking novel that explores both the limitlessness of inhumanity and the impossible endurance of the human will.

My thoughts:

Brutal. Beautiful. Horrific. Hopeful. Terrible. Triumphant.

All of those words are apt descriptions of this breathtaking novel. It was both a pleasure and a despair to read, and I don't think I'll soon forget it.

From the very beginning, I could tell I would be captured by Salim's story. As he describes the environment and companions in his prison cell, I could see it -

"Night clothed us. In another world, one would say that night waited on us hand and foot."

At times, I had to stop reading and take a breath, feeling almost claustrophobic reading Salim's words.

"Night had thrown her cloak over our faces no longer astonished by anything, a cloak without even the tiniest moth holes, oh, no; it was a cloak of wet sand."

I won't list the horrors experienced, though rest assured they are many; prisoners don't just die, they die horribly, from things I had never thought of that can kill you. But the soul of the book isn't the suffering - it is the way the prisoners find to keep themselves human. By telling each other tales out of the Arabian Nights, and American movie scripts; by keeping close track of the time; by adopting a lost dove, passing it from cell to cell, and eventually letting it fly free. By choosing forgiveness instead of anger.

The story moves from past to present, as we learn of the reasons Salim and his fellow prisoners are captured, and their day-to-day lives in prison. My lack of knowledge of the history of the time and place occasionally made it difficult to keep up with the plot, but mostly the author explains just enough in the text to assist readers like me. There are no extra words in the sparse prose, and yet the author manages to engulf readers in the narrative.

"I should say that there were different kinds of silence. The silence of the night. It was a necessity for us. The silence of the companion who was slowly leaving us...The silence of blood circulating sluggishly...The silence of the shadow of memories burned to ashes...The silence of absence, the blinding absence of life."

This is an incredibly powerful book. It is not action packed, or plot-driven, or even especially entertaining. But of all the books I've read this year, I know this is one I will remember. It is the story of the worst man can do to man, and the power of humanity to overcome. It is remarkable.

Finished: 12/15/09
Source: my shelves
Rating: 9/10

This book counts toward:

Orbis Terrarum challenge
book 9/10
country: Morocco

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