Friday, December 08, 2006
This Blinding Absence of Light
I've been meaning to write this post for months and never got around doing it. It's about a book I read last summer while on the beach. It's not your regular "beach book" but it was fiction, in small paper back, and not in any of my moving boxes, so I thought what the heck.
The book is This Blinding Absence of Light by the Moroccan novelist Tahar ben Jalloun. After reading it in English, I discovered I own an Arabic copy (the book was written originally in French) which is titled Telka al 3atma al bahera.
This is a prioson narrative, telling the story of suffering, death, and suvival of a group of men who were thrown into an underground jail, where there literally was no light, for 17 years. Their crime was they were involved in an assassination attempt on the life of the Moroccan king, Hassan II. The majority of them, including the narrator, had no idea what they were getting into, just following the orders of their superiors as all good soldiers do. The book is a fictional account of real events that took place in Morocco in 1971 and is based on the testimony of one of the surviving inmates of the horrible Tazmamart prison.
Focusing on the day to day life and death under the most inhuman circumstances you can imagine, the novel breaks your heart and inspire it at the same time. The prisoners were in solitary confinement in a small cell that didn't allow them to stand or stretch, and with no light. If you think you know what kills people and what torture is, think again. Some of the ways in which these prisoners die are impossible to imagine because so grotesque. "Bourras died because he could not expell his excrement." Saaban "was eaten by thousands of roaches and other insects." Abdel Malek dies because he was poisoned by eating too many roach eggs. Some die of broken hearts, some hang themselves because they could not take it any more.
But some survive. And the book is about their suvival as well. They survive through their collective action to stay alive. One tells stories, one recites the Qur'an, and one tells the time. Obsessively. The narrator survives with a shrunken body that bears witness to what he went through.
Despite the gruesome details I mentioned, this is a beautiful book. I personally couldn't put it down.