- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

THIS BLINDING ABSENCEOF LIGHT
By Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
The New Press, $22.95, 195 pages


It is about 15 years since Tahar Ben Jelloun's Prix Goncourt-winning novel, "The Sacred Night," appeared, leaving in the reader's mind an indelible impression of life in Morocco's barren Atlas Mountains, the writer's tale aptly expressed in spare yet lovely prose. Time flies.
Time does not fly for everyone, however, and it certainly doesn't fly for Salim, the central character and first-person narrator of Mr. Ben Jelloun's third novel, "This Blinding Absence of Light." (A second fiction, "Corruption," came out along the way.) Salim reminded me briefly of Perkin Warbeck, Flemish pretender to the English throne during Henry VII's reign. That first Tudor monarch, insecure as usurper's tend to be, tried to be lenient with Perkin but eventually grew exasperated and had him put away in the Tower of London and denied daylight. A visitor when the prisoner had been there a year found him a drastically changed man.
Salim and his fellow prisoners in Mr. Ben Jelloun's novel, go virtually without daylight for 18 years in a Moroccan desert prison called Tazmamart. The book promises to become a classic of prison literature, and all the more so because it is based on a true story.
Punishments for regicide or attempted coups against the sovereign have always been among the harshest meted out, anywhere one goes. Remember Robert-Francois Damiens, who attempted to assassinate by stabbing King Louis XV of France, and whose torture and execution by being torn apart by horses Michel Foucault so gruesomely describes in the opening paragraphs of his "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison."
But the fate of Salim and his young fellow officers is not to be killed right away (their senior officers are shot), but to be buried in underground cells in which they can not stand up straight and are barely kept alive on dry bread and water and a lukewarm beverage that is neither tea nor coffee, scorched starchy stuff that sounds a bit like postum, though it hardly can be.
The event from which Mr. Ben Jelloun's tale derives is the assault by over 1,000 troops on the palace at Skhirate, a suburb of Rabat, during King Hassan II's 42nd birthday party in July of 1971. Near 100 guests were killed. Salim's recollection of the mayhem is garish:
"Who still remembers the white walls of the palace of Skhirate?* Who remembers the blood on the tablecloths, the blood on the bright green lawns? There was a brutal confusion of colors. The blue was no longer in the sky, the red was no longer on the bodies, the sun was lapping up the blood with extraordinary speed, and we, we had tears in our eyes." (Asterisks appear with the first mention of words which Linda Coverdale, the award-winning translator, has included in a glossary at the end of the book.)
Were Salim and his young fellow officers merely obeying the orders of higher ups, or were they really committing treason? The question preys on Salim's mind down the long years. Another question bothers him too: Was he trying to kill the king, or to kill his father, a sycophantic poet close to the monarch and a sort of court jester uncaring for his family? At any rate after being tried and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, Salim and the other convicts are held in a severe but more or less conventional prison, Kenitra, for a year or two, before being bundled off to Tazmamart, where the intention seems to be to forget them. And have their loved ones forget them too.
Salim is put in cell Block B, second of two, with a couple of dozen of his former comrades. The cells are 10 feet by six with a hole in the floor for bodily evacuations. Inmates are not allowed out, except for funerals when one of them succumbs to madness, depression or a physical medical problem such as constipation, for which he has received no care. The life, in Salim's words is a "complete apprenticeship to shed the habits of life."
The guards stranded in the desert no less than their wards are variously vicious. There are raids on the cellblock in the middle of the night. In one instance Salim is stuffed into a sack and taken off for what he anticipates will be summary execution, only to be returned to his cell. In one instance scorpions are purposely let loose among the prisoners. One of the inmates assumes the role of doctor: They will be feverish for 48 hours, he tells the men bitten, and during that time they must on no account let themselves fall asleep.
Other prisoners take on various jobs, one becoming the inmates' calendar and clock, somehow figuring a way to keep track of time. Salim's role is that of storyteller; he regrets not having read "The Thousand and One Nights," but, clearly an educated man, recites to his surviving companions the poems of Paul Eluard, tells the story of "A Streetcar Named Desire," recites swathes of Balzac's "Pere Goriot" from memory, and from "The Stranger" of Albert Camus. When he can't remember particulars of a story, he makes up characters.
As the years trawl on, the company in Salim's cellblock diminishes until there are only four men left alive. Mr. Ben Jelloun describes a number of these deaths in detail which is as heartbreaking as it is messy. In one case, Salim volunteers to clean out one of the dead men's cells, a filthy job. But by this time, he is finding himself anew, spiritually, relying in large part on his Muslim faith.
Early on he recognizes that in the horrific game he has been set to play with death, neither hope nor memory is going to do him much good. Success, or at least survival, lies always in being prepared for the worst. Hope, not surprisingly, is easier to suppress than memory. Salim continues to be preoccupied with thoughts of his father. He worries about his mother's health. His brothers and little sister, his fiancee, he scarcely dares think about.
Since this is not a story with a fictional or dramatic plot indeed the broader facts are well known it may be divulged that eventually one of the guards is bribed, medicines are smuggled in and, most importantly, word of the existence of Tazmamart and the conditions there gets out. International pressure mounts, and eventually something is done. As this process begins to reveal itself to the men inside, Salim is reminded of Luis Bunuel's film "The Exterminating Angel."
The men come out as "living cadavers," having lost height after being bent over all that time. They have been "rotting limb by limb" for so long. Salim has lost half of his teeth, and the rest are loose. Taken to a convalescent center to be put back together so far as possible before being released, he is unable to sleep on a bed, and when he finally gets home goes to ground under the kitchen table. Meanwhile, the authorities are doing everything in such a way as to try and make it appear as if none what went on out there in the desert somewhere between Rachidia and Rich, Morocco, ever happened.
Salim describes the experience of being granted his freedom as being a new birth, and Mr. Ben Jelloun in his dedication refers to the happier present as his subject's "third life." This novel is not fun, but that is not to say it isn't beautiful in its way. It is characteristic Tahar Ben Jelloun, a writer from one of the world's more remote locales who continues to make a lasting impression on readers in France, where he now lives, and further afield. His fiction tugs at the soul as the best writing will.



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