14 May 2006

This Blinding Absence of Light

Another testament to that most murderous of centuries. Prix Goncourt and Prix Maghreb winner Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light uncovers an infamous event in history. Blindness, a book based in prisoners' testimony, is a harrowing account of courage told in simple prose that has been translated by Linda Coverdale. The book won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004 and is on the shortlist for other major prizes.

A man lives in darkness. Salim, a junior officer, is swept up in an army plot to assassinate King Hassan II of Morocco in 1971. When the coup fails, some of the superior officers who have misled the soldiers into taking part change sides and arrest them. Upon the king's orders, the conspirators are taken to Kenitra prison and later driven blindfolded to the desert to Tazmamart and dumped into darkness. Salim and the others in Cell Block B are put in six-by-three-ft underground cells where light does not enter and where they cannot stand upright. It feels like being buried alive. They survive on a diet of water, bread and a revolting starch mixture.

One day, Salim is seized by prison guards. They thrust him into a bodybag and take him outside. He hears them debating whether he should be buried alive or allowed to dig his own grave. When they can’t agree, they return him to the cell on the verge of madness. To keep his sanity, he talks to the others. Salim and the inmates help each other by counting the hours and announcing the days to keep track of time and by praying. He tries to forget his former life (remembering is a form of dying, he thinks) and his father, a court jester at the palace, who has disowned him. Entire pages from Pere Goriot float up to his consciousness which he narrates to the inmates as he does The Little Prince and Baudelaire. He tells them the plot of The Streetcar Named Desire with Brando. He dreams of rewriting Camus' L'Etranger where Raymond, Meursault and their companions will be resting and playing the flute and will be shot for no reason by an Arab who will still be nameless but he gives up.

The prisoners look forward to an inmate's death as this is the only time they are allowed out into the light but even this outing is stopped by the authorities. Death is welcomed. It allows prisoners to snatch a dead man's clothes to cover themselves against the freezing cold. They sleep upright during the day but have to keep moving at night to avoid freezing to death. Many die from the cold, from constipation, from starvation, from eating bread poisoned with roach eggs, and one from being stung and eaten alive by scorpions that an NCO has dumped in their cells.

By the time word reaches Amnesty International, Salim has spent eighteen years in this hell hole. In his cell block, only three out of the original twenty-two prisoners have survived through sheer acts of will. Some of the living cadavers have shrunk by a foot in height. Finally, Salim is taken away from the concentration camp, examined by doctors and fattened up before his release. His eyes are mad, his teeth have dropped out, his limbs are atrophied. He cannot bear to look at his own reflection or sleep on a mattress. This is what freedom means to the tortured.

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