This Blinding Absence of Light – Tahar Ben Jelloun

I read once that the actress Winona Ryder carried a copy of Catcher in the Rye around with her for inspiration. I can imagine doing the same thing with this incredible novel, This Blinding Absence of Light.

It is a novel that reads as non fiction and was based on the testimony of an actual inmate of Tazmamart Prison. It is horrific, heartbreaking and humbling.

In 1971, the narrator, a junior soldier was barely involved in a failed coup against King Hassan II of Morocco. He ended up in Tazmamart, a prison that officially didn’t exist, an underground dungeon with no light, no protection against the extreme heat and cold, just enough air to breathe, minimal water and starches to be kept alive. Locked in his pitch black cell 24hrs a day, with scorpions and roaches – able to hear his fellow prisoners but not see or touch them. On top of this his cell was too low to ever stand up straight.

You know, more than anything else, a palace is a place where you feel a sense of well being, where your body and soul are in harmony, where the real treasure is serenity. The rest is just decoration, space furnished according to your personal idea of contentment. Obviously, there’s considerable comfort, but tell yourself one thing: real comfort comes from inner peace

Realising that he can do nothing for his body, he decides to save his mind.  The first thing is to forget the person he was. That person is no longer alive. He must let go of his memories. To remember is to die. He forgets his family; his father who disowned him, his mother, his fiance. He forces himself to let go of the attachment and imagines over and over his fiance with a new husband. Through prayer, meditation and sheer determination he stays positive. He helps to keep morale of the inmates up by reciting verses from the Koran, and remembering stories from his fathers library; Tenesee Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire to The Stranger by Albert Camus. And when he can concentrate long enough to null the pain of his rotting body, he imagines he is outside in the light, in his own paradise:

My garden is humble. A few orange trees, one or two lemon trees, a well of cool water in the center, lush grass and a room in which to sleep when it’s cold or rainy. In this room there is nothing, just a mat, a pillow, a blanket. The walls have been limewashed in blue. When the daylight fades, I light two candles and read. In the evening, I eat vegetables from the garden. An old peasant woman who lives in the area brings me bread every day at the same hour. That is my secret, my dream life, the place where I like to go to meditate. To pray and think about those who are no longer here. I do not need anything else. Above all, one must possess nothing, acquire nothing, be light, in good spirits, ready to walk off and leave everything behind wearing only a simple djellaba to cover the body..

I loved this book. It reminded me of what is really important and I wish everybody could have the opportunity to read it.

Winner of the 2004 Impac Award
Translated from the French by by Linda Coverdale

Read for the Book Awards 4, 2010 Global challenge and Support your local library challenge

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12 responses to “This Blinding Absence of Light – Tahar Ben Jelloun

  1. What a glowing review. It sounds like an original piece of writing and one that I’ll have to look out for!

  2. I haven’t heard of this book before, but it sounds like the sort of thing I’d love. I’ve made a note of the title and hope that I get to read it at some point. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Novelinsights – Do look out for it! I see that Tahar Ben Jelloun has written other novels. I’m curious to try one of them. I thought the writing was beautiful especially as it was inspired by a true story. I’m hoping the straight fiction books will be just as beautifully written.

  4. Jackie – You’re welcome! I hope you love it as much as I did if you do read it. I think it’s the sort of book people will feel strongly about one way or the other.

  5. I’m so glad you reviewed this! I read a different Jelloun book a couple of years ago (The Last Friend), and I didn’t love it, but it impressed me enough to want to give him another try. Now I know which one to read. 🙂

  6. Eva – I hope you do and can’t wait to see what you think! I will let you know if I read The Last Friend, I haven’t had a proper look at his other books but like you am impressed enough to want to try another one.

  7. Finally read your review. I love the book, but wasn’t impress with “The Last Friend” which I finished 2 weeks ago.

    You have just chosen the two books I love, and would love (Cutting for Stone) for Africa’s Global Reading Challenge!

    • JoV – sounds like The Last Friend is perhaps not so good. I will definitely try another of his books – this will be a hard act to follow.

      I loved both of these reads for Africa in the challenge! Hope you love Cutting For Stone too.

  8. Thanks for posting this. This novel sounds incredibly intriguing so I’d love to read it. Last year I read about this tragic incident in Neil MacFarquhar’s recent book on the Middle East and I’d love to read this novelization. Also last year I read two other books by Tahar Ben Jolloun, (Leaving Tangier and Islam Explained). Now I want to read this one !
    Thanks for reviewing this !

  9. Maphead – thank you. These all sound really good. I’m inspired to look out for them!

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