"My eyes looked like those of madman, although I haven't lost my mind. There was also death in my eyes, yet I am alive. I have not accepted having those eyes, there's something frightful in them. ... I'm afraid. And I see fear in the eyes of others. Maybe I should have prepared myself for that shock. I'll get used to it, in the end."
Cette aveuglante absence de lumière, by Tahar Ben Jelloun
In the 1970's, the Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) was founded in the Western Sahara to fight for independence from France. In 1975, although the International Court of Justice upheld the claim of the native Saharawi people to self-determination, King Hassan II of Morocco organized the so-called "Green March" to recover what was then called the Spanish Sahara from Polisario forces. Faced with an enormous invading army, Spain, which had been asked to intervene, sued for peace, and the resulting Madrid Agreement divided the disputed territory between Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario movement established a government-in-exile in Algeria (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), but the region--as empty and barren as any on earth (with a population of one-half million)--is still governed by Morocco.
This Blinding Absence of Light is the story--a monologue, a parlay with madness--of Salim, a Moroccan soldier kept for eighteen years at Tazmamart Prison, a literal hellhole, an underground cell into which no light could penetrate, a coffin ten feet long by five feet wide, so cramped that the fifty-eight inmates, each kept in solitary confinement, couldn't stand. Here Salim and his fellow prisoners were kept (barely) alive on starvation rations for nearly two decades until 1991 when twenty-eight survivors were finally freed.
"For a long time I searched for the black stone that cleanses the soul of death. When I say a long time, I think of a bottomless pit, a tunnel dug with my fingers, my teeth, in the stubborn hope of glimpsing, if only for a minute, one infinitely lingering minute, a ray of light, a spark that would imprint itself deep within my eye, that would stay protected in my entrails like a secret."
To call this novel claustrophobic is an understatement--there are voices, but aside from the initial description of the prison cell, with its hole in the floor for excreting and its tiny hole in the ceiling for breathing, there is nothing to look at and no light with which to see, and only the surreally calm words of the narrator to listen to, words whose cadences are incantatory, as if Salim were reading the Qur'an and not narrating the tale of his unimaginable imprisonment. He is, as he says himself, a dead man. In the final chapters, describing his release, Salim speaks of being reborn: his eyes are unfocused, his body is stooped, his teeth are gone, and he cannot walk--the world has moved on, and he sits with his dying mother as Lazarus, come to proclaim not man's resurrection but his inhumanity to his fellow man.
I've read my share of prison stories: Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle made an indelible impression on me many years ago; Cheever's Falconer, which might be his finest novel, Darkness at Noon with its expose of the Stalin show trials--however, I prefer true stories of incarceration, books like Wilde's De Profundis and the great Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, raw and honest books that deal with injustice, a genre that goes back at least to Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy.
But to call Jelloun's fictionalization of Salim's two decades in Tazmamart "prison literature" is like calling Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon a travel guide. This Blinding Absence of Light is a psychological study of a human being in extremis--it asks us to consider not only what a person can endure (and not in a voyeuristic way--the distance between the reader and Salim is too great), but to consider the egregious suffering one man--in this case King Hassan II--can inflict on another. The men interned at Tazmamart were never accused of a crime, never tried or convicted. I won't compare their plight to that of the men at Guantanamo since comparisons of suffering are glib and misleading; yet in reading TBAOL one is forced to consider the consequences of long-term incarceration, especially absent any substantive legal process, on both inmates and their jailers. (In TBAOL the guards are as dehumanized as their charges). The reader is forced to confront both the injustice as well as the horror of Salim's fate as the 6000 plus days of his sentence unfold. What could time have meant? How could one have lived one day under these conditions? Only the "blessing" of being allowed an hour above ground to bury the dead marked the eons of Salim's (literal) internment.
Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fes, in French Morocco, in 1944. He received the bilingual, French-Arabic education typical of the colonial period (actually, that's not true: most often the education would be only in the metropolitan power's language, at least until independence). Jelloun was a teacher of philosophy in Casablanca before moving to Paris in 1971. He won the Prix Goncourt in 1987 for his novel La Nuit Sacrée and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for This Blinding Absence of Light. He has recently published a controversial account of the "Arab Spring," entitled The Spark.
For further information see Maureen Freely, here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/jul/24/featuresreviews.guardianreview14
This Blinding Absence of Light, trans. by Linda Coverdale, is published by the New Press.
George Ovitt (5/18/13)