Review: This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun
'Most of those who died did not die of hunger but of hatred. Feeling hatred diminishes you. It eats at you from within and attacks the immune system. When you have hatred inside you, it always crushes you in the end.'
Based on the true recounts, This Blinding Absence of Light is a window into the suffering of the fictional Salim, who in 1971 took part in a failed coup to overthrow King Hassan II of Morocco. Despite claiming to have had no prior knowledge of the plot or having fired any shots, Salim was sentenced to 10 years in prison. After serving some time in one of Morocco’s harshest prisons, he was secretly transferred, alongside 57 others, to a hidden desert ‘tomb’ where he remained for 18 years.
It is in his 10ft by 5ft cell, where the ceiling is so low it’s impossible to stand straight, and not a single pin-prick of light is let through, that we are privy to Salim’s innermost thoughts and his solitary struggles. Narrated as a stream of consciousness, the chosen perspective is a strong way to tell this story, as it translated the prisoners’ isolation, despair and desperation to the reader with visceral intensity. As a result, the novel may feel fragmented and disjointed at times, but this only serves as a reflection of the narrator’s deteriorating mental state.
At the beginning of the book, in the first few years of Salim’s incarceration, there is a more frantic quality to the words. The sentences are shorter, more desperate and manic. Struggling to come to terms with the horrific conditions around him, as well as his own feelings about his situation, Salim describes his inner turmoil; ‘it was the wise man and the lunatic in me who revealed themselves as ardent opponents, each striving to take me furthest from myself.’ He moves freely between these two extremes throughout the story; at times his words are the ravings of a madman, at others, he is lucid and profound in his introspection. There is a point where we begin to notice that it is the wise man who has a stronger presence, revealing himself more often.
This subtle change only happens when there is a shift in Salim’s thinking. Death visits this prison in many guises. Some men die of disease, others of madness. But ultimately, the real killer is hate. At this realisation, Salim begins his struggle against the hate that threatens to destroy him. His spiritual grapple against his despair, one that has Islam at its core, is what makes this book ultimately uplifting.
Despite his battle against hatred, there is no room for hope for the future. Salim rejects hope of any kind and holds onto the belief that survival was only possible with the means at hand: ‘willpower and spirituality’. He focuses on forgiveness, on reconnecting with a faith he hadn’t practiced before his imprisonment and on sharing stories with his companions, emerging with his soul intact and ‘even stronger than before’.
Tahar Ben Jelloun’s writing is beautiful, with a certain spiritual power that has not been lost in it’s translation from the original French. This Blinding Absence of Light is a novel that is intensely moving, one that shows just how merciful and compassionate God is, and how we may find solace in Him even when the body and the mind are at breaking point.
By Bochra Boudarka
Illustration: Albert Watson