Jelloun’s prose is vivid and alive, whether he is describing the stench of death (“Death has a smell. A mixture of brackish water, vinegar, and pus. It’s sharp, harsh.”) or the shock of seeing your own face in a mirror after a period of 18 years.
Reviewed by Paul Kane
This Blinding Absence of Light
by Tahar Ben Jelloun
There is a Gnostic text that describes a meeting between Father Macarius and a skull that he comes across when walking in the mountains. The skull tells Macarius that he is in torment, and the dialogue continues along these lines:
Macarius: What kind of torment?
The Skull: There is a river of fire bubbling above our heads, as high as the sky, and another such river beneath our feet. We are in between these fires. We are back to back and cannot see one another’s faces. When a great prayer is offered on our behalf, we are accorded a little repose.
Macarius: What sort of repose?
The Skull: For a very brief moment we see each other’s faces.
I was reminded of this Gnostic vision of hell whilst reading Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light, a novel that tells the harrowing story of Salim and his fellow prisoners. Participants in a failed coup d’etat, their punishment is to be incarcerated in an underground prison complex for almost two decades; or until death takes them. The impoverished conditions ensure that few of the men are left alive at the end, for they are made to suffer not simply imprisonment but rather a slow system of death by a thousand excruciatingly minute increments.
Death comes in many guises. Some men die of disease and others, unable to endure the near total darkness, die of madness. Some deaths are grotesque: one man is eaten alive by insects after cockroach eggs get into the bread he stores, while another bleeds to death after perforating his rectum in a vain attempt to rid himself of constipation (a consequence of the deficient diet). The real root killer, though, is hate.
Hatred diminishes its possessor and eats away at him, attacking the immune system. Salim realises this early on and it is his struggle – a spiritual struggle that has Islam at its core – against hate and his own despair that makes This Blinding Absence of Light, for all its horrific content, an ultimately uplifting book.
To survive, Salim prays, recites the suras of the Koran and shares stories – the plots of novels and films – with his companions. At the end he is reborn into a world of light with a gaze that his captors cannot endure.
Jelloun’s prose is vivid and alive, whether he is describing the stench of death (“Death has a smell. A mixture of brackish water, vinegar, and pus. It’s sharp, harsh.”) or the shock of seeing your own face in a mirror after a period of 18 years. Linda Coverdale has ably translated the novel and she also provides a glossary that is erudite and, on occasion, rather droll. Consider, as a modest example, this sentence concerning Morocco’s late monarch: “Hassan II, who died in 1999, was a passionate golfer, and left his impoverished country well supplied with beautiful golf courses.”
We live in an age when a perverted form of Islam is stalking the world, so it seems well worth stressing that there are many passages in This Blinding Absence of Light that have a great spiritual power, with something of the stature of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel shows us the true face of Islam, and the living presence of a compassionate and merciful God. For this especially, it is a worthwhile achievement.
About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org