Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun has just won the International IMPAC Dublin Award, the world’s largest literary prize. (The shortlist included works by Paul Auster, William Boyd, Sandra Cisneros, Jeffrey Eugenides, Maggie Gee, Amin Maalouf, Rohinton Mistry, Atiq Rahimi, and Olga Tokarczuk.)
Ben Jelloun’s novel, This Blinding Absence of Light (Cette Aveuglante absence de lumiere), about the horrors endured by a group of political prisoners in a desert jail in Morocco, struck a chord with the jury:
“The story about the hellholes and the survivors – the living cadavers – is a moving description of both unlimited evil and the power of human spirit to survive,” said a spokesperson for the jury. “We admired the novel’s beauty and clarity of language, its formal restraint which gives it subtle power, its commitment to its terrible subject, its passionate evocation of the human soul and the will to survive.”
Although the BBC article doesn’t go into details about this, the novel had a difficult genesis. The jail in This Blinding Absence of Light is modeled after the infamous Tazmamart prison, where fifty-eight student officers who had participated in a failed coup d’etat against King Hassan II were jailed for more than eighteen years, in solitary confinement. The very existence of the prison was denied by the Moroccan government. After the political reforms of 1991, the prisoners were freed and some of them wrote books about their ordeal. It was then that Ben Jelloun contacted Aziz Binebine, one of the survivors, in order to tell his story in the form of a novel. Many people (including Ahmed Marzouki, whose memoir, Tazmamart: Cellule 10, was reviewed here at Moorishgirl) were upset with Ben Jelloun because they felt that, as an internationally renowned author, he could have done something to attract attention to the prisoners’ plight before it became a trendy cause. Ben Jelloun defended himself against these accusations, and said he would share profits from the novel with Binebine.
Ben Jelloun remains perhaps the best-known l’migre author from the Moroccan diaspora. He’s a household name in Morocco, of course, and in France, where he resides and where he’s won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for La Nuit sacree. In the U.S. Ben Jelloun remains largely unknown, I think. For instance, the last time I looked for his books at a bookstore, I couldn’t find them under ‘Ben Jelloun’ or under ‘Jelloun’ even though the catalog said that the bookstore had his works. Turns out they had been filed under ‘Tahar.’ At any rate, I’m happy with the selection and hope that it will bring more attention not just to Ben Jelloun but also to Moroccan literature in general.
Links: Ben Jelloun’s website.