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Moroccan Writer Wins E100,000 Literary Award
By EILEEN BATTERSBY, Literary Correspondent
The Irish Times
June 18, 2004

Exposure of human rights abuses in Morocco is at the heart of the novel which won the E100,000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award yesterday, the world's richest prize for a single book.

This Blinding Absence of Light, written in French by the Moroccan novelist, poet and critic Tahar Ben Jelloun, is a magisterial work which he describes as "a celebration of the human spirit and its determination to survive".

It is set in the nightmare world of a secret desert prison complex in Morocco in which soldiers involved in a coup d'etat against King Hassan 11in 1971 are punished for their abortive rebellion. The absent light of the title acts as a central metaphor in a narrative that is both metaphysical odyssey and physical endurance test.

As I wrote when reviewing the novel last March, all the claustrophobia of "the tiny grave-like cells, the half-hearted conversations, the panic, terror and the slow release of dying" are conveyed in prose of stark eloquence and beauty. "What good was reason there, in our graves? I mean where we had laid in the earth, left with a hole so we could breathe, so we could live for enough time, for enough nights to pay for our mistake, left with ...a death that was to take its time." The narrator, a junior officer, both experiences his own hell and observes the plight of others. He is a sensitive individual, the son of a powerful man in the king's court who does nothing to help his son. Meanwhile the narrator sustains himself and his colleagues through the solace of story by recounting novels and films from his memory.

The winning book, translated by Linda Coverdale, emerged from the shortlist of 10 titles at a reception in Dublin yesterday. Ben Jelloun (60) was delighted at winning and also said he felt vindicated as he had been criticized on publication in France by some observers who argued that he had no right to write about a horror he had not experienced.

Shortly after yesterday's prize announcement, he explained that he had been approached by a survivor who asked him to tell his story. "I was dubious, I doubted my ability to tell this story," he said.

Much of the horror of this beautiful and terrible narrative lies in the reader not having been aware that this imprisonment was going on. In common with many readers, Ben Jelloun admitted, "I knew nothing about it either. I had left Morocco in 1971."

Revelations about the camps and the survivors, who were released in1991 having spent 20 years in jail, eventually emerged through the efforts of Amnesty International.

This Blinding Absence of Light is the ninth winner of the IMPAC prize. It is also the most important winner since Herta Muller took the1998 prize with The Land of Green Plums, and may well be one of the most beautiful, humbling and important books most of us are likely ever to read. An interview with Tahar Ben Jelloun will appear in the Weekend Review section in The Irish Times tomorrow.

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