This novel is inspired by the experiences of a youg soldier who was imprisoned for taking part in a failed coup to oust King Hassan II of Morocco. With sixty others he was imprisoned in a secret prison in the desert and remained there for nearly twenty years.
The novel is harrowing in its details of illness, deprivation and the hardships of prison life.
What leapt out to me though was the relationship the prisoners had with nature. Sometimes this was negative as in when their cells were infested with cockroaches and scorpions. Sometimes though nature became a symbol of hope and a connection with the outside world. Particularly in the form of birds, such as the striolated bunting that the narrator named Tebebt:
For a while I had confused it with the chaffinch because their songs are so much alike. At the time however, I amused myself by trying to guess its name in French and the colour of its plumage. This bird alighted in the hole that served as the air vent for the cell and sang for a good fifteen minutes. Naturally I fed him some bread crumbs moistened with water. After eating, he sang again then flew away. He must have had his nest in a tree nearby. When he returned he landed on the main vent and sang; acting as a lookout , he changed his tune whenever he observed any movement outside the prison, so the arrival of the guards was always announced by Tebebt.
I can still remember his different songs, which I soon learned to distinguish. One day when he twittered in a quick staccato manner, I didn't realise what that rhythm meant....Tebebt was welcoming the rain! We'd had no way of knowing what the sky was like, but thanks to this bunting, we were getting a weather report!
Tebebt had become my companion, my friend. When he landed on the edge of the air vent, I fancied that I spied the sparkle in his eyes, and in spite of the darkness, Iwould talk to him in a low voice.
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun published by Penguin
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