A Week in Books: A pit of provincial ignorance

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The Independent Culture

Most literary prizes - however valuable - merely give the chance for organisers and judges to drop a polished pebble into the ocean of indifference.

Most literary prizes - however valuable - merely give the chance for organisers and judges to drop a polished pebble into the ocean of indifference. At least they also prove that money can't buy love - or even attention. A week ago, I checked the British coverage afforded to this year's Dublin-based Impac award. The contest enjoys lavish funding (€100,000 to the winner), a global remit (it lets translated novels compete against English-language works) and a track-record of honouring star names - its two previous victors were Michel Houellebecq and Orhan Pamuk.

At the time, British newspapers - excluding Irish editions - had devoted to the Impac result a total of 124 words. (Things have improved a bit in recent days.) This, for a prize whose winner's purse is trumped only by the Nobel. One can't really blame the slick Impac publicity machine. For once, one can't just blame media apathy. But one can blame our myopic publishing business. The Impac judges picked an unforgettable work of art, and soul, written in French but available since 2002 in a splendidly vivid English version. Yet until a fortnight ago - when the US publisher imported copies - no British edition existed. Thus the Impac announcement echoed in a void.

Tahar Ben Jelloun, born in Morocco in 1944 but resident in France since 1971, won the prize for his 10th novel, This Blinding Absence of Light (translated by Linda Coverdale; The New Press; £14.99). Based on the testimony of a prisoner released after nearly 20 years of hell, it tells the story of an underground desert jail where the Moroccan military kept soldiers caught up in a failed coup against King Hassan II in 1971. Our narrator, the kind-hearted but iron-willed Salim, miraculously came through this "endless agony of creeping death" in a virtual stone coffin. In his lightless hole, hardly a cell, where insects bite, bones and teeth ache, memory plagues and the guards torment, he survives - for 6,663 days of hard bread, foul water and prowling despair.

In his block at the Tazmamart camp, 19 out of 23 prisoners died. They died from abuse; from scorpions; from cockroaches; from gangrene; from diarrhoea; from malnutrition. And from heartbreak. One achieved a suicide by hanging.

The son of a witty, feckless courtier who disowns him, Salim tells stories to keep sane - from the suras of his beloved Koran to the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire and the exact words of Camus' L'Etranger. If mystical Islam haunts this novel, so too does existentialism. A humanistic spirituality ironclads his soul. Mohamed, Jesus and Moses visit his dreams; and a sparrow visits his tiny air-vent, a fragile bringer of song and life.

This is one of the great novels of incarceration and endurance. Free from all sensationalism, it recounts horrors almost beyond imagining. Somehow, it never depresses or disgusts, even in the throes of one terrible death after another (where death smells of "brackish water, vinegar and pus"). On the contrary, it uplifts and even exhilarates the reader. Sympathy, insight, the human quest for meaning and understanding, never desert Salim. By strong example, he shows how, and why, the free mind can smash all chains.

Ben Jelloun ranks among France's best-known novelists. His many trophies include the Prix Goncourt (in 1987, for The Sacred Night). It would be hard to imagine a less obscure author, or a more resonant novel. But no UK house thought it worth its while to bring us This Blinding Absence of Light (all honour to The New Press of New York, which did). Sometimes, you suspect that the literary powers-that-be in Britain wish to bury their public in a pit of provincial ignorance almost as dark as the rock tomb that held Salim.