Publishers Weekly Review
Based on an incident involving starvation and torture in Morocco, Prix Goncourt-winner Jelloun's latest novel is a disturbing, grisly account of how a prisoner survived a 20-year internment in which he was locked away in a desert tomb. The narrator, Salim, was captured during an unsuccessful 1971 attempt to overthrow Prince Hassan II, who then secretly sent his enemies off to an isolated, makeshift prison. The conditions approached the horror of a concentration camp: the prisoners were confined in dark, cramped chambers, fed a subsistence-level diet and given no medical attention. They were allowed to communicate, however, which helped them cope with such ghastly tortures as having scorpions thrown into their cells. In one particularly hellish incident, a prisoner who breaks his arm is devoured by gangrene and cockroaches. Jelloun writes eloquently and poignantly about the prisoners' various coping tactics, from Salim's recitation of half-remembered stories from The Arabian Nights and scripts from American films to a memorable section in which a dove lands in one of the cells and is passed from inmate to inmate. Freedom eventually comes with bribing a guard, resulting in the intervention of activists from Amnesty International, but this harrowing tale of deprivation and degradation is a frightening reminder of man's seemingly boundless capacity for evil. (May 1) Forecast: Jelloun, a high-profile novelist (Corruption) and critic in Europe who writes regularly for the major dailies of several countries, will likely be feted by intellectual journals in the U.S., but chances are this novel won't receive the kind of attention it did in France, where it was a bestseller, despite heightened interest in human rights and the Arabic-speaking world. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Booklist Review
Bookish Salim joins the Moroccan army without enthusiasm and is shocked first to find himself in the midst of an unsuccessful coup against King Hassan II in 1971, then to be imprisoned in what is essentially a tomb. He can't stand upright in his tiny, bitter cold, and utterly lightless cell, and can only communicate through the walls to his fellow sufferers. Years of suffocating darkness and near-starvation grind slowly by as innocent men die in unspeakable anguish. Salim surrenders his cramped, famished body to its fate, and concentrates all his energy on preserving his mind, praying and meditating with such intensity that his lucidity and discipline, along with the stories he tells, infuse his comrades with their only hope. Tragically, renowned novelist and essayist Ben Jelloun based this wrenching yet exquisite tribute to the "supreme light" of the human spirit in the face of "infinite cruelty" on actual events, hoping that by telling this painful tale with respect and empathy, by finding a transcendent beauty in suffering with dignity, resistance, and spirituality, he might combat ignorance and brutality. --Donna Seaman