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February 2005

Winning Words

Three prize-winning books


Written by Tahar Ben Jelloun and translated by Linda Coverdale The New Press, 2002 Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
This novel was an immediate and acclaimed bestseller in France and last year went on to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The award, open to books written in any language, is worth € 100,000, making it the most generously endow-ed prize of its kind.
This Blinding Absence of Light is a horrific real-life narrative woven into fiction. It tells the story of the desert concentration camps in which King Hassan II of Morocco held his political enemies under the most harrowing conditions. Jelloun, a courageous and clever writer, worked closely with one of the few survivors to create this powerful novel.
The main theme explored is the endurance of human will. The book documents the lives of the prisoners in their dark, six-by-three-feet cells. These men not only managed to withstand cold, heat, scorpions and disease, but they also learned to live with no light. They each did what they could to survive, but one by one they succumbed to death. When the survivors were finally released, having shrunk by over a foot in height, there were only four of twenty-two men left. The most moving scene in the novel is when, in an uncharacteristically weak moment, the main character has an argument with a fellow prisoner, Lhoucine, and hurls insults at him. After days of silence, he begs the guards to let him go into Lhoucine’s cell, only to find that his friend has given up and dies in his arms.
As it is a fairly short novel, it is easy to forget the timescale Jelloun covers. It is only towards the end of the book that the reader is reminded that the prisoners have been locked up for 18 years. It is unbelievable to think that it was as late as 1991 before the men were released, owing to international pressure.
Although in a plot summary This Blinding Absence of Light sounds like a depressing read, it is not. Of course it is deeply moving, but there are humorous and uplifting parts. When he is released, the main character muses that his is “a body in such wretched shape I could not even have donated it to science.” Jelloun has managed to write beautiful prose in a simple and unsentimental way. He does not add anything for dramatic effect. This novel is an absolutely remarkable achievement.


By Armand Marie Leroi Harper Collins, 2004 Winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2004
The British newspaper The Guardian established its first book award in 1999 to reward the best new literary talent with a £10,000 prize. It is unique among book awards as debut works of fiction are judged alongside non-fiction. Mutants is the first science book to have won the prize.
“Deformity is not arbitrary, a caprice of nature, a cosmic joke, but rather the consequence of natural forces that [can] be understood,” writes Armand Marie Leroi. This thought-provoking study is a beautifully written mixture of science and historical anecdote. It is not just about the science of abnormality, but also about everything that could possibly be affected by that science. Leroi writes with warmth and confidence, and his inquisitive style is infectious. Although the subject matter is somewhat unsettling, it is also fascinating, particularly the vivid case studies of genetic misfortune. That said, the book is much more than just a freak show.


By Edward P. Jones Harper Perennial, 2004 Winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2004

The Known World is Jones’ first novel. He has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award for his story collections. This novel is about Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Townsend is not only a free black man, but also one who owns land and slaves. Despite the fact that he owns these men, women and children’s lives, his aim is to treat them compassionately. When he dies, his young widow, Caldonia, is unable to prevent chaos from breaking out on the estate.
The Known World is a daring and ambitious novel. It confronts a phenomenon that many people will find unthinkable—in the years before the Civil War, many free black people owned slaves. This little-known aspect of slavery subverts our historical and literary preconceptions, and adds an element of moral complexity.
Like Tahar Ben Jelloun in This Blinding Absence of Light, Jones writes in an unsentimental style, despite his book’s powerful themes. At times his non-linear narrative is hard to follow and the flashbacks are disorienting—the story suffers somewhat from having too many characters. While The Known World is undoubtedly a good first novel, it is questionable whether it is deserving of its Pulitzer Prize status. <<<

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