Monday, 4 May 2020

The Punishment by Tahar Ben Jelloun

The Punishment by Tahar Ben Jelloun
First published in French as La Punition by Editions Gallimard in 2018. English language translation by Linda Coverdale published by Yale University Press on the 14th April 2020.

One of my 2020 More Than One Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An innocent man’s gripping personal account of terrifying confinement by the Moroccan military during the reign of a formidable twentieth-century despot

In 1967 Tahar Ben Jelloun, a peaceful young political protestor, was one of nearly a hundred other hapless men taken into punitive custody by the Moroccan army. It was a time of dangerous importance in Moroccan history, and they were treated with a chilling brutality that not all of them survived. This powerful portrait of the author’s traumatic experience, written with a memoirist’s immediacy, reveals both his helpless terror and his desperate hope to survive by drawing strength from his love of literature. Shaken to the core by his disillusionment with a brutal regime, unsure of surviving his ordeal, he stole some paper and began to secretly write, with the admittedly romantic idea of leaving some testament behind, a veiled denunciation of the evils of his time. His first poem was published after he was unexpectedly released, and his vocation was born.

I didn't know anything about Tahar Ben Jelloun's life prior to starting reading The Punishment because I had previously only read one of his fiction works, Leaving Tangier. By contrast, The Punishment is an intensely personal account of the mistreatment he suffered aged twenty as a result of his peaceful political protests having been deemed illegal by the Moroccan leadership of the time. As it turned out, surviving this harrowing experience - not all the detainees did - was to prove a significant impetus in launching Ben Jelloun's literary career, but he obviously could not have known that at the time. I was amazed to discover how long had elapsed between Ben Jelloun's military imprisonment and the writing of this memoir about those horrific months. It took him some fifty years before he was able to write this testimony.

As a reader myself, I could empathise with Ben Jelloun's emotional dependence on literature in order to cope with prison life and its daily humiliations and abuse. His philosophy studies at university had been abruptly curtailed, but remembering quotes from great thinkers and writers was vital to his mental health as was a copy of James Joyce's brick, Ulysses, sent into the prison by his brother.

Fear of educated people, teachers and thinkers resulting in violent repressing any form of dissent is a depressingly common practice of dictatorial rulers across the globe and throughout history. In that sense, The Punishment is one of many testimonies to the inhumanity of men, especially those given any glimpse of power over others. What stood out to me here though is Tahar Ben Jelloun's quiet self control and determination. He can see the absurd nature of his life at that time and has no knowledge of when, or even if, he will escape, yet he doesn't rage or outwardly express his despair. The Punishment is a dark, disturbing read, but Ben Jelloun's dignity makes it bearable in a way that his original incarceration scarcely could have been.

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  1. Oh wow, this sounds like a powerful book. It always horrifies me when I hear about some of the terrible experiences people who were peacefully protesting have, and it sounds like he has had one of those. I am glad it got him writing but I wish he didn't have to experience it at all :(

    1. I didn't know anything about life in 1960s Morocco. It sounds like such a repressive time and I was amazed at Ben Jelloun's determined survival