Originally created 06/18/04

Moroccan novelist Ben Jelloun wins $120,000 prize



DUBLIN, Ireland -- Moroccan-born novelist and poet Tahar Ben Jelloun won the world's most lucrative literary prize Thursday after international judges picked his novel about the horrors of desert camps as the best work of English fiction for 2002.

Ben Jelloun, 59, will receive the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award along with a Waterford Crystal trophy at a dinner later this month in Dublin City Hall. He will get three-fourths of the $120,000 prize, while the other quarter will go to Linda Coverdale, who translated the book into English.

Five international judges selected "This Blinding Absence of Light," a scathing portrait of political dissidents imprisoned in a Moroccan camp, as the best among more than 300 novels nominated by libraries from 43 countries.

Originally published in French under the title "Cette Aveuglante Absence de Lumiere," the novel was a best seller in France in 2001.

The novel, nominated by a library in Oslo, Norway, describes atrocities at desert camps run by Morocco's King Hassan II until their closure under international pressure in 1991. Ben Jelloun, a trained psychotherapist, based his story on extensive interviews with one survivor of the camps, where inmates were confined to tiny underground cells for years, causing many deaths and deformities.

The IMPAC organizers described the book as "a shocking novel that explores both the limitlessness of inhumanity and the impossible endurance of the human will."

Ben Jelloun prevailed in a 10-book shortlist that included "The Book of Illusions" by Paul Auster, "Any Human Heart" by William Boyd, "Caramelo" by Sandra Cisneros, "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides, "The White Family" by Maggie Gee, "Balthasar's Odyssey" by Amin Maalouf, "Family Matters" by Rohinton Mistry, "Earth and Ashes" by Atiq Rahimi and "House of Day, House of Night" by Olga Tokarczuk.

The prize, launched in 1996, is run by Dublin's public libraries and largely financed by a Connecticut-based management consultant firm, Improved Management Productivity and Control. IMPAC has its European headquarters in Dublin.

Ben Jelloun, who lives in Paris, was born in the northern Moroccan city of Fez in 1944 and emigrated to France in 1971. He earned a doctorate in psychiatry from the University of Paris, then developed a prolific and diverse career as a writer, producing more than a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction in French.

He won France's top literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 1987, for his novel, "The Sacred Night." He has published several volumes of poetry and four plays and is a regular contributor to French newspapers.

On the Net:

IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, www.impacdublinaward.ie

Book sales site, http://www.thenewpress.com/books/blinding.htm

Author's site, http://www.taharbenjelloun.org/

Ben Jelloun biography, http://www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/Jelloun.html