This is a book about a soldier who found himself involved in an abortive attempt to assassinate the King of Morocco, and as a result was incarcerated in a space without light, without room to stand up, with a meagre diet, watching his companions die one by one, for almost twenty years.
The soldier is the narrator. As much as the book is about his suffering, it is more about the techniques he developed for survival. Shutting himself from his past, and any notion of hope, he finds himself using mysticism to aid him in his struggle. This takes the form of out of body experiences, allowing him the ability to occasionally spy his corporeal self as it battles against the cruelties faced. However, whilst the body suffers, the mind retains its freedom, in large part through the narrator's refusal to fall into the trap of despair which the authorities have concocted.
As such, it's one of those books which document an experience beyond the true grasp of our understanding. An experience which can only be accessed through grave misfortune, or a sense of religious or spiritual vocation the like of which cannot exist within a day-to-day context, and is therefore never to be met. This is not to say that the book is any sense other-wordly: the ability of the narrator to find his spirituality within the context of death, disease and co-existence with his fellow inmates means that he remains an engaging voice.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Ben Jelloun's book is that it is not a work of non-fiction, but a novel. The author's capacity to enter into the voice of the actual prisoner is uncanny. This is a novel on the very borders of fact; the articulation of a voice from the underworld, which has miraculously surfaced and found its way back into the world.