Translated by Guillemette Johnston and Allan Johnston
Near Nothings (Presque riens)
(pbk., 234 pages)
Winner in 2021 of the prestigious Roger Kowalski poetry prize of the city of Lyons, Abdellatif Laâbi’s collection Near Nothings (Presque riens) explores the implications of aging and mortality while reflecting on the state of the world and his early rebelliousness, including his years of imprisonment in Morocco. Laâbi asserts that he was saved by poetry, and suggests that poetry helps us to see the world., bringing consolation and awareness in the face of the approaching end.
Laâbi is Morocco’s best-known living poet and one of its most influential essayists and translators. Freed, now, after a term in political prison and living in Paris, at the age of 80 he is reflective, gently ironic, and flashing his provocative wit and his unflinching eye when today’s news merits comparison to the “years of lead,” which is unfortunately too often. Although he can now be counted as winner of the Prix Goncourt and the Grand Prix de La Francophonie, a poet who shares the stage with the best-selling novelists, this recognition has been an uncertain journey, interrupted by his imprisonment for a decade for his work on the journal Souffles. Laâbi’s fame, and his troubles, grew from the 1960s when he founded the infamous journal, published simultaneously in Arabic as Anfas. Laâbi was arrested for sedition in 1972, and there are numerous allusions to his imprisonment and torture in his work.
It has now been forty-two years since Laâbi’s release from prison, but the passions of that memory and the disappointments of Arab Spring still shine a light both human and harsh on authoritarianism, and on the life that flowers again after the cruelest repression.