on 2084: The End of the World, a novel by Boualem Sansal, tr. by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions)
In the wake of the Great Holy War of 2084, hundreds of millions of martyrs lay dead and vast regions are devastated, probably caused by atomic weapons. Now there is only Abistan whose residents worship the omniscient deity Yölah and his earthly messenger Abi who rules absolutely through his many ministries in the capital city of Qodsabad. How long ago did the great victory occur? It has been rumored that Abistan may have frontier boundaries. Meanwhile, as the unnamed narrator of Boualem Sansal’s 2084: The End of the World says, “Everything was perfectly regulated and carefully filtered; nothing could happen without the express volition of the Apparatus.”
As the narrative opens, a man named Ati prepares to leaves a sanatorium where he has recovered from tuberculosis. Dim forbidden questions agitate him. While traveling for a year by donkey caravan to Qodsabad, he meets Nas, a government official responsible for archaeology, who tells him about recently discovered remains of a city that may cast doubt on the sanctioned historical accounts of Abistan. After reaching Qodsabad and given a job as a filer of documents, Ati finds a friend and fellow doubter in Koa. The two of them set out to find Nas in the walled inner city.
There is nothing subtle about Sansal’s critique of Islamic authoritarianism, beginning with his novel’s Orwellian title. But if Orwell’s vision peered into the future and the possibility of hemispheric mind-control, Sansal takes aim at the grip of religious orthodoxies on the throat of humanity. The most richly imaginative passages in 2084 are those describing the practices and mechanisms of quasi-theological ideology. For instance, as Ati and Koa approach the city, they are stopped in the street by roving groups of “Volunteers” who interrogate them to determine the authenticity and depth of their beliefs. Public mass executions at the stadium are routine. Worshippers are called to prayer nine times daily. Ghettos populated with poverty-stricken infidels are permitted in order to supply a visible and brutally managed enemy for the righteous to despise. Abilang, the official language, is rigidly applied. A universal clothing code, including women’s burni “reinforced by a system of binding straps that compressed the fleshly, protuberant parts of the body,” identifies people according to rank and class.
Sansal disparages political extremists through an allegiance to intellectual freedom and literature. “To differentiate between Arab governments and Islamism is to not know the Arab governments,” he said in a 2012 interview, the same year he enraged many throughout the Arab world by traveling to and enjoying himself in Israel. “To me, what is disturbing,” Sansal continued, “is the number of Arab intellectuals who live in Europe and do not say anything against the Islamists.” In 2008, Gallimard published his novel Le village de l'Allemand ou le journal des frères Schiller (The German Mujahid in the US, 2009) in which two Algerian brothers discover that their father had served as a Nazi officer and escaped to Algiers after the war. In Sansal’s view, the Fascist of the 1940’s morphs into the Islamist of the 1990’s. It was the 1992 assassination of Algeria’s President Boudiaf, followed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism there, that triggered his desire to write in the first place. He has said elsewhere that Muslims have "imprisoned themselves in Islamic states."
Ati’s desire is to test the limits of the Abistan empire by trekking to the frontier, if indeed it does exist. In light of the regime’s harsh strictures and omnipresence, his aspiration seems doomed to failure. But luck in the form of a clunky plot device is on his side. This isn’t a novel of character development or closely observed behavior and action. Unlike 1984, it has no Winston Smith to register perception and emotion. But the narrator occasionally addresses the reader with an aside like this:
The mind is basically nothing more than a mechanism, a blind, cold machine by virtue of its extraordinary complexity, which mandates that it must apprehend everything. Control everything, and increase interference and terror without pause. Between life and the machine there is all the mystery of freedom, which man cannot attain without dying, and which the machine transcends without acceding to consciousness. Ati was not free and never would be, but armed solely with his doubts and fears he felt truer than Abi, greater than the Just Brotherhood, and its tentacular Apparatus, and more alive than the inert, swelling mass of believers.
2084 was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman for 2016, just as France began gearing up for the next national election. Unlike Michel Houllebecq’s novel Submission in which an Islamic dominated government is installed in France, Sansal’s novel includes no implied critique of French culture itself. It simply skewers the Caliphate-like aspects of Abistan. In short, he has freed the French (and now others) to despise Abistan's prohibitions and punishments – and to savor the novel’s suggestion that Muslims all too avidly allow their submissive religious fervor to suffocate every aspect of personal existence. “I have been compared to Proust,” Sansal reminded his interviewer but he didn’t say by whom. “Sometimes one is very concise, but there are moments when profusion is more to the point.” The comparison with Proust is lost on me, though Sansal is certainly profuse in his ironies and satiric gestures. For many in France, he can't be profuse enough. Sansal has gauged the prejudices and fears of his audience and has won his prize.
[Published January 31, 2017. 252 pages, $17.00 paperback]