Boualem Sansal: 2084 la fin du monde (2084: The End Of The World)
In case the reader had not noticed that 2084 is exactly one hundred years after 1984, Sansal tells us in the foreword. Specifically, he tells us, tongue in cheek, that, as with 1984, the world featured in this book did not exist in its time, does not exist in ours and has really no reason to exist in the future. (Note that all quotations from the book are my translation from the French and not necessarily what appears in the official English translation.). References to 1984 and Big Brother will continue to appear throughout this book.
The book is set at some unspecified tine in the future. It is probably not set in 2084. Indeed, the characters in the book are not aware of the significance of the 2084, they only know that it is significant, possibly as the the date of birth of Abi but maybe for some other reason.
The novel is set in the country of Abistan, a fictitious country clearly based in part on Algeria but in part on Saudi Arabia and, perhaps, other Muslim countries. The people worship Yöjah but his representative on earth is Abi, who seems to be a cross between Mohammed and one of the earliest Algerian presidents, such as Ben Bella or Boumedienne. He is known as the Delegate and the country is named after him. As far as the inhabitants are concerned, Abistan occupies the entire world. Apparently, in the first Holy War, they defeated Northern Europe. We know they conquered France, as the Louvre is mentioned and, presumably, the UK (known as Angsoc), as their sacred language is based on Angsoc, specifically the language of Big Brother. One of the many words they do not know is frontier (others include democracy and freedom).
There seem to have been several wars. No-one knows what the nature of the wars was but there was an enemy. Suddenly the wars seemed to stop. Why? Who were the enemy? Had they been defeated? No-one knows.
The country is essentially ruled by a religious body, like current-day Iran only much more so. Religious orthodoxy is strictly enforced and any slight transgression is viciously punished, often with death. While they do not have bread (they do not know it at all), they do have circuses, which are mass executions. There is a morality police, as in Saudi Arabia, which everyone is interviewed by on a regular basis. Any slight failing can result in demotion, savage pay cut or worse.
There is little technology. Electricity is reserved for the super-rich and powerful. There seems to be no other form of modern-day technology available.
The country is divided into sixty regions and everybody stays in his or her own region. Travel is strictly forbidden, except for three reasons. The first is for pilgrimages which are strictly limited but allowed. The other two are for strictly limited commercial and administrative reasons. There is a fourth reason we discover, which we will come to.
There are spies everywhere and people are encouraged to report any transgression by others. Indeed, if they are aware of a transgression and they do not report it, they too can be in serious trouble. The spies not only check religious transgressions but anyone being seen in a district that is not their own. Most people are unaware of even the existence of other districts.
Qodsabad is the capital and largest city. In some respects, in that it has a magnificent monument called the Kiïba, the site of many pilgrimages, presumably somewhat similar to the Kaaba, it is Mecca, while in others it is simply a large capital city.
There is a plot. Our hero is Ati who lives in Qodsabad. There are a lot of beggars in Qodsabad and many of them have contracted tuberculosis. Many have died. The authorities have had them removed but, to deal with the tuberculosis crisis, they have set up sanatoria in the mountains. Ati was found in a bad way with tuberculosis (he seems to have no family) and is sent to one of these sanatoria. The journey there took a whole year. Travel is by caravan and is slow because of the distance but also because of the bureaucratic procedures to be followed.
He spends two years there. However, while there he learns various things. Apparently a caravan and a group of soldiers guarding it was massacred near the frontier. Their corpses and the few survivors are brought to the sanatorium. The survivors “disappear” but rumours spread around. Who killed them and why? What is the frontier, near which they were killed? What happened to the survivors?
This starts Ati thinking – he has nothing else to do – and he starts to question (in his mind) what he has always been told. This is further reinforced when, on his return to Qodsabad, he meets Nas, an archaeologist. It seems an ancient village had been found, completely intact but with no sign, living or dead, of its former inhabitants. How had it survived so long without being discovered and without being affected by the Holy War? And what had happened to the inhabitants? It puts into question the standard (non-)history of Abistan and raises further questions in Ati’s mind.
Ati returns home, is given a decent flat and a decent job in the Mayor’s office. There he gets to know Koa. The two become friends but, together, start to question the system. They learn that there is a sort of ghetto outside the city, to which access is strictly forbidden. They manage to find a way to get there. While it is physically a disaster, all houses damaged and clear signs of poverty, they are surprised to find blasphemous graffiti everywhere and the people speaking a dialect and seemingly not following the religious edicts. They are fascinated and vow to return another time.
They continue to discuss the matter and decide the solution is go and visit Nas and learn more from him. However, the administrative centre, where he must live, is the other side of Qodsabad and it is forbidden to pass through. The second half of the book describes their adventures where, inevitably, they find things they had never dreamed of and get a much better picture of what their country is and how it is ruled.
As always, Sansal tells an excellent story. It is certainly not a pastiche of 1984 but very much an original work. It is based on the opening statement: La religion fait peut-être aimer Dieu mais rien n’est plus fort qu’elle pour faire détester l’homme et haïr l’humanité [Religion may be able to make you love God but nothing is stronger than religion to make you hate man and humanity]. Sansal, as in his other books, damns religion, particularly, of course, Islam, and its control, its cruelty, its hypocrisy, its lies and its restriction of freedom. He does not hold back in his criticisms. He has little to say in favour of religion and religious (and political) authorities. If you are looking for 1984 rewritten, this is not the right book for you, but if you are looking for an excellent story which exposes the repression by fundamentalist Muslims, then this is a first-class novel.
First published in French by Gallimard in 2015
First English translation by Europa Editions in 2017