23 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde (2015)

In the Francophone world Boualem Sansal has for some time now been well known for his masterly use of language, for his harsh criticisms of Algeria since independence in 1962, and for his courage in speaking out against Islamist extremism. He is a major writer in French, although he is little known in the English-speaking world. I rather think things will change when his 2084 – a kind of update of George Orwell's 1984 – comes out in English translation, assuming (ahem) that it's a good translation.

This is Sansal's seventh novel, and certainly his best. But it's as if all his other novels have been leading up to this: he's covered the past and the present, so here's the future. What he can write after this is beyond me, but then of course that's of no importance here.

2084 : La fin du monde begins with an avertissement, a warning: the reader must ward against thinking that there's any truth here, everything's invented, the characters, the events, everything, and the proof of this is that the story is set in the distant future which in no respects bears any resemblance to our own. It's a work of pure invention, the warning continues, and the world of Bigaye described doesn't exist and there's no reason why it should exist in the future, just as the Big Brother imagined by Orwell in 1984 didn't exist at any time and has no reason to exist in the future. We are told (with an obvious wink) that we should sleep well in the knowledge that all this is fiction and that everything is under control. Yes, of course.

There are some evident similarities between 1984 and 2084: both are dystopias describing totalitarian worlds, both have a shadowy all-powerful leader who subjugates the people, both are in an apparently unending state of war, both have thought police, both are brutal, both have contradictory mottoes, both have a central character who is discovering the nature of and the flaws in the system, both have an underclass which is in certain respects free from the general tyranny, both have a language that seeks to reduce communication to a minimum and indeed destroy independent thought, etc. But there are major differences.

The huge empire described in 2084 is a dictatorship, although not a criticism of  a political system as Orwell's novel intended, but of religious extremism: it is a theocracy, a world ruled by a perceived god. The empire is Abistan, named after the ruler Abi, who is the 'Delegate' of the god Yӧlah – yes, there's a huge temptation to draw analogies, but this is complete fiction remember. What is described is a post-apocalyptic world, that after the wars, in which there is largely emptiness outside the capital, Qodsabad. And despite the title, this is not 2084: 2084 is the date the world began, perhaps when Abi was born, but no one seems certain and anyway the real function of the state is amnesia and submission. (Does that last word suggest Houellebecq? Oh, this is way beyond Houellebecq.)

Abilang (which conjures up Orwell's Newspeak or novlang in French) is the language used here, and the novel is peppered with its neologisms: mockba for mosque, mockbi for imam, Gkabul or livre d'Abi for Qu'ran, the men wear burnis and the women burniqabs, and so on.

Amnesia rules: 'History has been rewritten and sealed by the hand of Abi. [...] For the New Era generations, dates, the calendar, History had no importance, no more than a gust of wind in the sky, the present is eternal, today is always here'. Ati is the Winston Smith character at the beginning just released from a distant sanatorium (suggestions of Mann's Magic Mountain in reverse), and he discovers the truth behind the regime, seeks with his friend Koa and finds that there is certainly life elsewhere, that there are frontiers that can be crossed, that all is not as the lies of Abi would have everyone believe. But what can he do against the religious steamroller?

The System is all-powerful. To Orwell's 'War is peace', 'Freedom is slavery', 'Ignorance is strength' have been added Abistan's own insane vintage: 'Death is life', 'Lies are truth', and 'Logic is absurd'. Abistan's police bomb and murder wholesale, the inhabitants are subject to regular religious health checks and killed if they don't conform to the norm, neighbours must constantly spy on each other, and women are secondary citizens for men to whip.


My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

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