2084: The End of the World
by boualem sansal
translated by alison anderson
europa editions, 240 pages, $17
Sleep soundly, good people, everything is sheer falsehood, and the rest is under control.” So begins Boualem Sansal’s new novel, 2084. The author, an Algerian secularist, has rewritten George Orwell’s 1984 imagining the oppressive power to be political Islam. The result confirms everything you think you know about religion, politics, and literature—provided you’re a member of the French Academy (which awarded Sansal its Grand Prix) or an average American teenager.
The story is set in the late twenty-first century, in a country called Abistan. This “land of believers” has been founded on the conviction that a God named “Yölah is great,” that a prophet named “Abi is his faithful delegate,” and that submission is the sole disposition and response of every member of the faith. Through a series of convoluted descriptions of this world’s cultural-political features—punctuated by such observations as “true religion can be nothing other than well-regulated sanctimoniousness, set up as a monopoly and maintained by omnipresent terror”—we learn that Abistan cows and controls its people by making them fear God and state. There is no free passage in Abistan. Citizens are only allowed to move about the country on state-directed pilgrimage, to witness the show trials and industrial-scale public executions that take place each day, to fight the vaguely outlined enemy and become glorious martyrs, or to be sent to and from sanatoriums.
The novel’s hero, Ati, has himself been living in a sanatorium for some time when the story begins. He knows neither why he was sent away in the first place nor why he’s being released now, only that his fate is determined by “the Just Brotherhood.” Ati has always accepted that all-powerful unseen others make decisions about his life, but (as will happen in this kind of novel) something has changed in him. “His heart was beating so fast it hurt. A strange sensation: the more fear overwhelmed him and twisted his guts, the stronger he felt. He felt so courageous. . . . Before dying, Ati wanted to live his life, the life he sensed emerging from darkness, even if for only a split second.”
Set aside the melodramatic delivery. Even if you’re not a French cultural bureaucrat or American adolescent, you can identify with Ati’s longing for liberty. The challenge, for Ati as much as the reader, is to locate liberty’s true and abiding source.
Ati’s awakening coincides with news that Abistani authorities have uncovered an ancient village that will soon become a site of pilgrimage. Nothing from the past is allowed to exist unless it affirms the exclusive glorification of Yölah and his delegate, Abi. Rumors emerge, however, that the village might tell another story about the past, one that undermines the purist origin story of Abistan.
Ati sets out for the capital city, intent upon finding the archaeologist who discovered the ancient village so that he might learn about a fuller past than the authorities depict. He never finds the archaeologist, but he does end up in a government-run museum that offers a totalitarian Islam’s funhouse mirror of human history: It collapses millennia of pluralist history into a singular trajectory toward the One True Faith (and its state).
Sansal’s critique of the puritanical, singular, and theocratic tendencies of Islam and, in particular, of the accompanying denial of pluralism, all dating to its very origins, immediately recalls Salman Rushdie’s more ambitious and far more artful critique of the same in The Satanic Verses. That said, Sansal certainly does a fine job of attacking present-day, politically regnant Islam—evident in places like Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran—for the brutalizing effects of its defining insecurities.
As absurd and awful as the imagined theocratic state is in this novel, it’s hard to care much about its would-be dissident and representative victim, Ati. Sansal is so focused on attacking the totalitarian Islam he has evoked that he effectively advances a counter-ideology of radical individualism and nonbelief. He treats too much of the novel’s general narration and, worse still, Ati’s interior life as platforms for crude antireligious editorializing, even while capably plotting his protagonist’s movements. In sum, 2084 is a novel that proposes life as a struggle between lonely freethinkers and rigid systems of belief and control.
Late in the novel, when representatives from the Ministry of Morality and Divine Justice are closing in on Ati, Sansal arranges matters so we have no choice but to admire him for being, as he declares, “a poor devil who has one hell of a time just trying to live in this too perfect world. . . . Why should I be worthy of the State or whoever it is devoting so much time and effort into watching me?” Orwell’s Winston Smith was never so didactic.
On the back cover of the book, Michel Houellebecq declares, “Sansal dared to go much further than I did.” Sansal has indeed gone further than Houellebecq, but only politically and ideologically. It’s too bad that he didn’t go even a little further aesthetically and intellectually as well.
Randy Boyagoda is principal and vice-president of the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.