Boualem Sansal, 2084: The End of the World
Translated by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
2015, 252 pgs, paperback, $17
PERHAPS YOU’VE HEARD: since the election of Donald Trump, sales of Orwell’s 1984 have skyrocketed. The American literary community has long had a reputation for being insular and neglectful of translated works, so while it’s endearing that many Americans are turning to literature to make sense of these dark times, it’s also disconcerting to see Boualem Sansal’s 2084: The End of the World on the fringes of, if not entirely absent from, the conversation.
The novel won the 2016 French Academy Grand Prix, one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes. Sansal’s work has been repeatedly censored in his native Algeria, so who better to write a dystopian novel that satirizes fascism and religious fundamentalism than a writer whose thoughts are considered dangerous by the government of his home country?
The book is both a tribute to and re-imagination of Orwell’s classic. It follows a character named Ati as he navigates the ghettos and slums of Abistan to learn about the true origins of the kingdom and the holy book, the Gkabul. Ati’s mission is perilous. In Abistan, Yolah is God, and Abi is his delegate. Religion is state-sanctioned, thought crimes abound, citizens are under constant surveillance and charged with keeping tabs on one another, and religious and social deviants are put to death in crowded stadiums.
Much of the book is concerned with exploring the various bureaucracies and social customs of Abistan. Despite the density and complexity of the world-building in which Sansal is engaged, the opening of the novel grounds the reader in Ati’s sensory experience. He’s in a sanatorium, recovering from tuberculosis—probably the air is still contaminated from fallout or general environmental destruction—and there’s a sense of malaise and weariness, like the characters have so deeply internalized the state’s oppressive tendencies, that the most fruitful parts of their consciousness have been all but scraped out:
Ati was losing sleep. The anxiety came over him earlier and earlier, as soon as the lights were out and even before then, when twilight unfurled its pallid veil, and the patients, tired from their long day of wandering from room to corridor and corridor to terrace, began to return to their beds, dragging their feet, calling to one another with doleful wishes of happiness for the passage of the night.
It’s a somber but beautiful opening that functions as a kind of promise. For the following 100+ pages, even as the prose slides away from Ati’s individual experience in favor of exploring the intricacies and customs of the government of Abistan and the society as a whole, the reader knows that this is Ati’s story.
The book is dense and abstract and might be a hard sell in the United States, where literary edicts such as “show don’t tell” are uttered with a kind of religious zeal. For the most part, Sansal does a good job of satisfying the reader’s thirst for character autonomy while simultaneously establishing a collective consciousness that disapproves of the very notion of individual liberty. Readers looking for the kind of cinematic, play-by-play prose that characterizes much of contemporary fiction may be disappointed. Sansal’s artistic concerns are clearly elsewhere, and that probably is as it should be: the joy of this book lies in the expansiveness of the writer’s imagination, in the way he builds a believable and haunting world that in many ways looks a lot like our own.
Boualem Sansal’s first novel to appear in English, The German Mujahid (Europa, 2009), won the RTL Reader’s Prize for Fiction in France and was the first work of fiction by an Arab writer to acknowledge the Holocaust in print. Sansal was born in a small village in the Ouarsenis, Algeria. His fiction and essays have been systematically censored in his native country due to their criticism of the government. He has been awarded the prestigious Prix du Roman Arabe in 2012 and the German Peace Prize in 2011. 2084: The End of the World, his seventh novel, won the French Academy’s Gran Prix for Fiction.
Alison Anderson spent many years in California; she now lives in a Swiss village and works as a literary translator. Her translations include Europa Editions’ The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and works by Nobel laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio. She has also written two previous novels and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Translation Fellowship. She has lived in Greece and Croatia, and speaks several European languages, including Russian.