2084 is a story of Ati, a young man living in Abistan, a country named after its eternal prophet, Abi, who is the representative of the almighty Yölah on Earth. Boualem Sansal writes this political satire as a tribute to George Orwell’s classic 1984. Set within the boundaries of a totalitarian and brutal regime, the novel follows Ati as he first learns to doubt and then to challenge the totalitarian system with the very idea of freedom. Along with his friend, Koa, Ati dares to venture into the forbidden territories of the kingdom and resists the all-pervasive authority. Will Ati and Koa survive or submit? Will Ati’s ideas stand the test of authority or will the State erase the evidence of his existence altogether?
The tale is told in four ‘books’, and an intriguing epilogue, each of which begins with a summary to brace the reader for its sinister content. The first is about Ati’s return to Qodsabad, the capital of Abistan, after spending two years in a sanatorium. On his way, he meets Nas, a powerful investigator from the Ministry of Archives, Sacred Books and Holy Memories, who shares a secret that could destabilise the establishment at its heart. The following books trace Ati’s ailing mind and his quest to resist the oppressive police state while the epilogue reveals what becomes of Ati and Abistan. The imagery used by Sansal is contemporary and the events unfold like a daily newsreel. The plot is rarely slow and the chapters remain unpredictable. It is impossible to judge between friend and foe. Sansal’s style is distinct in that he writes little about his characters directly. Everything is revealed through stories told by others. Everything is constructed.
The book is an obvious tribute to 1984—Big Brother is Bigaye. AngSoc is Abigov. Newspeak is Abilang. Inner circle of the party is the Just Brotherhood—The references will not be missed by an Orwell reader. In addition, like in 1984, language is key. The true location of Abistan is never revealed and the world they invent inside it is amnesiac. As one of the characters describes it, Abistan is ‘so absurd that they have to be more and more absurd with every passing day just to find a place where they left off the day before’. However, unlike in 1984 where ordinary people are convinced about committing reprehensible acts, Sansal’s satire is less layered and plays into an obvious debate between what is humane and immoral. In addition, Julia, the formidable female lead in Orwell’s totalitarian world, has no equivalent in 2084. Barring the nameless women of the ‘ghettos’, the few female characters who appear in the novel do so as mothers, wives and sisters with no consequential roles. Women remain the subalterns in Sansal’s story of awakening and rebellion.
I read 2084 while on a mountaineering trip and Sansal’s descriptions of Ati’s journey through the Ouâ range felt only more real in such a setting. The book’s original version appears in French, as ‘2084: La fin du monde’, but foreign language novels rarely seem to be stocked in St Andrews and I gave in to the English version I spotted at Topping’s. While 2084 made for a good read, it was obvious that a lot was lost in translation. The book made waves in France in 2015 after the Algerian author was awarded the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and has since been featured in several other longlists. French language being at the core of the existence of l’Académie française, the Grand Prix du roman makes evident the importance of the original writing to the story.
The novel, however, propounds many ideas that transcend the barriers of translation. One such idea is about museums. Ati’s confidant, Toz, and perhaps through him Sansal, philosophises that ‘a museum is a paradox, a trickery, an illusion that is every bit as pernicious’. He believes that by reconstituting a vanished world, ‘we idealise it and destroy it for the second time because we remove it from its context to set it down into another, and thus we freeze it in immobility and silence, or we make it say and do something it may not have said or done.’
There are many ways in which this book could be received by a global audience in the postcolonial era. It is arguable that in presenting a national award to a book about religious totalitarianism, France is engaging in intellectual co-optation. At the start of the book, Sansal writes, ‘La religion fait peut-être aimer Dieu mais rien n’est plus fort qu’elle pour faire détester l’homme et haïr l’humanité’. Sansal is a writer who is evidently disillusioned with religion and his book is about that disillusionment. The book’s protagonist, Ati, makes a disturbing discovery that religion can be built on the opposite of truth and so become the ‘fierce warders of the original falsehood’. Sansal explains that Ati’s spirit was ‘rejecting was not so much religion itself as the crushing of mankind by religion’. Boualem Sansal’s earlier writings are said to have been systematically censored for his criticism of the Algerian government. That France bestowed upon Sansal its most prestigious literary prize fits, and even perpetuates too easily for comfort, the intellectual Left’s narrative about religion. Nonetheless, Sansal, like Orwell, deserves credit for telling a story of protest where much of the context can be imagined by the readers themselves. Although written in French and inspired by a British classic, Boualem Sansal’s work is very much a part of contemporary Algerian literature and has universal appeal. One does not need to have read George Orwell’s 1984 to grasp Sansal’s story but will, most likely, want to read or re-read the classic soon afterwards.