2015 Winner of the Le Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie française
A tribute to George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 and a cry of protest against totalitarianism of all kinds, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 tells the story of a near future in which religious extremists have established a caliphate that forbids autonomous thought. In the year 2084, in the kingdom of Abistannamed after the prophet Abi, earthly messenger of the god Yölahcitizens submit to a single god, demonstrating their devotion by kneeling in prayer nine times a day. Remembering the past is forbidden, and an omnipresent surveillance system instantly informs the authorities of every deviant act, thought, or idea.
The kingdom is blessed and its citizens are happy, filled with purpose and piety. Those who are notthe hereticsare put to death by stoning or beheading in city squares. But Ati has met people who think differently: In ghettos and caves, hidden from the authorities, exist the last living heretics and free-thinkers of Abistan. Under their influence, Ati begins to doubt. He begins to think. Now, he will have to defend his thoughts with his life.
2084 is “a rare, powerful book, at the intersection of fable and lampoon, of satire and science fiction,” a cry of freedom, a gripping novel of ideas, and an indictment of the kind of closed-minded fundamentalism that threatens our democracies and the ideals on which they are founded (Lire).
“Alison Anderson’s deft and intelligent translation [conveys] Sansal’s abhorrence of a system that controls people’s minds, while explaining that the religion was not originally evil but has been corrupted. A moving and cautionary story.”The Times Literary Supplement
“A powerful novel that celebrates resistance.”The Guardian
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About the Author
Boualem Sansal is the Arab world’s most courageous and controversial novelist. His first novel to appear in English ( The German Mujahid , Europa 2009) was the first work of fiction by an Arab writer to acknowledge the Holocaust in print. He started writing novels at the age of fifty, shortly after retiring as a high-ranking official in the Algerian government. He was awarded the prestigious Prix du Roman Arabe in 2012, and the German Peace Prize in 2011.
Read an Excerpt
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. Some of them would no longer be there in the morning. Yölah is great and just, he gives and takes as he sees fit.
Then night came, falling so quickly in the mountains that it was unsettling. Just as abruptly, the cold turned biting, breath became mist. Outside, the wind prowled, relentless, ready for anything.
The familiar sounds of the sanatorium calmed him somewhat, even if they spoke of human suffering and its deafening alarms, or the shameful expression of bodily functions, but they did not manage to conceal the ghostly rumblings of the mountain: a faraway echo more imagined than heard, emerging from the depths of the earth, laden with miasma and menace. And this mountain of Ouâ, at the far reaches of the empire, was indeed a gloomy and oppressive place, and not only because of its vast and wretched aspect; there were stories that circulated in its valleys, and which reached the sanatorium together with the throng of pilgrims who crossed the region of Sîn twice a year and always stopped at the hospital to beg for warmth and sustenance for the road. They came from afar, the four corners of the land, on foot, tattered and feverish, in what were often perilous conditions; their sibylline stories were full of marvels, sordid, criminal, and all the more troubling in that they were uttered in hushed tones, until at the slightest sound the storyteller broke off to peer over his shoulder. Like everyone, pilgrims and patients never let their attention slip, for fear of being caught out by the guards, or perhaps the terrible Vs, and denounced as makoufs, propagandists of the Great Heathendom, an unspeakably ignominious sect. Ati appreciated this contact with the long-traveled voyagers; he sought them out, for they had collected so many stories and discoveries in the course of their peregrinations. The country was so vast and so thoroughly unknown that it seemed a desirable thing to lose oneself in its mysteries.
The pilgrims were the only people who were allowed to move about the country, not freely but according to precise calendars, on specified roads that they could not leave, roads that were staked out with way stations in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of arid plateaus, boundless steppes, deep canyons, abandoned hamlets, where the pilgrims were counted and divided into groups like armies on the move, bivouacking around a thousand campfires while they waited for their marching orders. At times the pauses lasted so long that the penitents put down roots in vast, spreading slums and behaved like forgotten refugees, at a loss to remember what only a day before had nourished their dreams. In this eternal limbo there is a lesson: the important thing is no longer the final destination but the way station, however precarious it might be; it offers rest and safety, and in so doing, it displays the practical intelligence of the Apparatus, and the Delegate's affection for his people. Apathetic soldiers and commissars of faith, tormented and highly strung as meerkats, took turns along the roads at each nerve center to watch the pilgrims go by, with an aim to surveillance. No one knew whether anyone had ever escaped, or whether there had been any manhunts; people went their way as they were told, dragging their feet only when the fatigue overwhelmed them, and their ranks began to thin. Everything was perfectly regulated and carefully filtered; nothing could happen without the express volition of the Apparatus.
The reasons for these restrictions are not known. They date from long ago. The truth is that the question had never occurred to anyone, harmony had reigned for so long that no one knew of any reason for disquiet. Even disease and death, which took their turn more often than was fair, had no effect on people's morale. Yölah is great, and Abi is his faithful Delegate.
Pilgrimage was the only reason anyone was allowed to move about the country, except for administrative and commercial requirements, for which agents used a travel permit that had to be stamped at every stage of their mission. Controls of this nature were repeated ad infinitum, and mobilized hosts of counter clerks and ticket-punchers, but they no longer had any reason to exist: they were a relic of some forgotten era. The country was built on recurring, spontaneous, and mysterious wars about which one thing was certain: the enemy was everywhere, could suddenly appear from east or west, or from north or south; there was wariness, no one knew what they looked like or what they wanted. They were called the Enemy, with a capital letter in the intonation, that was enough. People seemed to recall that one day it had been announced that it was wrong to refer to them in any other way, and that had seemed legitimate, and so obvious, there was no reason to give a name to a thing no one has ever seen. The Enemy acquired a fabulous and frightening dimension. And one day, without warning, the word Enemy disappeared from the vocabulary. To have enemies is an admission of weakness; victory is either total or it is not. There was talk of the Great Heathendom, of the makoufs, a new word signifying invisible, omnipresent renegades. The internal enemy had replaced the external enemy, or vice versa. Then came the time of vampires and incubi. During the grand ceremonies a name filled with every fear was uttered, the Chitan. Or the Chitan and his assembly. Some saw this as another way to say the Renegade and his circle, an expression people could grasp. That was not all: he who utters the name of the Devil must spit on the ground and recite the consecrated formula three times: "May Yölah banish him and curse him!" Later, after other obstacles were overcome, at last the Devil, Satan, the Chitan, the Renegade was given his true name: Balis. His followers, the renegades, became Balisians. Things suddenly seemed clearer after that, but nevertheless, for a long time there was much questioning as to why so many false names had been used for such an eternity.
The war had been long, and worse than terrible. Here and there, everywhere in fact (but no doubt there were a number of disasters that came to compound the warfare — earthquakes and other maelstroms), traces remain, piously preserved, arranged like so many installations ceremoniously offered to the public by artists with a taste for excess: blocks of gutted buildings, walls riddled with bullet holes, entire neighborhoods buried in rubble, eviscerated corpses, gigantic craters transformed into steaming dumping grounds or putrid swamps, hallucinatory masses of twisted, torn, melted metal, where people come to read signs, and in some places, vast forbidden zones of several hundred square kilosiccas or chabirs, enclosed by rough stockades at points of passage, or torn away in other places, bare land swept by icy or torrid winds, a place where something has happened, something beyond comprehension, fragments of the sun fallen to earth, or black magic sparking blazing infernos, what else could it be, because everything — earth, rocks, things wrought by the hand of man — has been vitrified through and through, and this iridescent magma emits a shrill crackling sound that makes hair stand on end, ears buzz, and hearts beat wildly. Curious onlookers are drawn to the phenomenon; they hurry to these giant mirrors and find it entertaining to see their hair rise to attention and their skin flushing and swelling before their eyes and their noses bleeding profusely. That the inhabitants of these regions, man and beast alike, suffer from strange maladies, and their offspring come into the world burdened with every imaginable deformity, and that there has been no explanation for any of it — this has not provoked fear, the people continue to thank Yölah for his blessings and to praise Abi for his affectionate intercession.
Signs posted in strategic spots inform the visitor that after the Great Holy War, known as the Char, the destruction spread as far as the eye could see, and the newly martyred dead numbered in the hundreds of millions. For years, for entire decades, for as long as the war lasted and well beyond, some hardy types began to collect the bodies, to move them and pile them and incinerate them, to cover them with quicklime and bury them in never-ending trenches, to stack them in the bowels of abandoned mines or deep caves forever sealed with dynamite. For as long as was necessary a decree from Abi authorized these age-old practices so unlike the funeral rites of the people of believers. For a long time, corpse collecting and incinerating were fashionable professions. Any man with brawn and a good back could go in for it, full-time or as the fancy took him, but in the end only the truly solid men remained at the front. They went from one region to the next with their apprentices and their tools — handcart, ropes, hoist, lantern, and for the better-equipped, a draft animal; they obtained a concession within their capabilities and got to work. The elders still recall seeing those austere, placid giants in the distance, making their way along footpaths or over mountain passes, their thick leather aprons flapping against their massive thighs, pulling their heavily laden carts, followed by their apprentices and sometimes their families. The smell of their profession preceded them, followed them, permeated everything, everywhere, an emetic stench of putrefied flesh, burned grease, effervescent quicklime, polluted earth, obsessive gases. With time they vanished, the country was sanitized, all that remained were a few slow, taciturn old men who sold their services for a song outside a hospital, a hospice, a cemetery. A sad ending for these heroic dustmen of death.
As for the Enemy, he had simply disappeared. No trace of his passage through the country was ever found, or of his miserable presence on earth. The victory over him had been "total, definitive, and irrevocable," according to the official teaching. Yölah had prevailed; to his people, more fervent believers than ever, he had offered the supremacy promised to them since the dawn of time. One date stood out, although no one knew how or why, it had penetrated minds and appeared on all the commemorative signs erected near the ruins: 2084. Was it something to do with the war? Perhaps. Nowhere was it specified whether it corresponded to a beginning, an end, or a particular episode during the conflict. People imagined one thing, then another, more subtle, to do with the holiness of their life. Numerology became a national pastime, there were additions, subtractions, multiplications, they did everything it was possible to do with the numbers 2, 0, 8, 4. At one time the notion was adopted that 2084 was simply the year of Abi's birth, or of his illumination by divine light, which occurred when he was on the threshold of his fiftieth year. The fact remains that, already, no one doubted that God had given him a new and unique role to play in the history of humanity. It was at this time that the country — which had been called simply "the land of believers"— adopted the name Abistan, quite a lovely name, used by authorities, by the Honorables and Sectarians of the Just Brotherhood and by agents of the Apparatus. The common people continued to use the old designation "land of believers," and in everyday conversation they simply said, mindless of the danger they incurred, "the land," "the house," "home." That is what the people's gaze is like, carefree and truly not very imaginative; they do not see beyond their own doorstep. As if it were a sort of courtesy on their part: elsewhere has its masters, and to look elsewhere is to violate privacy, to break a pact. There was a stressful official side to calling themselves Abistanis, something that suggested trouble, calls to order, even the occasional summons; so they referred to themselves as "people," convinced that this would suffice for them to know one another.
There was another time when the date was linked to the founding of the Apparatus, or earlier still, to the creation of the Just Brotherhood — the congregation of forty dignitaries chosen among the most faithful believers by Abi himself, after he had been appointed by God to assist him with the colossal task of governing the people of believers and bringing them all to the afterlife, where they would each be questioned by the Angel of Justice about their works. They were informed that the shadow hid nothing in this light, that it revealed all. It was during the period of successive cataclysms that God was given a new name, Yölah. Times had changed, according to the primordial Promise; another world had been born, on an earth that was cleansed, devoted to truth, beneath the gazes of God and of Abi; everything must be renamed, everything must be rewritten, so that the new life would not be sullied by bygone History, which was now null and void, effaced as if it had never existed. The Just Brotherhood granted Abi the humble but eminently explicit title of Delegate, and it conceived a sober, moving salutation for him: "Abi the Delegate, may salvation be upon him," while kissing the back of one's left hand.
So many stories went around, until everything was snuffed out and restored to order. History was rewritten and sealed by the hand of Abi. Anything that might have clung on from the olden times, deep in purged memories, shreds, smoke, was fuel for vague delirium among the elderly, afflicted with dementia. For the generations of the New Era, dates, the calendar, History were no more important than the stamp of the wind on the sky; the present is eternal, today is always here, time in its entirety can fit in Yölah's hand, he knows things, he decides upon their meaning and instructs whomever he chooses.
Whatever the case may be, 2084 was a founding date for the country, even if no one knew what it referred to.
That is how things stood, simple and complicated, but not absurd. Candidates for the pilgrimage enrolled on a list for a designated holy place that the Apparatus chose for them and waited to be called to join a caravan due to leave. The wait could last a year or a lifetime, without remission, in which case the eldest child of the deceased inherited the certificate of enrollment, but never the second son and never the sisters: holiness cannot be divided nor does it change sex. A grandiose celebration would follow. Asceticism was passed on through the son, and so the honor of the family was reinforced. There were millions and millions of them throughout the land, from every one of the sixty provinces, of every age and condition, all counting the days until the great departure, the Bidi, the Blessed Day. In some regions it had become customary to gather once a year in huge crowds for a mass self-flogging with studded whips, amid a joyful uproar, to show that suffering was nothing compared to the happiness of awaiting the Bidi; in other regions, people came together at extraordinary jamborees, sitting cross-legged in a circle, knees touching, and they listened to the oldest candidates, who'd reached the limits of exhaustion but not of hope, tell of their long and blessed ordeal, known as the Expectation. Every sentence was met with an encouraging response from a powerful megaphone: "Yölah is just," "Yölah is patient," "Yölah is great," "Abi supports you," "Abi is with you," etc., echoed by ten thousand throats tight with emotion. Then there was prayer, elbow to elbow, everyone chanting their heads off, singing the odes written by Abi, until they began over again unto exhaustion; then came the high point of the ceremony: fatted calves and entire herds of sheep were slaughtered. The most skillful butchers in the region were required, for this was a sacrifice, and as such a difficult process, slaughter is not killing, but an exaltation. Next all the meat had to be roasted. The flames were visible from afar, the air was redolent with fat, and the good smell of grilled meat went on to tantalize everything within a radius of ten chabirs that had nose, snout, muzzle, or beak. It was something of an orgy, interminable and vulgar. Electrified clusters of beggars hurried over, drawn by the aroma; they could not resist the abundance of meat dripping with tasty juice, they were overcome with an extreme intoxication that led them to behave in ways that were anything but religious — but in the end, their voraciousness was welcome, for what else was there to do with so much sanctified meat? To throw it out would have been sacrilege.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "2084 The End Of The World"
Copyright © 2015 Editions Gallimard, Paris.
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