In more than a nod to Orwell, Algerian author Boualem Sansal’s 2084 depicts life under a totalitarian regime of religious fanaticism. In the novel’s fictional country, Abistan, religion is law, life, and death, and all notions of a past before the birth of the nation have been buried and banned. The only known event is The Great Holy War of 2084 against the Great Disbelief. Other than THAT, all notions of time are erased. The people’s lives are reduced to unending pilgrimages to holy sites, praying, and attending mass executions. The Apparatus demands that all citizens pledge allegiance to Yölah and Abi, His Delegate on Earth. Heretics, those who pray less than nine times a day, leave their district without permission, or break any the countless edicts written in the supreme religious document, the Gkabul, are punished in spectacular public fashion in stadiums in front of raging and enthused crowds. But this is a land where few do what we call thinking. Their language, Abilang, is not complex enough to hold or carry ideas, just a limited number of exclamations to express their ingrained fanatic beliefs.
If 2084 sounds chillingly reminiscent of the very real Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, rest assured: The author writes “the reader should refrain from believing that this story is true or borrows from any known reality.” He continues in the same ironic vein: “Sleep tight, good people, everything is perfectly false and the rest is under control.”
Ati has been recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium in the remote Uwah Mountains of Abistan. With the region’s ill and degenerating population, from which almost no one makes it out alive, Abistan’s religious rules are not enforced as strictly as they are elsewhere and in this climate, as he recovers, Ati becomes aware of a new and disquieting revelation emanating from his mind: the baffling wordless notion of freedom. Ati finds his mind producing other similar notions, and begins to question his faith—and the feelings only increase as he overcomes his disease.
He is released from the sanatorium and sets out on the yearlong journey back to Qodsabad, the capital and his hometown. Along the way, Ati encounters Nas, an investigator with the Ministry of Archives, Sacred Books, and Holy Memories. Nas has just returned from investigating the discovery of a remote abandoned village. From all evidence it appears that its inhabitants must have fled, leaving behind, intact, evidence that they did not speak Abilang, and used unfamiliar objects, rumored to be from before the advent of Abistan. Nas cannot contain his secret, and over a campfire he shares the discovery with Ati. The seed of doubt is now firmly planted and will set into motion a suspenseful quest for discovery that leads Ati, and his like-minded new friend Koa, on a perilous journey to find Nas in the inner sanctum of the Apparatus and to discover the true story of how Abistan came to be, and whether there is a way out.
BOUALEM SANSAL is the winner of several prestigious prizes, including the Académie Française’s 2013 Francophonie prize and the 2011 Peace Prize of the German book trade (an award whose winners include Susan Sontag, Orhan Pamuk, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Amos Oz, and Hermann Hesse). Two of his works have been published in English: The German Mujahid (Europa Editions, 2009; Bloomsbury UK, 2011 as An Unfinished Business, see reviews below), and Harraga (Bloomsbury, 2015, see reviews below). His books have been banned by the Algerian government, and he has been forced out of his job because of his views on the Islamists. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize. He continues to live in Algeria with his family.