In more ways than one, 2084 obliterates 1984. Figuratively, Boualem Sansal’s novel—now available in an English translation after winning the 2016 French Academy Grand Prix—eclipses Orwell’s classic in its shock value for contemporary readers. Literally, 2084 marks the beginning of the world of Abistan, before which all history has been erased. Ironically, the book’s subtitle is “The End of the World,” and this is the first of many hints at Sansal’s farce. Not only does he create Abistan to mock it, but Democ, the movement to overthrow the regime, doesn’t stand a chance either. Ati, the main character, carries Sansal’s message as he progresses from questioning Abistan to exploring its inner workings and finally escaping altogether.
2084 is in some sense a corollary to Gkabul, Abistan’s holy book—foretold, as the myth goes, to Abi, prophet of Yolah and
Abistan’s founder. Unlike the holy text,
the novel begins with a warning that it is fiction and not to be believed. Like the holy text, it is broken up into Books 1 through
4, each prefaced by a summary and its meaning. In contrast to the Gkabul, which “offered humanity submission to sanctified ignorance,” 2084 focuses on Ati’s tale of transformation. Where Abi, in the Gkabul, pronounces the eternal present, Ati, in Sansal’s narration, represents the chance for change.
While at a sanatorium in the mountains,
Nas, leader of an archaeological dig, reveals to Ati the discovery of an ancient city, which sends Ati into a tailspin; he questions everything he’s known and awakens to how he’s been brainwashed. Back at home, he and friend Koa team up to learn more. First, they take chances searching for clues about Nas and his city in a forbidden ghetto. Unsuccessful there, but inspired to further rebellion, they head to the Abigov, nerve-center of Abistan. They become unwittingly involved in a plot to overthrow Abistan and put Democ in its place. Alone, Ati opts out altogether and sets out for the Border, the rumored limit of Abistan. The book ends with a series
of Abistani censored news articles about someone (Ati) located in the mountains.
2084 offers many dialectics: Ati’s story as told by Sansal and the news commentary about him; Abistan versus Democ; the hidden past and the future that promises (threatens) to look everything like the present; Ati and Abi; religion and its antithesis. Sansal peppers the text with questions, inviting us to ask more than answer them: “What is a man without identity . . . and what, exactly, is a human being?” He warns us not to become victim to any totalitarianism but to find our own path through it, like Ati. Sansal is our guide into absurdity and out of it, the perfect guide through the fear and laughter we expend reading 2084.