Harder Than Heaven

I don’t know who it was that called Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ‘the longest short novel’ but, in terms of long short novels, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 gives it a run for its money. He writes his religious dystopia in short, elegant, powerful sentences and paragraphs, which (thanks also to his translator, Alison Anderson) convey all too well the cruelty and struggle of his fictional Abistan.

The enemy in Orwell’s 1984 is ‘called by a Chinese name normally translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self.’ That seems to sum up Sansal’s Abistan quite well. In Abistan life is lived out according to a single holy book, with a prophet figurehead as god’s representative on earth. People are allocated housing, employment and other privileges according to a rigorous examination of personal morality in which the citizen must recite psalms and scripture and stanzas: everyone wears robes, embroidered according to status, caste and said moral score. Technology is almost non-existent, food bitter and scarce, no one ever leaves their designated district and crossing the country itself takes years. Economy is reliant upon an endless war without, and within on public executions, the mechanics of torture, the bureaucracy of power, and on long, hazardous pilgrimages all meant to ‘transform useless, wretched believers into glorious, lucrative martyrs.’

Sansal’s novel is blurbed as a tribute to George Orwell’s classic, and indeed it sometimes surpasses the original in its prose. True, there is little dialogue or dramatisation – Sansal breaks the rule of the finger-wagging creative writing hack, that you should always show rather than tell. His writing is elegant and demonstrates obvious empathy as well as the continual apprehension of fresh hells.

The story itself is no great shakes. Protagonist Ati returns to his home town after spending a year in the mountain sanatorium where a superstitious regime sends its sick. Surviving such perilous convalescence in itself grants Ati a higher revised status, and he is given more relative autonomy within the province. A good believer all his life, Ati becomes more curious about the society he lives in. He teams up with the wealthy scholar Koa and the two men try to infiltrate the heart of government to find out Abistan’s secret origins.

Fans of dystopian fiction will smile in recognition at the 1984 references that Sansal weaves into his text – you will recognise the enormous woman in the courtyard, singing as she hangs her line out, an Abistani analogue of the ‘red-armed woman’ from 1984, who sings ‘They sye that time heals all things,/They sye you can always forget’… inspired in turn by Orwell’s early mornings at the BBC, when the cleaning women would sing as they went about their work.

Orwell developed this into the only element of hope in his novel: ‘The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing… everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.’ In 2084 it is the song of fellow feeling that resonates. During their difficult journey into the heart of Abistan, Ati and Koa are helped at every turn by the common people, who show them the shortcuts and safe passages. Human nature, Sansal says, is basically good – however ‘in the presence of the forces of law and order, whether it was a war tactic or simple human weakness, they set aside their kindly disposition and heaped abuse on strangers.’

So 2084 is a more hopeful book than 1984. Orwell imagined Ingsoc going on more or less forever, while Abistan by the end becomes vulnerable from infighting. (I note here Margaret Atwood’s more optimistic theory that the Party had to have fallen at some point because of the novel’s appendix, which talks about Ingsoc retrospectively.) Perhaps Sansal’s novel in that sense reflects better the world of its time – the recent defeats of ISIS, by Iraqi and Kurdish forces as well as western air strikes, testifies to Stephen King’s line that evil is fragile as well as stupid. And what resonates from Sansal’s 2084 is the reverence for life, the sanctity of life, which in the face of terror and oppression, so often manages to find an honourable way through the dark.

Update: this fine archive piece from Leyla Sanai gives more background to Sansal and his work.

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