A sci-fi novel is causing a stir in Europe because of its inflammatory political content. This is reassuring for novelists who have been told for the past decade or two that their relevance is exhausted.
The novel was the 2015 co-winner of a prestigious French literary prize, the Grand Prix du Roman de l'Académie française (a laurel almost as prestigious as the Goncourt). 2084, The End Of The World, was written in French by an Algerian called Boualem Sansal. (The English edition is about to be released here.) The book creates a dystopian future in which a desert kingdom called Abistan is run by an all-controlling theocracy that looks a lot like conservative Islam.
In Abistan, there is no god but Yölah, and his only prophet is Abi. All thought and behaviour are monitored for signs of dissent or free-thinking; prayer is mandatory nine times a day. Remembering is forbidden. The only way to travel from place to place is to declare oneself a religious pilgrim. A powerful surveillance system detects even unstated ideas. Heretics are beheaded in public ceremonies. The setting is clearly an allegory for the current worst-case scenario: a global caliphate.
The title is clearly a reference to Orwell's 1984 and so admits from the outset that the fantasy is a comment on contemporary trends (as Orwell's novel was a commentary on the dangers of 1948).
The author is a prolific novelist who only started publishing fiction at the age of 51 (more encouragement for writers). Before that, he was a high-ranking official in the Algerian ministry of finance. In the past year, he has been a fixture of French TV talk shows. The reason for his sudden interest to Europeans is not just the bleakness of his fictive vision, but the severity of his own personal views on Islam. He is unapologetically condemning of the religion he grew up with, and its current tendencies.
He said to the German newspaper Die Zeit, "[The young radicals] have declared war to the West, and will lead systematically one battle after the other. And they will win. The first victory entails the act of frightening society." For the restless young men now arriving in Germany, he does not counsel tolerance and understanding: "The Islamists interpret the tolerance of the Chancellor as a confession of failure. If I were an Islamist, I would found tomorrow, in Germany, a Muslim Brotherhood party. The Chancellor herself has invited everyone."
In answer to a question about the spread of fundamentalism, he said to broadcaster Deutsche Welle, "There are sleeping cells but also active cells across Europe. And there is a whole infrastructure of religious, financial, commercial and educational institutions. They have a strategy, and I think this movement will accelerate and become stronger and stronger. But it also depends on how the Europeans will react to this challenge. At the moment, their reaction is not adequate." An adequate reaction, he maintains, would be not a greater acceptance of foreign values, but a renaissance of European humanist thought. "It would mean to rebuild, renew and revive the values of the Age of Enlightenment, the arts, the culture. To do so would also mean to say goodbye to the rules of the market and globalization to a certain degree."
Why are German media interviewing this pessimistic French hero so assiduously? Because it is not just the extreme right in Germany that is nervous about changing the makeup of the population in the mass welcoming of Muslim refugees. Since the gang sex assaults in Cologne and other cities on New Year's Eve, a very tentative discussion about the possibilities of differing cultural values has arisen even among the leftist intelligentsia. Since the mass murders in Paris and Brussels, the idea of extremist Islam as an actual growing movement, rather than as a few isolated nutbars, is looking less alarmist. Now someone who criticizes religion itself – and someone who is an Arab at that – is speaking the unspeakable in sensitive and tolerant countries.
The French novelist Michel Houellebecq, who seemed controversial with his amusing novel Submission, about a future French state in which an Islamist party is democratically voted into power, has praised 2084, because it is more extreme than his own writing. "[Sansal's] vision of the future is very plausible," Houellebecq said on a French talk show.
Sansal may be so intemperate because he has known actual persecution: His life has been threatened in his native Algeria, his novels banned. He once had an Arabic literature prize withdrawn because he participated in the Jerusalem writers' festival.
I have not yet read 2084 (it is on its way across the ocean to me as I write), but its opening pages have been excerpted online. Unlike Houellebecq's dry voice, its style is heavily literary, poetic and erudite, and takes on an oracular quality, the tone of a religious text. It opens (in my unprofessional translation): "Ati had lost the ability to sleep. Angst would grip him ever earlier in the evening, at lights-out or even before, when the twilight would deploy its wan veil and the patients, fatigued by their long day of wandering, from cell to corridor, from corridor to terrace, would begin to find their way to bed, dragging their feet, exchanging their feeble best wishes for the nighttime crossing. Some of them would not be there in the morning. Yölah is great and good, he gives and takes away as he pleases."
I can't tell you if it's good – the French critics called it both funny and scary – but I can tell it is hugely ambitious. It is the "big book" that publishers here pine for. In its themes alone, it promises to be proof that art can still sway political debate, and can still be at the centre of our perception of philosophical differences.