Boualem Sansal’s 2084 has become a sensation in France, where it made the longlist for every one of country’s most prestitious literary prizes. Nadia Ghanem reads the book, and its reception, against the backdrop of France’s relationship with Algeria and the aims of its literary prizes:
By Nadia Ghanem
In France, every year between October and November, six of the most prestigious literary prizes open the autumn: the Goncourt, the Grand Prix, the Renaudot, the Medicis, the Femina and the Interallie.
This year, 2084: The End of the World (Gallimard ed., 2015), Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal’s seventh novel, appears on every of these literary institutions’ longlists. 2084 was preselected by the Goncourt, the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman (who celebrates its centenary this year), the Femina, the Renaudot, the Médicis, and the Interallié prizes. In addition, 2084 is on Le prix de Flore’s list and was also selected for Le prix de la page 111 whose winner was Pierre Senges, as announced on the first of this month.
What is the purpose of a literary prize in France?
The Goncourt, the French Academy’s Grand Prix, and Femina are the oldest in the history of French lit prizes. The Goncourt awarded its first prize in 1903, Femina in 1905, and the French Academy its Grand Prix in 1915. Then came the Renaudot in 1926, Interallié in 1930, and the Médicis in 1958. The Goncourt was created for a specific purpose: to institutionally recognize prose as a valuable, separate genre apart from verse,and to rebalance how aesthetics, and its hierarchy, were understood — definitions that had up till then been exclusively set by the French Academy and its immortals (an institution that dates back to the seventeenth century). The Goncourt brothers wanted to reward literary prose, recognise its separate branches, and step away from the French Academy’s monopoly. Other literary institutions created prizes that followed the brothers’ vision.
As time passed, these organizations and prizes grew deep roots and shaped the literary canon, but they took on an international dimension only relatively recently. The Goncourt underwent this process in the 70s, and the French Academy’s creation of the Prix de la Francophonie, initiated in 1986 by Canada, France and Morocco, illustrates this new literary (and geopolitical) objective. It will escape no one that the 70s coincide with a decade that saw the emergence of new nation-states, who in the course of their history had become francophone by force or by choice.
Today, the Goncourt states that it aims to reward the best work of imagination published in the year. The French Academy’s Grand Prix du Roman seeks to reward a work’s originality, and the Femina’s intention is to recompense free thinking. But before and behind these various literary concerns, it is the quality of the French language (they all declare) that is fundamental. The promotion and safeguard of the French language is at stake here.
With notions of language protection and promotion at the prizes’ core, it becomes natural to find francophone writers who come from geographies physically remote from the mothership, France. These authors’ novels are considered for services rendered to the French language, and for enriching the corpus of an institutional canon. Francophone authors are related by language, their second umbilical cord, not by birth or origin.
If colonization has taught us anything, it is to beware the politics of language. While safeguarding one’s language is noble, France has showed time and again that its tactics for survival, and expansion, include intellectual co-opting. Behind every cultural embrace lays a claim for ownership. France isn’t unique here: dominant nations as far back as the Assyrian and Babylonian empires founded themselves on the same principles. They erected their supremacy with weapons and established their hold with culture, absorbing the other until it belonged, according to each’s definition of belonging.
They rewrote history by writing stories.
The substance of the story
Why is 2084 creating such a craze? We are told Sansal’s revisiting of Orwell’s 1984 is key in having captured the imagination of readers. The French literary scene seems quite fond of this book-extension concept, the extension of classics, especially when Algerians are reworking them. It made this amply clear last year with the reception of Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête, which extended Camus’ L’étranger. Algeria was once the land of French expansion. It is now the land of European classics’ extension. But is a concept sufficient to win a prize? What about the story?
In a sanatorium, set up high in the Ouâ mountains, towering over the Sîn region, Ati is recovering from tuberculosis. A year has passed during which he has received the appropriate dosages of concoctions and powerful talismans to aid his condition. Ati is somewhere around his early thirties, he doesn’t know. No one knows his or her exact age in Abistan, the land of believers in the all-seeing Yölah and his representative on earth Abi, or Bigaye, who rules over 60 regions, that is the whole world. Ati has recovered and can now be sent back to Qodsabad, the capital of Abistan, to resume his work as council clerk. He and all other patients now healed, will leave by caravans pulled by donkeys. It will take a year to reach Qodsabad, during which Ati will meet Nas, a civil servant working for the archives department of the Ministry of Holy books and Memories. Nas has just returned from an excavation where he and a group of archaeologists found a previously unknown site whose remains point to a great flaw in Abi’s truths: there was a world before Abistan, one in which Yölah’s religion and others co-existed. Could a time have existed before the greatest war, the Holy War Char, when Abistanis won against the Chitan and the Enemy, previously known as the United High Regions or the Lig in Abilang, Abistan’s language?
Unnerved by what the excavations will reveal but excited, Nas makes his way back to the Kiiba, around which the oligarchs of Abigouv have set up their ministries and where they fight among themselves for power. Ati returns home haunted by Nas’s tale. The religious scepticism that had gripped him during his sanatorium stay firms up when he meets Koa, a work colleague who shares Ati’s secret questioning of Gkabul, acceptance, and of man’s purpose beyond the worshipping of Yölah nine times a day. Both friends are moved to action by doubt, a feeling for which there is no word in Abilang. They decide to head for the Kiiba, the pyramid that shines like the rising sun and can be seen from all four horizons, to find Nas. They leave searching for what lies within the Holy city, and to discover who or what is Democ and the Return.
The coating of the substance
Some might be inspired by the story’s content, others — like the media, worked up by Sansal during his interviews — have been mesmerised by its coating. And as you read 2084, you can easily see why.
An Iranian or Afghan-sounding city name (Qodsabad) is surrounded by suburbs reachable on rails via underground tunnels (the metro system, shht). In the Kiiba, Ati and Koa’s shady new friend, Toz, has kept a museum intact whose ancient name is the Louvres. He continues to fill it with artefacts to piece together a time before Abistan, even though there is no such thing, Abi says. The languages that survive post-Abilang, spoken in hiding, are French (thank God!) and Modern Standard Arabic.
Piece all this together and now you can start to panic. France, and what’s worse Paris, have been taken over by futuristic brothers bent on Friday floggings, remarrying burniqab women, raping young boys, the total sum of which wear burni-cloaks so dirty you can tell washing machines exist no longer. The death of home electrical equipment is a sure sign all types of sciences have been proscribed, except for IT to keep electronic newspapers going in Abistan. (Meanwhile, Toz represents an onomatopoeic word in various colloquial Arabics, inspired by the anus.)
What lies beyond
Think you might read 2084? You should, but be prepared.
Sansal describes Ati’s journey in four parts called Books, plus a curious epilogue. Book 1 sets the scene and explains Abistan. It is probably the most nebulous. Sansal has no clear idea what Abistan is like because he just can’t see what it could be like. In Book 2, Sansal can no longer sustain his lack of imagination, nor can the reader, and that’s lucky. His talent takes over at this point to breathe a three-dimensional spirit into Ati and his surroundings (basically, it’s Algiers). Book 3 begins Ati and Koa’s detective work. For any detective and crime-novel fan, it’s the best part. Book 4 is the last book. This means you’re nearly done, and it’s worth a read on that basis. Then there’s the Epilogue, composed of seven + 1 articles. Seven articles published by Abistan’s e-news and the +1 is a mountaineer’s tale, written on a sheet of paper circulated by caravaneers.
Think you might not read it? Wait.
Whatever you may think of Sansal as an author, he is not unkind. He leaves a shorter way to get through the book. Every Book, or part, starts with a short summary of the tale it contains. So in essence, Sansal’s novel is not 288 pages, it’s 4 pages + 1.
Boualem Sansal is one of Algeria’s best established novelists, as well as one of the country’s most talented, whether we’re happy about this or not. In 1999, his first novel, The Barbarians’ Oath, earned him two prizes, Le Prix du Premier Roman and the Prix Tropiques in France, and set the stage for his literary career. His novels share the same traits: a fluid, playful and radiant language that carried his vision of a fragile and sinister reality, a world inhabited by individuals whose experiences were moving and actions compassionate. That was the pattern for his first four powerful novels. Something after them changed.
A world of newsreel
2084 is not the first book in recent years to have generated media debates because it mixes the fear of the other with electoral suspense. Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission did it in 2015, Sabri Louatah did it in his epic four volume family saga Les Sauvages (2012-2014), in 1982, Christopher Mullin did it in English with A Very British Coup (but the fearsome other were UK Left-wingers). However, these stories didn’t put any of their writers up for five major literary prizes. Could the hermeneutics of numbers in the title 2-0-8-4 have cast a spell? Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Orwell’s 1984 are splendid, but it’s not because of their titles nor hermeneutics.
In 2084, Sansal essentially describes a world we can entirely relate to without stretching our creative powers because Abistan is built on the images of destruction and conflicts we see today, and everyday, on the news. But it is a world so remote from Sansal’s western compass, physically and emotionally, that he just can’t get inspiration for it beyond the first layer, the TV screen layer. 2084 is a CNN news flash.
The world of journalism has been fundamental in shaping contemporary Algerian literature. Algerian lit has been marked by major and classic authors who are, and were first, journalists. Sansal was not one, but that’s the belly he comes from and I wonder if things went wrong because of this environmental legacy. This news diet, and its inherent exploitation of immediate attention-getting and readership, has not solely affected the once awesome writer of Le Serment des Barbares (a cornerstone work in Algerian literature), it has affected Algerian literary production. A serious examination of recently published novels should be commenced to try and determine what is happening, not to French literature, but to Algerian literature and its vampiric news muse.
Nadia is a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she specializes in the ancient languages of Iraq and Syria. Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs at tellemchaho.blogspot.co.uk about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.