April 23, 2012 by markstani
Egypt, 2023: the nation’s elite cling to a stretch of its north coast, the eponymous Utopia, fenced off and fortified by shoot-to-kill squads of ex-US marines. Over the wire exist the Others, in a broken-down, left-behind world where there is no rule of law and day-to-day life is a brutal struggle.
Such a dystopian landscape is nothing new, but in Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s more than capable hands it is lent a new sense of urgency, underpinned by a conceit which renders his own Utopia more chillingly believable than the rest: the discovery of a new super-fuel which instantly renders the middle-east’s oil reserves worthless.
The middle-classes have collapsed and the super-rich have fled behind gates to a community haemorrhaging wealth to the extent that almost anything is possible, and in which their offspring’s only burden is the over-bearing nihilism which grows out of lives devoid of risk or thrill.
Utopia’s teenage, nameless narrator – ‘Let’s not talk about names. What’s the value of names when you’re no different to anyone else?’ – is the son of a pharmaceutical billionaire who passes his days overwhelmed with boredom:
What can you do in this artificial paradise? You sleep, you take drugs, you eat until food makes you sick, you vomit until you can recover the enjoyment of eating, you have sex (it’s weird how you notice that boredom makes your sexual behaviour aggressive and sadistic). If you knew another way for a person to live his life, I’d be happy if you could tell me about it.
Utopia is a world in which even political enmity is non-existent: the narrator cannot fathom why former generations used to loathe the state of Israel. Here and now, money and status mean everything, no matter your creed. Only one pursuit remains enthrallingly off-limits: the sick, so-called sport of ‘hunting’, in which gangs of Utopians cross the fence to kidnap then hunt down selected Others, secure in the knowledge that they stay a mobile phone call away from being winched to safety by their always-compliant US guards. Friends have done it, hauling back hacked-off body parts as trophies. Consumed by the idea, the narrator and his sometime girlfriend hustle out of the gates, but they are bewildered by the parallel universe in which they have arrived, and it is not long before things start to go badly wrong.
In this world there is nothing left but poverty and haggard faces, from which savage, hungry eyes bulge out. Thirty years ago, these people had some rights, but today they’ve been completely forgotten. Even electricity and water is an individual problem for each one of them. Whoever can get to an electric generator or dig a well does all right; the rest just have to make do.
Towfik is the author of scores of books in his homeland, and is feted as ‘the Arab world’s best-selling author of horror and fantasy genres.’ First published in Arabic in 2009, ‘Utopia’ was translated by Chip Rossetti and published in English by Bloomsbury Qatar last year.
‘Utopia’ is a short, sharp, steroid-jab of a novel: perhaps not entirely ground-breaking in its global vision, but undoubtedly given added potency by its setting in lands where the class gap is at its most extreme. It is also an anything-but-ordinary addition to the notable canon of Arabic fiction translated into English, and as such is a refreshing as well as exhilarating read.
‘Utopia’ is a superb achievement: gory and grotesque, harsh and dark, but entirely, utterly compelling. You may be horrified, but you will struggle to avoid gulping it down in a single sitting. And afterwards, you will rest uneasily with the thought that Towfik’s richly evoked world could quite easily one day come.