Friday, August 12, 2016

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz

Melville House Publishers, 2016
originally published 2013, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
217 pp


Frankly, this is one hell of a good book.

I can just picture someone somewhere reading the back-cover blurb of this book where it says "The Queue is a chilling debut that evokes Orwellian dystopia, Kafkaesque surrealism,..." and wondering why he/she should read it if it's done before.  Well, it's certainly true that there are a lot of books that focus on people faced with the absurdities of a totalitarian government, but in this book, what strikes me is how optimistic some people are in believing  that if they just wait long enough, the state will take care of their problems.  Never mind that the Gate, the bureaucracy that is the unseen "absolute authority" in this unnamed country,  is never actually open to the citizens -- although rumors abound as to when it might open, people have been waiting long enough for help that a huge queue has formed and continues to increase in size while nobody ever seems to move.  The Gate continues to issue laws dictating that people will need permission from the state for an ever-growing number of activities, some as absurd as can be, and as these laws and proclamations become ever more intrusive and ever more numerous, more people continue to find a place in the queue and to wait with some measure of hope for what they need. And it's in the queue, really, where life goes on -- there are rules to be followed, commerce taking place, religious activities and activism, protests going on and  information being disseminated -- so that at some point, the queue becomes a society in its own right.

The major thread running through this story gives us a peek at how this authoritarian system works.  Tarek is a doctor who desperately wants to remove a bullet from a young man named Yehya Gad el-Rab.  Yehya, who wasn't protesting at the time, had been shot during the "Disgraceful Events," a four-day long "street battle" put down by the Quell Force, a unit specifically created to deter riots of this sort, and he now has a bullet lodged in his pelvis.   Hampering Tarek's efforts is a recent proclamation from the Gate that says that it is a "criminal act" to extract a bullet "except when performed under official authorization issued by the Gate of the Northern Building." After all,
"bullets and projectiles may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization." 
So Tarek has to wait until Yehya receives that "special authorization" from the Gate. As the story progresses, the proclamations issued by the Gate in this case become increasingly absurd, for example, with the forbidding of x-rays, and most especially the denial that the government ever fired on the crowd.  New hurdles continue to crop up -- Tarek discovers that Yehya's medical records have been tampered with, and that the x-rays have disappeared altogether. Things take a more sinister, dark and downright frightening turn when in her desperate attempt to help save his life, Yehya's girlfriend decides to bypass the system. In the meantime, Tarek continues to agonize over what he should have done and didn't out of his fear of repercussions from the Gate.  And all the while, history is being rewritten or whitewashed, forcing many people to try to rationalize what they know versus what the Gate is telling them.

There are a number of other stories here in this novel,  and it hits on so many things thematically, but I'll leave those for others to discover.  And as I said, while there are certainly any number of books out there that explore this sort of thing, this one is certainly different than most others I've read.  Looking at what other people have to say, The Queue is garnering some excellent reader reviews, although one reader called it "decidedly dull," with an ending that isn't "conclusive."   I will say that this book is not an easy read in the sense that answers/explanations aren't handed to you on a plate, and that it does take a fair amount of patience to read, for which in my opinion, you'll be rewarded. At the same time, as I read it, images were just exploding in my head, which is a good thing and to me the sign of a well-written novel.  For me, it was a serious page turner, a book I didn't want to put down for any reason.

real reviews of this novel:
from NPR
Literature After the Arab Spring

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