Book review: Isolation City - when the writer fails

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Monday 6 May 2019

Isolation City,
Isolation City, by Ahmed Saber

Madinat El-Ozla (Isolation City), by Ahmed Saber, (Cairo: Dar Al-Maraya), 2019.

For his second novel, Ahmed Saber has decided to travel to the near future and create a fantasy world that expresses a dark vision of humanity; in this future city, a plague of some kind hits, and the people panic, not understanding what’s happening.

Those who cannot take it kill themselves, and committing suicide becomes a normal occurrence. The patient zero in the string of suicides hangs himself without a note or explanation. Within a week, dozens of people have killed themselves in different ways. Then the wave of suicides calms down and people become distant, isolated, and aloof. They simply live with their pain and broken souls.

The city eventually becomes a source of fear for the rest of the world, worried about the spread of this misunderstood plague, named the “slow death syndrome,” and the city is intentionally isolated. The authorities study the plague and reach the conclusion that the internet and social media are the reason for the sadness in the city. However, the theory is proven wrong in the course of events and no alternative explanation is given.

In the city, people are given numbers instead of names, and the concepts of love, friendship or any interaction with humans becomes something of the past.

The novel’s main character in named 2112; he later remembers that his name is Patrick. He finds himself exiled to the city, with no memories of why or how he got there. He was a successful novelist and was exiled for three failed suicide attempts. His life takes a turn for the worse after the death of his young daughter and his wife’s infidelity. Her guilt makes her confess and he takes it in his stride; while he respected his wife, he did not really love her, and so does not get angry at her betrayal.

The influence of Kafka’s The Trial and George Orwell’s 1984 on Saber’s novel are clear. But the writer has created a bad imitation/combination of two masterpieces. Big Brother is there, but not really watching the people living in the city. Patrick does not understand why he is exiled to the city for a good part of the novel; when he gets his memory back, he realises he was a threat to himself and society for attempting to end his life.

In one of the chapters of this short novel, the writer tries to impress the reader by the mentioning the names of Jorge Amado, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky, Alberto Moravia and a few others, in an absurd conversation that does not add anything to the narrative but to tell us that the writer knows the names of these authors and a few details about their personalities.

The ruler of the city is a ridiculous, ignorant character who claims that he likes arts and philosophy. He names the main square in the city “Karl Marx’s Square.” All we really know about him is that he carries hatred for the people he rules because they overthrew his father.

The city’s inhabitants are stagnant and after the plague the sombre life style that lacks any human interaction is repeated over and over in the novel, giving the impression that the writer does not have anything to say and cannot go deeper into the fantasy world he has tried to create.

If there is a positive side to the novel, it is the love story between 2112 and 4001, a woman who comes to the city on purpose to escape the phony outside world. He makes her smile with his questions and she falls in love with him and eventually inspires him to find a solution for the city’s plight. The love-making scene was classy and heartfelt: human passion in a pure form.

The novel in brief is uneventful, predictable, and if the writer wanted to depress the reader he failed. If it was to give hope… he failed in that as well.


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