Book Review: 'Shortly Before the End,' unraveling the myth of the Just Dictator

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Tuesday 22 Feb 2022

The atmosphere of the pandemic has been dominating the writer’s imagination.

Shortly Before the End, by Salma Laghzaoui
Shortly Before the End, by Salma Laghzaoui

 In her novel “Shortly before the End”, Moroccan novelist Salma Laghzaoui described a world where electricity has gone, the sun was clouded from earth, neither communication nor internet were available and wars started between neighboring countries over the diminishing natural resources and the year is 2028.

Basically the writer described a world that is about to end. The world and the countries are made up, whether their names, religion or geographical location, it is simply the world in its worst condition. Laghzaoui described the miserable state that we see only in apocalyptic movies.

Natural disasters and deceases occurred to add to the dismal existence of the survivors, according to the novel’s beginning, the end of existence is inevitable.

The narration was made through four characters. Their stories are the account of what happened to the world. The survivors were living in dire conditions, the novelist was able to describe vividly the despair of a society in war time. Each character has their own miserable survival story; between getting raped and committing murder in self-defense; to returning from war after seeing murder, torture, getting wounded; to losing loved and giving them a merciful death, and finally getting desperate and trying to commit suicide.

The stories are particular to each character but the reader can relate to all of them, in our lives, we have seen or heard of similar cases. The twentieth century has been bloody and murderous and humans have seen crisis after another. The twenty first does not look much better so far.  

The main character is the “savior” called Cesar; returning from the war with a wound in his leg that caused him a permanent limp; he returned to a different world. A handicapped soldier in a destroyed city, his house collapsed in an earthquake, his parents died in it, his woman committed suicide when the defeat news reached her; she thought he was dead and wanted to join him in the after-life. The city is dominated by street gangs that control everything; the black market for food, medicine and cooperation with the enemy’s occupying army. The city that he was dreaming of during the war’s frenzy became a nightmare. 

The writer through one of her characters states clearly those humans were the ones who chose this end through violence, wars, polluting the environment and using up the natural resources.

Cesar decided to form a secretive community for those who cannot live under the dire conditions of the occupation. This decision came after a vision where he saw his father, a clergy man, giving him a candle and asked him to save the survivors. The message got out and eventually a survivor community was formed in a deserted citadel. The popular beliefs about that place were that it was haunted by evil spirits.

It became the perfect hideout for the survivors; no one would dare search for them there. The writer mixes science, planning, organizing and building a community from scratch and under the hardest conditions with delusional beliefs about visions and demons and how they change good people into evil ones, greedy, hungry for power and living for their pleasures. She tried to put the science and myths components in one novel while a smooth narration style. Inserting the time and the places combined with the history of each character was done skillfully. Gathering the different stories in the big picture kept the reader interested and curious despite the predictable ending. 

The twist in the character of the “savior” was a bit surprising to the reader, but by reading through history we see that many rulers after taking power turned into killers, dictators and are remembered as awful rulers and human beings. 

The song “It’s the end of the world as we know it” by REM rock band was key in the story of Noah, a famous journalist in pre-war world. It was certainly an inspiration for the writer in creating that character. The song was recorded in 1987 and was a hit then. The Pandemic mood that has influenced the world for the past two years has brought it back to light. 

The weak point in the novel was the constitution that the “savior” asked for, approved and enforced. It looked a lot like absolutism of the 14th century. According to the character, somebody who studied psychology, instead of theology like his father wanted, should have realized that a constitution that prohibits sexual relations between men and women would never work. The pretext was that increasing the number of the survivors will be a burden on the meager resources that the community is struggling to create. The survivor’s constitution stated that “The Savior Cesar person is sacred; his decisions are not to be discussed or objected by anyone.” A crazy close in any charter or law, but basically it describes all what rulers want and fight for during their time in power.

The details are numerous regarding the narcissism of Cesar, whether his photo sessions that became among his weekly activities, or abusing his power to have sexual relations with the female survivors, or ordering the murder of an old woman who voiced her vision about the wolf disguised in sheep clothes. Being obsessed and preoccupied with his ego was the transgression that led to dreadful consequences to a community that started as an ideal solution to a horrible situation.

The novel overall is an interesting easy read, the writer showed her talent in forming an airtight plot about the people in power and how they get to be the way they are. The question about each novel is whether it will pass the test of time or not and will readers remember it in a few years remains to be seen.

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