What if this were the end of mobility? A (not so) dystopian reading of current affairs
A scene from the film 1984.
‘Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.’
Once upon a time, in a world without COVID-19… The legend tells that in the BC (Before Coronavirus) era, people in Europe used to say, maybe too naively, that unbridled globalisation was an irreversible fact, that global was the new local. We bought avocado from the antipodes, we wore long-distance clothes made in Bangladesh or China, we spent the holidays in other continents drinking mojitos sweeter and more photogenic than those at the local pub. Not anymore. The healthcare crisis that almost no one had seen coming built in record time the most solid and impenetrable walls right outside our doors: overnight, the confinement of a large part of the population made everything small, homebound, the world shrunk to the living room. Chaos turned into order: deers and boards took over public space in cities, children and teenagers begged to come back to school, police officers sang ‘Happy Birthday’ through a megaphone, migrants fled from Europe to Morocco in dinghies. Reality suddenly beat fiction, and the present showed itself to be a mystery to solve.
Since then, the future has become a question mark, floating around in the atmosphere dominated by the fear of the invisible but tangible presence of the virus; we live in a world of disturbing questions. Will I go back to work or to school? Will I have a job? Will I be able to eat the avocado from the antipodes that I liked so much? Will I be able to get out of my country/my town/my house someday? Is this the end of mobility and the beginning of something new, more virtual, less real, less human? It is difficult not to project the future as a grey, hazy, terrifying place when the present has been under lockdown for two unending months; rather, we can say that the word ‘future’ is a paradox in itself. ‘When I pronounce the word Future / the first syllable already belongs to the past’, wrote Wislawa Szymborska. In this article, we will look into the dystopian novel genre to seek some answers to our confined incertitudes.
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The etymology of the word ‘dystopia’ sums it up well: the future is a bad place. In the aftermath of the Second World War, George Orwell described, as a prophetic warning, the road that should not be taken. 1984 is an accurate chronicle of facts that did not take place, but almost did; a tale of the successful failure of something that could have been but never was: a nightmare dreamt before closing one’s eyes. In the year 1984, the world is divided up in three regions equally powerful and eternally at war with each other: Oceania, Eurasia, and Asia. Winston Smith, the main character, is an average citizen of Oceania, a prisoner of his dull routine as a worker in the Ministry of Truth, under the ceaseless scrutiny of the ubiquitous telescreens controlling every gesture, word and movement of the submissive population: ‘Big Brother is watching you’, is the motto of the sole Party. Despite the seemingly total control and the video surveillance of their slightest movement, Winston finds a glimmer of freedom in the blank pages of an old abandoned diary: the sound of the pen scratching the paper marks the beginning of his rebellion against the system. Writing, the flow of consciousness on paper, reveals itself as a weapon against the ideological immobility imposed by totalitarianism.
The future George Orwell warned us against in the late 1940s was an evil place where a homogenous and obedient population was surveilled by the almighty gaze of the Big Brother. The characters in the novel wander about a dehumanised and violent London, trapped in a decadent reality designed by the Party in order to guarantee their everlasting stay in power. However, the final appendix on ‘The principles of Newspeak’, the language the Party aimed to impose as the only means of communication, is narrated in the past tense as if it were a historical document. The exacerbated and excessive totalitarianism of the Party did not prosper; the flame of a rebel autonomous writing never waned. Orwell’s 1984 reminds us that the term ‘mobility’ does not only imply physical or psychological aspects – will I be able to get out of my house? go here or there? – but also, and mostly, concerns creative matters: ‘To mark the paper was the decisive act’, states the narrator.
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Another tireless chronicler and story-teller is Martín Caparrós, the Argentinian columnist of global affairs in El País and the Spanish edition of The New York Times en español, who is the author of El hambre (‘Hunger’) and El interior (‘The Inland’), among many others. In Sinfín (‘Endless’), his latest dystopian novel – or ‘fiction without a novel’ as he says – that saw the light a few days before the lockdown was declared in Europe, the journalist travels to the year 2070 seeking to solve for us those pressing questions: how will the future look like? And what did we do or not do to get there? With breathtaking prose, Caparrós introduces us to a not so distant future where work does no longer exist; food is ‘autonomous’ and chemical (the most anti-establishment people eat human flesh); there are men, women and ‘fluides’ (fluid people), who are in a state of perpetual migration; nation-states have disappeared; and Europe has gone back to the Middle Ages and to fortresses, castles and religious Crusades as a symbol of its precarious and withered identity.
In the world depicted by the chronicler-narrator of Sinfín, life is what happens in a ‘TruVí’, a sort of omnipresent virtual reality and faraway descendant of the smartphone (‘there’, in the TruVí, one travels, has sexual relations, loves and hates), and death is no longer death: the end of life has been replaced by 天 – pronounced as tsian, which means ‘heaven’ in Chinese. 天 is the greatest technological advance in the history of humankind: the brain is removed from the body and connected to a virtual paradise previously designed by each individual. In other words, 天 entails the eternal realisation of a desire. Just like during the 2020 lockdown, in Caparrós’ dystopia everything is also small, homebound, customised. But not all that glitters is gold in 2070...
In this ‘bad place’ that Caparrós warns us against, there are two types of people. On the one hand, the few who live in their TruVí, in a parallel reality far from the rest of the world, waiting for their 天 locked up in their hideouts, dead while still alive. On the other hand, hundreds of millions who wander – ‘flow’, as the chronicler-narrator puts it – on Earth indefinitely, searching for an opportunity. The former are characterised by their immobility, they do not get out of their houses, their eyes set on the promise of heaven; the latter live in the present, that of war, hunger, incertitude, and they will probably die because death still kills, albeit less and less. These are the ones we call ‘refugees/migrants/stateless’ in 2020, people in transit seeking a decent present.
In Sinfín’s 2070, writing is an archaic, unproductive, useless act; the digital image is everything. However, the chronicler-narrator, who defines herself as ‘a story-teller’, writes as a means to seek answers, to (re)build the story of her time. And, paradoxically, the more she writes, interviews, researches and analyses, the less she thinks she knows, and the more she doubts. It is then when she states: ‘we know that the true wealth is to never get inside a TruVí’, in that parallel virtual world that cancels the tangible, raw reality. Because the ‘true wealth’ is thinking, writing, living, moving… In short, not staying unperturbed in front of a screen. To (re)act.
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How will the future look like in the AC era (After the Coronavirus)? There is no use in trying to imagine it with pinpoint accuracy, to put a face and a voice to a time which is yet to come: the possibilities and ramifications are infinite. As Margaret Atwood, a great lover of this verbal tense, writes in In Other Worlds, ‘I carefully say a future rather than the future because the future is an unknown’. In this respect, the dystopian novel genre, where 1984 and Sinfín sit, outlines a model of future based on the fears and anxieties of the present when they are written: totalitarian control over the individual and society in the first one; the ubiquity of screens and of the dehumanised and dehumanising neoliberalism in the second. On top of this comes the personal reading that each one of us does of the texts; in the lockdown times of COVID-19, the word ‘mobility’ and its possible antonyms – inaction, immobility, paralysis – are reflected in every corner of our rooms, in every step we do not take and in every page we do read. The future story-teller of our days will likely say that in the spring of 2020 time stopped, that in those days the promise of a future did not seem to arrive, that we lived stranded in the prison of the present. But in the character of a future story-teller, in the idea that someone will speak about this someday, also dwells the hope for change, the indisputable evidence of movement. Imagining a future means mobilising the present.
Irene comes from Valladolid, Spain. She is a MA candidate of the Comparative Literature programme at the University of Geneva, where she is researching on reimagining migrants narratives and biopolitics. A vocational writer and reader, she takes a particular interest in the political agency of literature that she believes can help redefine the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ into ‘political opportunity’. She loves coffee, cheese and long discussions.
You can find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/irene.praga