The government of an unnamed country has come to a complete standstill in Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (skillfully translated by Elisabeth Jacquette). Since the Disgraceful Events a few months prior, new laws and procedures come out daily, requiring citizens to get approval for everything. In the case of Yehya, that means getting approval for surgery to remove a bullet in his abdomen. Yehya was shot during the Disgraceful Events by government soldiers but, officially, that never happened. Now he is stuck in an endless wait at the Gate with thousands of other citizens. The Gate has been closed since the Events. Without approval from the Gate, however, no one can get their required approvals. What can anyone do but wait and hope the Gate reopens? What can Yehya do but hope he will get his approval before the bullet finishes killing him?
The Queue evokes Kafka’s The Trial in more than one way. The bureaucracy rules everything, but no one seems to be in charge. All forward progress has been halted and everyone is an endless waiting game. Over the course of the novel, we see get to know several other citizens who have been caught in the queue at the Gate. Ines is hoping for a Certificate of True Citizenship so that she can get her teaching job back after a student wrote a criticism of the government. Shalaby is there to make sure his cousin’s family gets their pension and have his cousin recognized as a martyr. Um Mabrouk is in the queue to get approval for her daughter’s surgery. Ehab, a journalist, is there to record people’s stories and share news.
As the days pass and the characters settle into their places in the queue, we learn more about how the Gate is rewriting history. It seems that the authorities (whoever they are) don’t want word getting out that its troops shot people during the Disgraceful Events, that unemployment is skyrocketing, that the government-subsidized phones are tapped, or that the Gate might never reopen.Worse, however, are the hints that the Gate is far more technologically sophisticated than one might think. Citizens discover that their conversations are being recorded even when their phones are turned off. A doctor finds that the patient records locked in his office are being updated over night. On top of it all, the government newspaper prints new versions of the recent past so often that some of the characters, like Ines, start to wonder if their own memories can be trusted. I was reminded more than once of the old Soviet joke: there is no pravda [truth] in Pravda [the newspaper].
In the middle of this bureaucratic nightmare is Yehya. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was shot. He was not a government supporter or a rebel, but the laws and regulations and requirements have conspired to prevent him from having his surgery. He waits in the queue, slowly dying, while his girlfriend and friends and the doctor who initially treated him try to find a way to help. The hope that someone would succeed kept me reading and I won’t ruin the book by saying here if my hope was satisfied or not.
The Queue, while a little heavy-handed at times, is a brilliant satire on the deadly absurdity of a totalitarian government that wants complete control over information. The citizens in the queue are perfectly ordinary. None of them are dissidents. Yet they are spied on and tied up with so much red tape that they can’t move on with their lives. The tension in the book got me so wound up that I wanted to shout at the characters that it wasn’t worth it, that they should rise up against whoever was in charge. Rebellion is impossible, it seems, when everyone is locked into their own private struggle.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 24 May 2016.