Utopia, By Ahmed Khaled Towfik

Reviewed,Sholto Byrnes
Sunday 18 September 2011 00:01 BST

The year is 2023. Our unnamed protagonist wakes up. He urinates, smokes, eats, pukes, has sex with the African maid, swigs whisky, scrawls a slogan on the wall of his home, dances, pukes again and eats some more. "In one hour, I've done everything, and there's nothing left in life that interests me or that I want." Welcome to Utopia, the gated, US Marine-protected colony on the north Egyptian coast to which the wealthy retreated when the country's society collapsed in the first decade of the 21st century.

In Ahmed Towfik's chilling, gripping vision of an alternative future, translated from the Arabic, Israel had built its own version of the Suez Canal, tourism revenues were insufficient to pay for services and the Middle East's petroleum reserves became worthless after the US invention of a new super-fuel. The Egyptian middle class disappeared, as did the apparatus of the state. Those who remained outside Utopia, The Others, sunk into bestiality. No one read books, poverty dismantled "the barricades of morality", and hunger, disease and violence became the norm.

Utopia's youth grow up utterly spoiled, devoid of feeling for their fellow men. Money has eroded traditions of respect and religion, and in their international enclave, none of the children are given Arabic names, setting them further apart from The Others and from their history. (They are puzzled as to why Israel should once have been considered an enemy.) Every conceivable pleasure is available to them, and they have no care for how their riches were obtained. As our arrogant but intelligent teenage protagonist tells us: "This was my land and this was my world. I was born here. If my father stole these rights, then they had become my birthright, and I wouldn't give them up for beggars and street whores." Only one thrill remains to the young who are inured to appreciation by a lifetime of instant gratification – and it lies beyond the barbed wire and security fences of Utopia.

The narrator and his girlfriend du jour knock out two of The Others who provide slave labour in Utopia, put on their rags and take the workers' bus to venture outside. Their mission: to find a suitable Other to kill, and then hack off a limb to bring back as a trophy of their hunt. If they find themselves in trouble, one call to a parent will have a Marine helicopter hovering over them within minutes, ready to gun down any maddened savages who are threatening to tear them apart. A mild reproach is all that will be visited upon them by way of chastisement on their return.

Only it doesn't quite turn out that way, and the couple find themselves at risk of rape, mutilation and death. They are only saved by Gaber, an Other who has managed to retain a shred of dignity and self-respect from his pre-lapsarian life, but whose every act of kindness they ultimately repay with cruelty and malice.

Towfik's novel is bleak and his characters are almost without any redeeming qualities. It is also utterly compelling. It is no surprise to find that, not only is the author a medical professor (the anatomical descriptions are gruesomely real) but, according to his publishers, he is "the Arab world's best-selling author of horror and fantasy genres". Far more convincing a depiction of a nightmarish future even than A Clockwork Orange, Utopia is a miniature masterpiece. I defy anyone not to read it in one sitting.

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