The Book Censor's Library: An oppressive Orwellian nightmare

The Book Censor's Library: An oppressive Orwellian nightmare
Book Club: Bothayna Al-Essa's claustrophobic satire summons the spirits of Orwell, Carroll, and Kafka, serving as a sharp reminder to cherish free speech.
6 min read
10 April, 2024
The Book Censor’s Library is a warning call and a love letter to stories and the delicious act of losing oneself in them [Restless Books]

Kuwaiti author Bothayna El-Essa investigates the significance of literature in human emancipation and the extent to which what we read defines who we become in her latest novel, The Book Censor’s Library.

Translated from Arabic by Ranya Abdelrahman and Sawad Husain, the book quickly takes on dystopian and psychological dimensions when a new book censor is confronted with a daunting task: to avoid losing himself in the books he is supposed to ban.

"The Book Censor’s Library explores the longing for human connection which lies under a thirst for knowledge. Sameness is a repression of the soul and literature is a tale of human becoming"

In the New World, Positive Realism reigns after the Revolution. The System knows what’s best and the book censors ensure that New Human’s minds stay free from Old World’s remnants.

Cell phones and the Internet have been banned, and state-controlled power cuts limit citizens’ leisure while stimulating a pro-natalist policy. Against this backdrop, the nameless protagonist reluctantly accepts a job as a book censor, which will initiate his demise.

His new profession is to read without reading, to be, in the words of the Censorship Authority, a “guardian of surfaces”. Words and literature are not to be interpreted but considered in pure isolation, flat like a gravestone. He must not become an actual reader, one who voraciously reads for pleasure, which is equated with deviancy and treason.

Having studied The Manual for Correct Reading, the new Book Censor first passed a test to recognize “violations” that mostly concern misrepresenting religion, government, and sex — a “trinity” which is the object of specific guidance and prohibitions. For example, books that address the Old World and the time before the Revolution should be banned.

“The Founding Fathers had discovered — after the fall of democracies, the rationing of technology, the revolution against the information revolution, and an in-depth study of their history — that the only way to create a happy city was to empty its inhabitants of their desires, except those desires that are essential for the survival of the species. They had decided that imagination was the origin of all past evils”

Yet for all its clinical preparations and applications, banning books takes a personal toll. This is first encountered in the cautionary tale of a mysterious Secretary, an old man with glasses who “fell victim to the reading malady” in which he lost sight of reality.

One of the sure signs of his delirious mind is that he “lapsed into interpretation.” As a result, the Secretary was deemed a “Cancer” by his peers, a term denoting treacherous readers belonging to opposition cells. Semi-ostracized, he is forbidden from reading a book for the remainder of his lifetime.

The dangers of books can be immediate. This will be the experience of the New Censor, full of novice zeal when he picks up a copy of Zorba the Greek, a book banned several times over.

The novel introduces him to characters complex humanity – intellectual, free-spirited, and instinctual. He feels a shift; daily life contains textures he never suspected, and he begins to entertain an inner monologue made of dangerous metaphors.

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He, too, becomes a Cancer, a secret metamorphosis hard to confine. Reading disrupts his former sense of self and safety, endangers his position, as well as strains his relationships, notably with his law-abiding wife, as the couple also struggles with the upbringing of their five-year-old eccentric daughter, described as “a house possessed by spirits, the final doorway to the past.”

The child wears fairy dust and chats with imaginary beings from a repressed collective unconsciousness in a society governed by khaki uniforms and official portraits of the President. Her future does not bode well in such a rigid society.

One forbidden book's pleasure leads to another – 1984 by way of Alice in Wonderland – and the Book Censor finds himself in the uncomfortable situation of reflecting on personal transgressions, broader salvation, and a necessary but costly call to resist totalitarianism.

“He knew who he had been before that book, but now he knew nothing. Was he a book censor or a reader? A guardian of surfaces or the Guardian of the Library? He had to choose, and he had to tell the Secretary what he’d decided.”

“In order to fight totalitarianism one need understand only one thing, that it is the most radical denial of freedom,” wrote Hannah Arendt about times less fictional. This radical denial encompasses a desire to think, dream, imagine – qualities at the core of what makes us human.

This will lead the Book Censor to contemplate dissent. His conflict is reinforced by literary devices that amplify his profusion of thoughts and daydreaming.

The rabbits that populate the Censorship Authority and appear in decisive moments in the book represent an allegory of inner life, the musings of the mind, springing and multiplying in defiance of the System. They are guides to rabbit holes, to portals of infinite libraries.

Books are assigned anthropomorphic qualities. They cry; there’s no one to “pat their backs”. El-Issa suggests symbolic repetition in the number of seven, reiterated in the number of censors, policemen, and effigies to be burned at the Saturnalian “Purification Day” ceremony which celebrates role reversals and book pyres. In doing so, she depicts a climate of foreboding and inescapability. What’s the point of saving books and the past if there can’t be a desirable future?

El-Essa, the author of several novels including All That I Want to Forget (2019), channels the hallmarks of dystopian literature in this fast-paced meditation on the power of language to stir us out of numbness.

When her protagonist realises that “language was not a smooth surface — it was a roller-coaster, a sponge, a gateway”, The Book Censor’s Library explores the longing for human connection which lies under a thirst for knowledge. Sameness is a repression of the soul and literature is a tale of human becoming.

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While in El-Issa’s native Kuwait, a censorship committee was abolished in 2020, the practice of banning books spans borders and has not stopped.

Books remain political objects, which means that reading – and reading fiction no less – is inscribed in radical acts of freedom and defiance.

It is thus vital to remind ourselves of the power we hold as readers when daily life challenges our understanding of truth and humanity.

Reading humbles and grounds us. El-Issa aptly recalls that “Cancers” are the only cells that thrive in a dying body.

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis