In most novels, pointing out the protagonist and antagonist comes to us rather easily. Authors use the latter to exemplify traits our heroes are struggling against or for. And we know who’s bad because they go against our own morals and values. However, with Ahmed Towfik’s science fiction novel, Utopia, we don’t have that luxury.
The story Utopia is told from the perspectives of two narrators: Alaa and Gaber. A Utopian and an Other. Raised in completely different environments, their paths cross only after Alaa leaves Utopia with the plan of murdering an Other and bringing home a limb as a trophy. You’d think that’d be enough to tell us Alaa is the monster and we should side with Gaber, but then [spoiler alert] Gaber tries raping Alaa’s sorta-kinda-more-for-convenience-sake girlfriend after knocking her out with a concoction of drugs. He doesn’t go through with the act, but he gets as far as standing over her sleeping body. And for me that’s his downfall; the tear in character that forever changes my perception of him.
See, when I read a novel, I want a hero. I want to read stories where the good prevails. But then I come across Utopia and I’m stuck asking myself what my next step will be. What do I do when I can’t read about Gaber and think he’s an innocent man anymore? Do I suddenly side with Alaa, a privilaged sixteen year old that’s never had to work a day in his life? Who romanticizes death and prefers sexual gratification over intimacy? Who places a high power distance between himself and the female sex?
I know Gaber’s no hero, but at least he’s the lesser of two evils. I side with him because where Alaa lacks humanity, Gaber at least shows some signs of hope. I’m siding with the poor man that always keeps his sister in his thoughts. I’m siding with the college graduate whose diploma was worth nothing after the disapearance of the Middle Class. A man that can’t find it in him to kill the Utopians that would kill him in a heartbeat if the roles were reversed.
And perhaps that says something about me and my need to find examples of humanity within fictional characters to prove that I’m not a bad person. That they are. I’m just trying to look at the silver lining.