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Naming the Arab: Kamel Daoud’s “Meursault, contre-enquête”

By Suzanne Ruta

The Algerian novelist and journalist Kamel Daoud publishes a pithy, fast-paced critique of Algerian society five times a week in the French-language daily Quotidien d’Oran, and on Facebook. Readers value his insight, his poetry, his well-directed rage. 

In 2010 a French reporter, in Oran to research Camus’ connection with the town, irritated Daoud by raising the tired question of whether Camus belongs to France or Algeria. “He’s not a leg of lamb to be cut in half,” Daoud complained in a recent interview. He went home and wrote a riff on L’Étranger, in the voice of the imagined younger brother of the unnamed “Arabe” shot five times by Meursault on that fateful Algiers beach in 1942. And realized he was on to something. What started as a chronique wound up filling an entire book.

Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter-inquiry) was published late last year by Éditions Barzakh in Algiers, and this year by Actes Sud in France. Of all the many tributes paid Camus in his 2013 centenary, this may be the most intimate, heartfelt, and enlightening.

The year is 2010 or thereabouts. The narrator, a man in his late seventies, hangs out in an Oran bar, the Titanic, making his confession (like Jean-Baptiste Clamence in Camus' Le Chute) to a returned expat Algerian who can’t get a word in edgewise. The monologist, Haroun, was all of seven when his brother Moussa—a Biblical name—was shot by Meursault on that famous beach.  Seventy years later Haroun is still outraged at the way his family was reduced to anonymity, overlooked completely, by the world-renowned author of L'Étranger, whom he identifies with his brother’s murderer. To him they are one and the same man, Albert Meursault, who has a lot to answer for.

His older brother’s death, his widowed mother’s desperate search for her missing son (his body apparently washed away by the tide), her boundless grief and demand for vengeance—all of this stunts Haroun’s development but also drives him, in the end, to rebel.  In his teens he learns French, to tell his brother’s story but also to escape his overbearing mother’s grip. In his twenties, there’s a brief, chaste romance with a young woman who hands him a novel called L'Étranger. He learns it by heart. He lives on, a clerk in a Kafkaesque government office, a friendless bachelor, as much a guilt-ridden, disconnected outsider in “decolonized” twenty-first-century Algeria as Meursault was in colonial times: a clever, complicated way of saying that Algeria is trapped in a time warp, and needs to break free at last.

In a playful paradox, this novel posing as an attack on L’Étranger celebrates Camus on every page, recycling tropes and sentences and whole passages from his works, including the posthumous Premier Homme. We might call this approach "intertextual"; Daoud has referred to it as “paratextual." From the first sentence, “M'ma is still alive today,” to the final pages where Haroun rebukes the neighborhood imam in the very same words Meursault hurled at the prison chaplain, Daoud enlists Camus in his campaign against the weary, life-denying beliefs of nationalism and Islamism that hold Algeria in thrall.

Beyond all the allusions—Camusian, Biblical, Koranic—and the suggestive similes (the bay of Oran is like a woman spreading her legs, the bay of Algiers like an open jaw), there is the simple power of the tale, the fable. The poetic justice of giving the anonymous “Arabe” and his family their names and histories and voices resonates with readers; the novel has just been nominated for France’s annual Prix François Mauriac, and theater and film versions are already in the works.

In April, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika—a seventy-seven-year-old holdover from the 1960s and by now a wheelchair-bound stroke victim, barely capable of public speaking—was reelected to a fourth straight term. The continued rule of Bouteflika, or “Lui” as Daoud has begun to refer to him, shreds every remaining illusion about the march toward democratic reform.  But like the comic alter ego in his novel, Daoud won’t shut up. Too much is at stake. Not so much his own future—as he admitted in his column of March 5, "I have lost the best years of my life"—but those of younger generations. Perhaps the most moving line in his novel is the dedication to his children, "mes yeux ouverts": my open eyes. 

Published Jun 18, 2014   Copyright 2014 Suzanne Ruta

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