An Algerian Rebuke to “The Stranger”
By Elisabeth Zerofsky, THE NEW YORKER ( http://www.newyorker.com/ )
13 March 2015
“There were two who died. Yes, two,” Kamel Daoud writes in his meditative first novel, “Meursault, Counter Investigation.” “The first knew how to tell a story, to the point where everyone forgot about his crime, whereas the second was a poor illiterate whom God created only, it seems, to receive a bullet and return to dust, an unknown without the time even for a name.” Daoud has said that his novel is an homage to Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” but it reads more like a rebuke. Camus’s French-Algerian hero, sentenced to execution for the murder of an Arab, descends into a bloodless interrogation of life in the face of death. In “Meursault,” Daoud imagines a brother, Haroun, for Camus’s nameless Arab, who recounts the grief that he and his mother suffered after the murder, as the world was entranced by the intellectual calisthenics of the criminal. Haroun’s quest for justice over the next twenty years is really a tale of the Algerian struggle for independence. When at last he takes his vengeance, it is July 1962, the eve of liberation. But independence, and the exchange of power that comes with it, hardly settles everything; the violence of colonialism, followed by the vacuum of withdrawal, pushed the young nation into years of civil war. “It was your hero who killed,” Haroun says to a French companion, “but it is I who am condemned to wander.”
Last fall, Daoud’s novel was the “surprise guest,” as Le Figaro put it, on the shortlist for the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary award. (The book was first published in Algeria, in 2013. It appeared in France last year and is scheduled to come out in English this year, in an edition by Other Press.) The factors that contributed to the so-called surprise were, presumably, that “Meursault” is Daoud’s first novel (though he has published two collections of short stories and writes a column for an Algerian daily), and that he is an Algerian writer educated and residing in Algeria, unlike most well-known writers of North African origin writing in French, who move to Paris to cultivate their careers. Daoud lost, to Lydie Salvayre, who was honoured for her novel “Pas Pleurer,” about the Spanish Civil War. Had he won, and received the French cultural establishment’s ultimate seal of approval, the award might, in a way, have tarnished the book’s true accomplishments. Daoud’s work is not simply a riff on the French canon, but rather a vast and searching allegory of the conquest of a people. In the novel, Haroun writes that his literary task is to “take one by one the stones of the old homes of the colonists and make of them a home of my own, a language to myself.” This description could, just as aptly, be applied to Daoud’s own project.
Around the time of the Goncourt award, in November, Daoud made the publicity rounds in Paris, revealing a quiet, sober face and a mild-mannered persona that presented a startling contrast to the heat of his written words. Perhaps he was uncomfortable in the spotlight. Then, in mid-December, a few weeks into his media blitz, Daoud found himself the target of a new type of attention: a man named Abdelfattah Hamadache Zeraoui, who claimed to be the Imam of a Salafist group called the Islamist Awakening Front, issued a Fatwa calling for Daoud to be put to death. “If Islamic Sharia were applied in Algeria, the punishment would be death for apostasy and heresy. … [Daoud] placed the Quran in doubt, along with the sanctity of Islam: he injured the dignity of Muslims and praised the West and the Zionists,” Zeraoui wrote on Facebook. “We therefore call upon the Algerian regime to condemn him to public execution, because of his war against God, his Prophet, his Book, Muslims and their country.”
It wasn’t clear whether Zeraoui was referring to Daoud’s novel or to his public statements (or whether he had the clerical authority to make such a pronouncement). But his threat likely was related to Daoud’s comments on a talk show a few days earlier. Daoud had been asked about a particularly sharp passage in his novel, concerning organized religion. “If in the so-called Arab world we don’t solve the question of God,” Daoud said, “we’re not going to advance. So long as God is so important, so long as God is so over-interpreted, man becomes secondary. That’s a bit philosophical, but at the same time it’s very vital to me, very immediate. I think the question of religion has become essential in the Arab world. We must solve it, we must reflect on it, we must create a bit of distance in order to be able to move forward, to be able to share the world.” When the Fatwa appeared, Daoud filed a complaint with the Algerian government, but no action appears to have been taken. The French media’s interest in Daoud intensified and turned from his novel to his statements about Islam and politics (a subject he had written about for many years, in his newspaper column) and what they had brought upon him.
Three weeks later, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, brothers born in France to Algerian parents, stormed the Charlie Hebdo office, in the centre of Paris, and assassinated eleven members of the newspaper’s staff. Daoud was, once again, a sought-after interlocutor, someone who could speak as both a critic and a victim of France’s ongoing divorce from its former empire. “In Algeria, the problem is that there is no alternative ideology to Islamism,” Daoud said in an interview with Le Monde a week after the attack. “If you are not an Islamist at seventeen, which is a legal adult, then what are you? Islamism takes care of you completely: your body, your sexuality, your life, your relations with others. On the other side, there is nothing. This is the philosophical disaster of the Arab world.” There can be no justification, no rationalization for what the Kouachi brothers did. There is, however, room to understand France’s ongoing ethnic and cultural conflicts partly as a legacy of violence and subjugation. Daoud, in both his novel and his political commentary, has proved himself to be a sensitive and insightful interpreter of the textures of this history.
But “Meursault, Counter Investigation” is not only a colonial drama. Where Camus’s godless prose is coolly mathematical in its ratio of words to meaning (“like Euclidean geometry” Haroun notes), Daoud’s work conducts waves of warmth. The sand and the sea and the sky and the stars, which, for Camus, seem to negate life rather than affirm it, are, for Daoud, vital witnesses and participants in his existence. “With all my body and both of my hands, I hold to this life that I will be alone in losing and to which I am the only witness,” Haroun writes. “As for death, I came close several years ago, and it never brought me nearer to God. It only gave me a desire for sensation that is even more powerful, more insatiable, and increased the depth of my own mystery. They are all going toward death in a single file line, and as for me, I am returning, and I can say that on the other side, it’s only an empty beach beneath the sky.” It is a fool’s task to try to quote this novel, which must be read as one ecstatic whole. Daoud’s explanation: “It’s a literary digression that I pursue because Algeria suffocates me, and in order to loosen its grasp, I read and I write.”