Algeria After Camus
The Missing History of Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation
The following essay appears in the winter issue of n+1.
“There are no more deserts. There are no more islands.” So run the first lines of Camus’s essay “The Minotaur, or The Stop in Oran.” They were intended as a lament. As Camus saw it, deserts were necessary for solitude, and solitude was necessary for greatness. The cultural centers of Europe were too old, too dense and enervated, to provide this kind of isolation. Where, then, could it be found?
Camus wrote “The Minotaur” in 1939. He was 26, a little-known journalist for a left-wing newspaper, the son of a Spanish charwoman and a French cellarman, who had grown up in a poor neighborhood of Algiers and won a scholarship to high school. The essay is clearly the work of a young man; neither Camus’s provincial insecurity nor his pride in his own experience is far below the surface. It begins with a detailed list of the deficiencies of colonial Oran, the Algerian city he would go on to use as the setting for his novel The Plague: it has no history, no culture, no “interesting circle,” nothing to do. The streets are dusty, the buildings ugly, the movies bad, the window displays piled with tasteless and outdated merchandise. Some of the girls are pretty, but they wear too much makeup and none of them know how to flirt. There are too many funeral parlors.
But, the essay argues in a sudden reversal, it is precisely the characteristics of Oran that to the metropolitan visitor might seem like faults — its emptiness, its ugliness, its anonymity — that hold the key to its true value. With no access to the diversions of Amsterdam or Paris, Camus explains, the inhabitants of Oran (“the capital of boredom”) are forced to come face-to-face with the inherent futility of human endeavor. This experience is not for everyone, he admits. For a heroic few, though, it can lead to a firmer grasp on life and a renewed sense of vigor and clarity. The essay ends with a display of Camus’s own vigor and clarity, a lyrical description of the landscape and the quality of the light in the countryside outside Oran, where the harsh sun reduces every shape to its essential outlines and “every summer morning seems to be the first in the world.”
A year later, Camus was in Paris. By the end of World War II, he was famous as the author of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, a friend and collaborator of Sartre, an editor of the underground journal Combat and a hero of the Resistance. He was praised for his principled opposition to totalitarianism, and his novels were held up as universal parables of the relation of the individual to society. But the associative chain linking the empty Algerian landscape and his own strong and lucid style continued to shape his work. Although Camus, in his journalism, was a perceptive and sympathetic observer of the mistreatment of Arab and Berber Algerians by French colonial authorities, the novels and essays on which his reputation depends all use the empty Algerian desert to stage their dramas of solitary heroism. This would make him an obvious target for a later generation of critics, such as Edward Said, who devoted his career to investigating the peculiar silences of European writers over the culture of their colonies and puncturing the self-aggrandizing fantasies they imposed on the landscapes they forcibly inhabited. “Except occasionally, he usually ignores or overlooks the history,” Said writes in his extended critique of Camus in Culture and Imperialism. “True,” Said concedes, the hero of The Stranger shoots an “Arab” on the beach in Algiers, a scene that could be interpreted as an acknowledgment of the violence of colonialism, “but this Arab is not named and seems to be without a history, let alone a mother and a father.” The death of a nameless Arab is merely a backdrop for the existential crisis of the European hero.
This missing history is the subject of The Meursault Investigation. Its author, Kamel Daoud, is the editor of a French-language daily in Oran and a vocal critic of the current Algerian regime, known for his elegant and provocative weekly columns. Like Camus, he is as much a public figure as a novelist, an editorialist with a clear and impassioned style, and his book, a retelling of The Stranger from the perspective of its nameless victim’s brother, is both an indictment of his predecessor and an appropriation of his legacy.
* * * *
The Stranger is a short novel, written in simple prose, in which not very much happens. Camus summarized it in a sentence, as a book about a man who “is condemned because he refuses to play the game.” Its protagonist, Meursault, a European settler living in Algiers, receives a telegram informing him of his mother’s death in a nursing home outside the city. He attends her funeral, doesn’t cry, returns home, goes to the beach, and sees a movie with a girl. A few days later, he shoots an Algerian man on the beach “for no good reason.” After his crime, he is arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to be executed, less, it seems, for his crime itself than for his failure to cry at his mother’s funeral. The book ends with Meursault’s refusing religious absolution and asserting Camus’s signature philosophy of the absurdity of life and the absence of any meaning beyond existence itself.
It is not, in other words, an immediately obvious basis for a work of postcolonial reappropriation, a kind of novel that tends to be constructed around source material — Jane Eyre in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Robinson Crusoe in Coetzee’s Foe — with better-stocked and more elaborate fictional worlds. Daoud gets around this difficulty by setting his book in present-day Oran, more than half a century after the crime at its center, and constructing an intricate frame narrative around Camus’s novel. When Daoud’s narrator, Harun, was a child, his brother was killed by a European settler on a beach outside Algiers. Now an old man, he returns to the same bar every night to drink with strangers and replay the story of his brother’s death over and over. The book unfolds as a series of his one-sided conversations with an unseen interlocutor. Harun explains that, in fact, the story of his brother’s death is already well-known; years ago, it was the basis of a celebrated novel, a slender paperback with a delicate pastel cover, written by a dissipated French settler, “lethargic from too much sun,” who recounted shooting an Algerian man on the beach in a few laconic sentences. Most people who’ve read the book, Harun says, don’t remember much about this part; its author was “such a good storyteller, he managed to make people forget his crime.” Although the word Arab appears several times throughout the text, the man’s victim is never given a name and disappears from the story as neatly and inexplicably as if he’d fallen through a trapdoor. “There were thousands like him back then,” Harun says of the book’s writer, “but it was his talent that made his crime perfect.”
Neither wholly Meursault nor his creator, this figure is a deliberately blurred composite of the two that seems to poke fun at postcolonial theorists’ impulse to try Camus for his character’s crime. (When The Meursault Investigation was published in Algeria, in October 2013, this character was named Albert Meursault. In the French edition released the following year, it was shortened, for copyright reasons, simply to “Meursault.”) Daoud borrows freely from Camus’s writing and his biography, mixing lines from his fiction and essays, references to his politics and philosophy, and details of his personal history. Although the novel is presented as an investigation, it’s never entirely clear whether the crime is Meursault’s murder or Camus’s book. This persistent ambiguity sets the tone of Daoud’s narrative, which plays with its original in varied and often contradictory ways, sometimes running counter to it, sometimes repeating it almost line for line. The result is at once an attack on Camus and an homage to Camus, a postcolonial novel and a parody of a postcolonial novel, an examination of the trauma of French rule and a critique of the failures of postrevolutionary Algeria — a counterpoint to The Stranger that challenges its author on his own ground, struggles with him, emulates him, and, in a final twist, looks past him.
* * * *
“Mama’s still alive today,” The Meursault Investigation begins, echoing and inverting The Stranger’s famous opening line. Like Camus, the narrator is the younger of two sons in a poor neighborhood of Algiers. Their father, who disappeared years ago, was the neighborhood’s night watchman. To Harun, who doesn’t remember his father, his older brother, Musa, is an almost biblical figure, “a simple god, a god of few words.” Harun’s first descriptions of his brother suggest a picture of uncomplicated stoicism and strength: “an angular face, big hands that protected me, and hard eyes because our ancestors lost their land.” Harun is only able to fill in this outline with a few details: his brother’s “gift for immobility, the way he’d stand stock-still on the threshold of our house, facing the neighbors’ wall, holding a cigarette and the cup of black coffee our mother would bring him”; his militant tattoos (“Echedda fi Allah, ‘God is my support.’ ‘March or die’ on his right shoulder. ‘Be quiet,’ on his left forearm, under a drawing of a broken heart.”), which Harun remembers “the way other people remember their first picture book.”
Musa disappears as quickly and incomprehensibly as he does in Camus’s novel: one day he’s there, drinking cappuccinos and smoking cigarettes in his blue overalls and espadrilles; the next, there’s a rumor that one of the neighborhood boys has been shot by a Frenchman. Musa’s body has vanished, and the only evidence of what took place is the picture of his murderer in the newspapers neither Harun nor his mother knows how to read. After forty days, Musa is declared dead, according to Islamic law, and a funeral ceremony is performed over an empty grave.
After Musa’s death, his memory assumes mythic proportions. “As a child, I was allowed to hear only one story at night, only one deceptively wonderful tale,” Harun says. “It was the story of Musa, my murdered brother, who took a different form every time, according to my mother’s mood.” This story effected “a fantastic transformation, one that turned a simple young man from the poorer quarters of Algiers into an invincible, long-awaited hero, a kind of savior.” In his mother’s ever-shifting account, Musa is “commissioned to perform different tasks: repay a blow, avenge an insult, recover a piece of confiscated land, collect a paycheck.” Sometimes he appears on horseback carrying a sword, sometimes he wrestles with the “big fat Frenchman, the obese thief of sweat and land,” sometimes he’s a prophet who hears invisible voices and has oracular dreams. But although the details of the story change, the theme is always the same and its constant repetition is the main point of contact between Harun and his mother.
* * * *
The Stranger could be read as the story of an orphaned protagonist coming to terms with an absent or indifferent mother. In The Meursault Investigation, this narrative progression is reversed. Far from being absent or indifferent, Harun’s mother is a constant, inescapable presence in her son’s life. After Musa’s death, she plunges into a protracted mourning period marked by mysterious illnesses, compulsive bathing, and excessive religious observances. Harun becomes a substitute for her lost child: she dresses him in his older brother’s clothes, keeps him tethered to her side, wakes him up at night when she thinks she hears Musa’s footsteps outside. Between visits to the hammam and the mausoleum at the center of the city, “a gloomy universe, neither hot nor cold, where names and portents were spoken in whispers,” she drags Harun along with her on an unending, circular investigation into the circumstances of her older son’s death, constantly retracing a circuit that runs from the police station to the morgue to the beach where Musa was killed.
Their path leads them through the center of 1950s-era Algiers, which Harun remembers as “an immense labyrinth made up of buildings, downtrodden people, shantytowns, dirty urchins, aggressive cops, and beaches fatal to Arabs,” full of blind alleys and false leads, less a physical location than an externalization of his mother’s circular stories. The colonial occupation is mentioned only in passing (“the Frenchwomen wore short, flowered dresses, and the sun would bite their breasts”), and the pitched battles that would break out in the streets of the city by the middle of the decade — immortalized in The Battle of Algiers — are not described at all. “So there’s no geography in this story,” Harun insists. “Generally speaking, it takes place in three settings of national importance: the city, whether that one or another one; the mountains, where you take refuge when you’re attacked or you want to make war; and the village, which is for each and every one of us the ancestral home.”
The Meursault Investigation begins in the city and moves to the country. A few years or a few months after Musa dies, Harun and his mother leave Algiers for a village fifty miles from the capital. As it moves away from the city, the novel opens up and the claustrophobia of the preceding pages lessens. Harun goes to school, learns how to read, stops spending all his time with his mother. But “rural life was hard,” he says. “It revealed what the cities kept hidden, namely that the country was starving to death.” His memories become sparser and mostly concerned with immediate survival. He works as an errand boy and then a laborer on a colonial farm, where his mother becomes a maid. Eventually, she is hired as a housekeeper for a settler family, and she and Harun move into a small shanty next to the settlers’ three-room house.
When independence is declared, the settlers flee. Harun and his mother take possession of the house and declare it “liberated: our property!” During the period of confusion that follows, they lie awake at night listening for intruders, ready to defend their own tenuous claim on their new property. One night, they hear a noise coming from the shed. Picking up the gun the settlers had abandoned along with their house — “a heavy old revolver that looked like a metal dog with one nostril and gave off a strange odor” — Harun goes to investigate and finds a man hiding in the corner.
At first, Harun can see the outlines of a face, which he recognizes as belonging to one of his neighbors, a French settler he’s seen around the village, “big, vaguely blond, with enormous circles under his eyes.” But the man backs away in fear, and Harun loses sight of him: “All I could see was shadow, and every object, every angle and curve stood out so confusedly it insulted my reason.” Harun’s mother has followed him in, and he can feel her silently urging him on to the only possible conclusion of the story she’s been telling him for twenty years. Without quite knowing what he’s doing, he raises his arm and shoots the man twice: “Mama was behind me, and I could feel her eyes on my back like a hand pushing me, holding me upright, guiding my arm, slightly tilting my head at the moment when I took aim.”
Harun’s act takes place just after July 5, 1962—the day Algeria officially declared independence from France and twenty years after “that miserable morning in the summer of 1942” when his brother died. The hour of Harun’s crime is two o’clock in the morning; Meursault’s was at two in the afternoon. Daoud is careful to emphasize the number of shots Harun fired (two to Meursault’s five), as if to suggest that no simple equivalence can be drawn between the murders that bookend the novel. And unlike Meursault, Harun gives the man he kills a name, Joseph Larquais, and a physical description. But the two crimes are inextricably linked, bound up with each other in a relation of reciprocity without symmetry or resolution.
Even by the standards of the bloody national-liberation struggles that broke out at the end of World War II, the Algerian War of Independence stands out for its brutality. Part of this was due to Algeria’s position as one of France’s longest-standing and most heavily settled colonial possessions, dating back to 1830, when the French navy invaded Algiers following a trade dispute. After a long pacification campaign built on preemptive raids and torture, the country was declared a French department and opened to successive waves of European settlers — most, like Camus’s parents, poor laborers and peasant farmers from Spain, Italy, or southern France. By the 1950s, there were well over a million pieds noirs, as they came to be known, in Algeria, more than six times the number of British in India at the height of the Raj.
The war followed a by-now familiar pattern of terrorist attack and counterterrorist response. Algerian guerrillas attacked French soldiers and settlers throughout the country, setting off bombs in buses and sidewalk cafés, assassinating officials, stabbing drivers pulled from their cars. The French responded, at first, with a show of disproportionate force, and then, as civilian casualties mounted, by instituting a policy of systematic torture, pioneering the early use of what Americans came to know recently as waterboarding. By the end of the war, more than a hundred and fifty thousand Algerians had been killed, and many more tortured and displaced.
Although officially fought between the French army and the Algerian National Liberation Front, the conflict radiated outward on both sides. The FLN and its military wing killed more Algerians than they did French citizens, both members of rival nationalist groups and loyalists who had fought alongside the French. Pieds noirs and their supporters in the French army formed their own “self-defense” groups who engaged in their own terrorist campaigns; in the early ’60s, the most notorious of these groups, the Secret Armed Organization (OAS), engaged in an arrière-garde campaign of sabotage and bombings that culminated in a series of assassination attempts on public figures. In France, the war, which was not officially acknowledged by the government until 1999, fractured society and triggered the collapse of the Fourth Republic, when generals from the Algerian campaign briefly occupied Corsica and threatened to send tanks into Paris if the then-retired de Gaulle was not restored to immediate control of the country. (When de Gaulle pulled out of Algeria a few years later anyway, the OAS tried to assassinate him too.) Even the French left formed an underground network, and, led by Sartre’s protégé Francis Jeanson, hundreds of supporters of Algerian independence smuggled money and weapons for FLN.
Camus, caught between his position on the left and his ties to French Algeria, confined his intervention to public calls for a civilian truce and private intercessions on behalf of Algerian political prisoners. He did not support an independent Algeria and imagined instead a binational compromise between France and Algeria. For the last four years of his life, after his position was ridiculed by his former allies on the French left, he refused to speak on the Algerian question. At a press conference following his Nobel Prize, he was challenged by an Algerian student over his diffidence. “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers,” Camus replied. “My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”
* * * *
The Meursault Investigation is a novel about this history. France’s 130-year colonial occupation and the Algerian War of Independence shape the lives of all its characters. But these events are like underwater detonations that register in the novel only indirectly. A few dates and names rise to the surface of the narrative like scattered pieces of debris, enough to connect the story to its broader context, but never enough to give the reader the impression of witnessing these events firsthand. By relaying this history solely at second hand, through the faltering memories of its narrator, The Meursault Investigation doesn’t diminish the destructive magnitude of these events, but it does drain some of the solemnity from what might otherwise become a sacrosanct recital of past injuries.
Harun is not an immediately sympathetic character. He is long-winded, repetitive, prone to tangents. He swings rapidly between self-assertion and self-pity. “There were happy moments, of course,” he admits, “but what did they matter, scattered through those long condolences? And I don’t suppose you’re putting up with this pretentious monologue of mine for the happy moments.” As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Harun is not a reliable witness to his story. His conflation of Camus and Camus’s most famous character seems to reflect a more basic uncertainty about the events of the past, and his recital of the crime is as tangled and disorganized as his mother’s investigations. The more he tries to pin down its details, adopting a prosecutorial style (“Let’s summarize”; “Let’s go back. It’s always a good thing to go back and review the basics”), the more it eludes his grasp. He continually revises his memories, entertains wild conspiracy theories, and seems confused on points of fact. “Yes, yes, I agree, the argument’s a bit muddled,” he says irritably, apparently in response to an objection by his unseen interlocutor. “As you’re starting to realize, I like to ramble.”
But although his memory wanders, it never gains much ground. Each chapter lapses back into the same confusion and disorder with which it began. Harun’s constantly shifting but endlessly repeating recitals come to seem like the evidence of an unhealed wound, circling and returning to the same frozen tableau: “the white-hot beach, the impossible trace of Musa’s body, and the sun, fixed above the head of a man holding a cigarette or a revolver, I can’t really tell. . . The scene never changes, and I beat against it like a fly against a windowpane.”
Harun’s emotional paralysis is accompanied by familiar physical symptoms of trauma: stomach pain, anxiety attacks, muscle spasms. At night, he wakes up in helpless paroxysms of anger, “the kind of anger,” he says, “that takes you by the throat, tramples you, pesters you with the same questions, tortures you, tries to force you to make a confession or give up a name.” He walks stiffly and complains that his arms always feel like they’re asleep. Reaching for words to describe his condition, he falls back, like Camus’s hero, on old tabloid clippings. One article has had a particular impact on him, the story of an Indian man who has spent the last thirty-eight years with his right arm perpetually raised. “Why hasn’t this Indian ever lowered his arm?” he asks.
According to this article, he’s a man of middle-class background, he had a job, a house, a wife, three children, and he led a normal, peaceful life. One day he received a revelation; his God spoke to him and commanded him to tramp tirelessly through the country and preach world peace, always holding up his right arm. Thirty-eight years later, his arm is petrified. I like this strange anecdote, it resembles the story I’m telling you. More than half a century since the gunshots were fired on the beach, my arm’s still raised, impossible to lower, wrinkled, eaten away by time — dry skin on dead bones.
Paralyzed limbs were one of the psychosomatic disorders Frantz Fanon singled out as physical manifestations of the trauma of colonialism in The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon drew on his experience running the Blida-Joinville hospital near Algiers in the early 1950s to describe the psychic state of colonized subjects, rigid and perpetually tensed for action, unable to “demobilize their nerves.” Writing The Wretched of the Earth from the FLN’s temporary headquarters in Tunis, suffering from the final stages of the leukemia that would kill him before the book was published in 1961, Fanon suggested that the “cleansing force” of revolutionary violence, “which rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude,” might act not only as a weapon but as a form of therapy. (Pushing Fanon’s argument further in his introduction to the book, Sartre infamously proposed that “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time.”)
At first, The Meursault Investigation appears to bear out this prescription. After committing his crime, Harun feels a weight suddenly lifted from his shoulders. He goes back to bed and sleeps for three days, “a heavy sleep with waking moments that barely revealed to me my own name.” For the first time since Musa’s death, Harun’s mother has stopped nagging him. In the sudden silence, he feels “relieved, unburdened, free in my own body”:
It was as if perspectives were opening up and I could finally breathe. Whereas I’d always lived like a prisoner until then, confined within the perimeter established by Musa’s death and my mother’s vigilance, I now saw myself standing upright, at the heart of a vast territory: the whole nocturnal earth, the gift of that night.
But Harun’s crime, which initially seems like a prelude to self-determination, ends up entangling him more thoroughly with the original murder. The police visit to ask about a report of shots fired in the night and tell him to report to the town hall; a week later, he’s arrested. Like Camus’s hero, he knows he is not being arrested for his murder — being tried for killing a Frenchman in 1962 is as unlikely as being tried for killing an Arab in 1942 — but for “that other crime, the one the intuition could guess: my strangeness”: specifically, his refusal to join the organized resistance movement.
Outside, “the country was still being torn apart by the celebrations of its freedom.” Military jeeps and flags are scattered around the village. At the courthouse, he sees a pair of djounoud, older versions of his brother, “weary, worn, and terse, with slightly crazy eyes, as if seeking the invisible enemy they’d spent years with the resistance on the lookout for.” When he’s called in for questioning, the FLN colonel reviewing his case asks him why Harun himself is not among these men.
“You’re twenty-seven,” he began, and then he leaned toward me with fire in his eyes, pointing an accusing finger. He shouted, “So why didn’t you take up arms to liberate your country? Answer me! Why?” His features struck me as vaguely comical. He stood up, violently yanked a drawer open, pulled out a little Algerian flag, came over to me, and waved it under my nose. In a threatening and rather nasal voice, he said, “Do you know what this is? Do you?” I replied, “Yes, of course.” Then he launched into a patriotic rant, reiterating his faith in his independent country and in the sacrifice made by one and a half million martyrs.
“This Frenchman, you should have killed him with us, during the war, not last week!” the colonel argues. When Harun asks him “what difference that made,” the colonel loses his composure: “He started stammering, declaring that killing and making war were not the same thing, that we weren’t murderers but liberators.” Finally, Harun says, “the officer sprang up like a jack-in-the-box, reached out a surprisingly long arm, and dealt me a monumental slap in the face.”
Up to this point, the narration of Harun’s arrest has retraced, almost page by page, the second half of The Stranger. Here, the story suddenly diverges. Unlike Meursault, who is sentenced to death, Harun is suddenly and arbitrarily released the next morning at dawn. Rather than relief, he feels a surge of anger. With no clear resolution, his revenge “had just been struck down to the same level of insignificance” as his brother’s death: “There was even something unjust about their letting me go like that, without explaining whether I was a criminal, a murderer, a dead man, a victim, or simply an undisciplined moron.”
Without a trial, he says, “the border that had existed until then between my life and crime” is erased. After the murder, he feels a sensation of vertigo:
an incredible, almost divine giddiness at the thought of somehow resolving everything — at least in my daydreams — by committing murder. The list of my victims was long. I’d start with one of our neighbors, a self-proclaimed “veteran mujahid,” whereas everyone knows he’s a crook and a con man who has taken money from the contributions of real mujahideen and diverted it to his own profit; then comes an insomniac dog, a brown, scrawny, wild-eyed creature that drags its carcass through the streets of my city; next up, a maternal uncle who for years came to see us every Eid, at the end of Ramadan, and promised to repay an old debt, without ever actually doing it.
“What’s the point of putting up with adversity, suffering, or even an enemy’s hatred if you can resolve everything with a few simple gunshots?” he asks. Like his neighbor, “an invisible man” who reads the Koran at the top of his lungs every weekend in a voice that fluctuates between threatening and obsequious, his countrymen are only “alternating roles, from torturer to victim and back.”
There is an unmistakable echo here of the line Camus took on revolutionary communism and violence (“Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic”), which led to his falling out with Sartre. In his book The Rebel and several associated articles and polemics, Camus single-mindedly pursued an anticommunist line, arguing that any endorsement of Marxism was an attempt to justify murder on the scale of the gulags; for these reasons he broke with the Algerian Communist Party and would condemn any violence, while maintaining his qualified endorsement of continued French control of Algeria.
Sartre’s eminently anticolonial position has long seemed to get the better of Camus’s transcendental condemnation of Marxism and violence. But in the context of present-day Algeria, where violent anticolonialism has become the legitimating ideology of a decrepit state, and where the Marxism of the decaying ruling class no longer bears any resemblance to the arguments and doctrines of Marx and his heirs, Daoud’s novel seems to put forward, if not an outright endorsement of Camus’s position, at least a sustained critique of Sartre’s and Fanon’s vision of revolutionary violence as a cure for trauma and a basis of individual and national identity.
* * * *
The persistent circularity of Daoud’s novel has no exact parallel in The Stranger. It is drawn instead from Camus’s last completed work, The Fall (1957). Written in the wake of his break with Sartre and the mounting criticism of his position on Algeria by the French left, the novel is Camus’s bleakest and most self-critical work. Like The Meursault Investigation, it takes the form of a long, recursive story told by an old man in a bar, an excavation of the past performed by an unreliable narrator for an unseen listener. The character is recognizably in part a self-excoriating caricature of Camus himself, a “beautiful soul” of the kind Sartre accused his former friend of being. Formerly a celebrated Parisian lawyer who specialized in “widow and orphan” cases, he has been praised almost universally for his heartfelt speeches and nobility of spirit. In spite of his good works, he confesses, he’s never liked other people very much; in fact, he has always hated them, and over the years, grew increasingly terrified that everyone he met was laughing at him behind his back. His humanitarian work itself was an outlet for his instincts of domination, a way to capitalize on his discovery that “modesty helped me to shine, humility to conquer, and virtue to oppress.” Even his confession now, he says, is only a way to make others feel as bad as he does. Alone among Camus’s novels, The Fall does not take place in Algeria. Instead, the narrator tells his story from a bar in Amsterdam, a place he compares to hell, preferring commanding heights and empty spaces. (“In a general way, I like all islands,” he says. “They are easier to dominate.”) The city’s concentric canals reinforce his conviction that there is no way out of his endless cycle of self-recrimination.
Like The Fall, Daoud’s investigation is directed inward as much as outward, not only at the trauma of Algeria’s colonial past but at the country’s paralysis in the present. Daoud uses the cyclical form of Camus’s novel to suggest that Algeria’s independence, rather than inaugurating the comprehensive break with the colonial past that Fanon imagined, led instead to a reaction to French rule that reflected its violent legacy in inverted form. Harun’s growing disenchantment with the heroic story he was told as a child traces the country’s descent into a one-party dictatorship led by the army. In the ’60s and ’70s, the country was an international symbol of revolutionary promise, the crucible of the Third Worldist movement, and, between The Battle of Algiers and Fanon’s writing, the source of some of its most enduring iconography. The revolution inspired Black Panthers in Oakland, student organizers in South Africa, and IRA members in Belfast. Eldridge Cleaver sheltered in Algeria in the ’70s, and briefly planned to organize a North American Liberation Front modeled on the North African version. It is this story, one of heroic resistance and enduring struggle, that Daoud accuses the country’s current leaders, many of whom fought in the War of Independence, of endlessly invoking to justify their rule. The sitting president, 78 and confined to a wheelchair, is of this generation. Today, Algerians refer to the government simply as le pouvoir — the power. “Who, me? Nostalgic for French Algeria?” Harun says near the beginning of the novel. “You haven’t understood a word I said. I was just trying to tell you that back then, we Arabs gave the impression that we were waiting, not going around in circles like today.”
The narrator of The Fall is tormented by the memory of a young woman whose suicide he witnessed without attempting to intervene, an encounter that crystallizes all his failings toward other people. Harun mourns a similar moment of lost opportunity. The scene takes place in an interlude following independence and before the “muted power struggle . . . raging among the country’s conquering commanders” has culminated in a military coup. Harun and his mother are still living together in the country, telling each other stories about Musa’s glorious death. A young woman knocks on the door; her name is Meriem, a graduate student studying a murder that took place in a famous novel. As in the scene from The Fall that it turns on its head, this encounter is heavily allegorical: Meriem is less a fully realized character than a representation of a “type of woman [who] has disappeared in this country today: free, brash, disobedient, aware of their body as a gift, not as a sin or a shame,” a symbol of everything destroyed or driven underground by the surge of religious extremism that followed Algerian independence. Harun falls in love with her, and, for the first time, considers leaving his mother. But the window closes; Meriem leaves. Harun stays with his mother, and his hopes for the future begin to ebb.
Daoud was born in 1970 and came of age during another moment of lost promise in Algeria, the protests against le pouvoir in the late 1980s. These protests, which began in October 1988, had a similar composition to many of the Arab Spring movements a generation later: they were partly a generational conflict, partly a demand for multiparty democracy, partly an Islamist religious movement, united by common opposition to the authoritarian government that had held power since independence. Two years later, the country held its first free elections. After the Islamist party won the first round, the military — already functionally in control — took over the government in earnest and declared the results invalid, leading to a decade-long civil war — la guerre sale, the dirty war — in which a hundred and fifty thousand people were killed, others tortured, and many simply made to disappear.
One of the main subjects of Daoud’s columns is the country’s stasis in the aftermath of the war. During the protests that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, Algeria was notably quiet. Even the scattered demonstrations that seemed at first like a prelude to collective action revealed themselves, on closer inspection, as individual demands for government benefits. In an op-ed published in the New York Times earlier this year, Daoud related the story of an Algerian man who set himself on fire in what seemed like an echo of the Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi’s catalyzing act of self-immolation. “Reporters flocked to him, thinking they had found a revolutionary,” Daoud wrote. “ ‘I am no Bouazizi,’ said the Algerian from the hospital bed in which he would not die. ‘I just want decent housing.’ ”
In March 2011, a few days after being jailed during an attempted demonstration, Daoud wrote an editorial to answer the question of why his country had not participated in the Arab Spring. “Algerians are quick to rebel as individuals,” the column begins. “Then why not all together now, in one big push?”
Daoud gives several answers to this question: a mass withdrawal from the public sphere, a lack of national will, a retreat into religious quietism. “And so our revolutions are of the every man for himself variety,” he concludes. “Our country is no longer a project we all share, it’s an obstacle each of us confronts alone.” The essay ends by comparing Algeria’s isolation to Meursault’s in The Stranger; the country’s inhabitants, Daoud asserts, are the true inheritors of the sterile and colorless landscape depicted in the novel, “a bunch of Meursaults without Camus, products of the murder of Self and Other, in an absurd world under a meaningless sun.” The divorce between actor and setting that Camus saw as an existential condition here seems more like a political one; the absurd is no longer an abstract universal state but a specific historical burden whose weight can only be alleviated through collective action.
The final pages of The Stranger are among the best-known in world literature. Waiting to be executed for his crime, Meursault refuses to receive last rites from the prison chaplain in a long speech that becomes an attack on established religion and an assertion of individual rebellion against all principles of external meaning. After the chaplain leaves, Meursault, alone in his cell, opens himself up to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.
Echoing and elaborating on this scene, The Meursault Investigation concludes with a fantasy of secular martyrdom whose tone veers wildly between suicidal and defiant. “Sometimes,” Harun confesses,
I’m tempted to climb up that prayer tower, reach the level where the loudspeakers are hung, lock myself in, and belt out my widest assortment of invective and sacrilege. . . Can you imagine the scene? Me bawling into the microphone while they scramble to break down the door of the minaret so they can stop my mouth.
Imagine it, he says, dying “with the mic in my hand,” the door about to give way, his onlookers “drooling with rage” while he shouts, “There’s no one here! There has never been anyone! The mosque is empty, the minaret is empty. It’s emptiness itself!”
For Harun, the character who imagines shouting these words, they are an idle fantasy; for Daoud, the author who wrote and published them, they are a political statement. This scene, which retraces the end of The Stranger almost exactly, lifting large blocks of text from the original virtually unchanged, is the novel’s riskiest and most formally ambitious sequence. It is a test of whether Daoud’s own voice will be drowned out by his predecessor’s or whether the counterpoint the book has woven around Camus’s canonical work will manage to change the experience of reading these familiar lines, modulating their stubborn and pure note of individual resistance into something deeper, more capacious, more interesting. The book ends, as it began, with a near-echo of The Stranger, which, in this instance, seems less like an homage than an exhortation. “I too would wish them to be legion, my spectators,” Harun says, “and savage in their hate.”
Featured image: a still from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers.