The Meursault Investigation
by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen
Other Press, 2015, 143 pp.
People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.
—Albert Camus, 1957
Here we are, exiled from the same kingdom, like two enemy brothers wrapped up in the pride of possessive renunciation. . . . But now the handsome inheritance is becoming a haunted place where even the shades of the Family and the Tribe are murdered, according to the double edges of what is nonetheless our one selfsame Word. . . . But it is (perhaps) urgent to set in motion the waves of Communication, while keeping the appearance of not touching them which characterizes the position of orphans before a mother, who is never quite dead.
—Kateb Yacine in a letter to Camus, 1957
“Mama’s still alive today.” With these words Kamel Daoud begins his brilliant short novel Meursault, contre-enquête, rendered in John Cullen’s fine English translation as The Meursault Investigation. Daoud is an Algerian author writing in French, and his novel—announced in its title and very first line—is a creative reworking of Albert Camus’s classic 1942 novella L’Étranger (The Stranger). In France the novel has received prestigious literary awards. In the United States it has been reviewed in a range of prominent outlets (including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Nation, and NPR). And in Algeria, its 2013 publication by Éditions Barzakh, a secular, liberal publishing house, thrust it into the middle of a complex cultural war in which critical intellectuals find themselves caught between authoritarian regime elites and Islamist militants.
Camus, the Nobel Prize winning French-Algerian writer, was himself at the center of controversy because of his efforts in the 1950s to promote a French-Algerian rapprochement rather than support Algerian independence. The dispute estranged him from many of his Parisian colleagues, made him persona non grata among Algerian “progressives,” and turned him into a symbol of arrogant French colonialism for many postcolonial intellectuals like Albert Memmi, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Edward Said. Such intellectuals have disparaged Camus’s political writings, which called for “federation” and “civilian truce” and hoped against hope for a “middle ground.” But for these critics, even more guilty was Camus’s fiction, which, as his compatriot-adversary, the Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, also noted, treated Algeria as a natural landscape and a setting for the enactment of French-Algerian human existential dilemmas, but never as a place where native Arabs were masters of their own destiny.
The Stranger is Exhibit A in the case against Camus. The novel tells the story of Meursault, an alienated French-Algerian inhabitant of Algiers, who is one day overcome by the relentless power of the sun, kills an unnamed Arab man on a beach, and is arrested, prosecuted, and eventually sentenced to death. In the novel, “the Arab” is almost nothing more than a plot device. His killing is without purpose or intention, and has no particular significance for Meursault or the authorities who are intent on judging and prosecuting him, seemingly for his lack of social grace and bourgeois virtue rather than for murdering a human being who happened to be an Arab.
While Camus was a vocal advocate of Arab rights since the 1930s, his fictional universe seemed blind to their existence. This became an outrage in the mid-to-late 1950s when, as the French-Algerian war descended into a bloody spiral of repression, terrorism, and counter-terrorism, Camus uttered what is perhaps his most famous line, about bombs on the tramways of Algiers. This statement, delivered extemporaneously at a 1957 press conference in response to a question from an Algerian nationalist, was reported in the press as “Je crois à la Justice, mais je défendrai ma mère avant la Justice.” A conditional thought originally expressed in three sentences was reduced to a simple assertion, typically rendered in English thus: “Between justice and my mother, I choose my mother.”
It seems clear that the most important sentence is the last: “If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” But the imagery of the mother is clearly central, to the statement, to Camus’s writings on Algeria as the land of his birth, to Camus’s autobiographical reflections on his own deaf and mute mother, and to The Stranger, which begins with this famous line: “Maman died today; or maybe it was yesterday.” Mother: birth, origin, nurturance, painful separation. Motherland. Home. Reconciliation?
Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête is a retelling of The Stranger, but it is also much richer and deeper than that. It tells a story within a story about a story. Its protagonist-narrator, Harun, presents an extended monologue to an unnamed French student carrying a copy of The Stranger. Harun tells his own story, simultaneously commenting on Camus’s story, and as the story unfolds, identities become increasingly blurred. The novel’s very title implies the theme of uncertainty, which might be clarified through inquiries and counter-inquiries. Indeed the principal inquirer—Harun himself—makes clear that almost every other character, from his mother to his interlocutor to the authorities who eventually make their appearance, is an “investigator” of sorts, trying to make sense of an obscure and ever-receding historical episode that reverberates in the present.
Harun is compelled to explain and represent his brother, Camus’s unnamed Arab. He names his brother—Musa—and offers an account of his brother’s short life, death, and its aftermath, which is really a story about himself. Musa, like his namesake, the Biblical Moses, is the favored sibling whose “truth” requires the intercession of his brother. The boys lack a father (and a patrimony), and live with their domineering mother, and Musa’s murder becomes the obsession of the mother and the defining moment of young Harun’s life. “As a child, I was allowed to hear only one story at night, only one deceptively wonderful tale. It was the story of Musa, my murdered brother, who took a different form every time, according to my mother’s mood.” Harun’s life becomes defined by his identity as “the brother of Musa who was killed by the Frenchman.” As Harun’s narration proceeds, questions arise as to whether Musa was ever a real person. His story takes on the mythic quality of a dimly remembered past, sustained in the present by a mother and son who need the story to fill a lack in their lives. Harun declares at one point that Musa “is the name I give everyone,” raising questions about who exactly is being named. Harun shares with us that many aspects of the account of Musa’s killing are obscure, and that he doubts “the time of the killing, the presence of salt in the killer’s eyes, and even, sometimes, my brother Musa’s very existence.”
Harun’s need to tell Musa’s story mirrors his need to tell his own story. And the need for justice that the narration serves—“I don’t mean the justice of the courts, I mean the justice that comes when the scales are balanced”—animates a pained reflection on the very meaning of identity and history, a point nicely made by Alice Kaplan in the Nation. Kaplan points out that while Harun first seems to be “a postcolonial avenger, punishing Meursault for his crime and dressing down Camus for his creation of a nameless Arab,” the narrator instead “reverses every expectation,” recounting his own murder of a European during the battle for the liberation of Algeria. She writes: “Meursault killed Musa in 1942, and Musa and Harun are brothers, but in 1962 Harun and Meursault become brothers too—brothers in the violence of history.”
At a certain point in the novel, Harun’s story becomes a story about the Algerian war for independence. And he finds himself in a situation very much like the one faced by Camus’s Meursault—in the midst of the bloody maelstrom of the war, he kills a Frenchman in a fit of rage and is then judged by the ideologues of the National Liberation Front (FLN) not for his act of murder, but for his lack of fidelity to the Revolution. Like Meursault, it is his alienation that is condemned. Unlike Meursault, he is not condemned to death. He lives, meets a French woman named Meriem who introduces him to The Stranger, matures intellectually because of his unrequited love for her, suffers, recounts his suffering in various bars, and becomes estranged from his social world, especially from the Islamic piety that now surrounds him. Harun winds down his narrative by recounting his recent fury at an imam for entreating him to join the faithful. In a rush of words he shares a fantasy of defiance that mirrors the ending of The Stranger. His identity and his story become confused with that of Meursault. Like Meursault, he declares that social norms are empty myths. While Meursault raged against the hypocrisy of colonial criminal justice, Harun rages against religious dogmatism. And he closes by sowing doubt about the entire story he has told: “Do you find my story suitable? It’s all I can offer you. It’s my word. I’m Musa’s brother or nobody’s. Just a compulsive liar you met with so you could fill up your notebooks . . . It’s your choice, my friend.”
What is the point of Daoud’s narrative? His words in a recent interview are apt: “I don’t know what Camus would have thought of my book. But one mustn’t read a novel like this as if it were an essay: Literature goes beyond Good and Evil. Camus was aware of colonial injustices, but literature is a dream that cannot be controlled and does not lie. . . . A novel is not a pedagogical exercise, but the revelation of meaning. It does not accommodate itself to justice, but instead to a vision of reality it can transform.”
The novel bears many readings and contains many meanings. It is complex and irreverent, and it scorns both colonialism and Eurocentrism as well as postcolonial dreams of national liberation and clerical authority. It raises questions about the meaning of “Algeria,” of justice, and indeed of “meaning” itself. When the book first appeared, Daoud was the subject of a fatwa by an Algerian cleric who denounced the book as blasphemous and called for the author’s death. The novel has also struck a nerve among secular critics, who regard Camus as an apologist for colonialism. But Camus’s status in Algeria is currently being reevaluated. As Daoud’s publisher Sofiane Hadjadj recently said: “Algeria’s literary heritage is not only post-colonial. You could say that St. Augustine is part of Algeria’s cultural heritage. And so is the generation of colonial writers, like . . . Jacques Derrida or Albert Camus. It’s really up to us to claim them, and make them part of this history.”
Meursault, contre-enquête is clearly a contribution to this rethinking. As Daoud recently noted: “I didn’t write a setting of accounts. To be honest, I was expecting strong reactions because Camus remains a sensitive topic. Some consider Camus as an exclusive property, others as a traitor to the Algerian cause. At each dedication, I saw the same trial as the one against Meursault in The Stranger, but this time Camus was the defendant. Each time, among the readers, a prosecutor would brandish Camus’ famous sentence about justice and his mother and his refusal of independent Algeria . . . whereas a defender would appeal to his work.” Camus’s writings indeed remain important for a sizable number of Francophone Algerian writers and Algerian public intellectuals. Some, like Daoud and Hadjadj, see Camus’s work as valuable for rethinking public life. Others, such as Belaïde Abane and Arezki Tahar, continue to question it. It’s an important debate about Algerian identity.
Aaron Bady in the New Inquiry called Daoud’s novel “A Sort of Post-Colonial Studies Joke.” For Bady, The Stranger is “an exemplary text in the West’s literary erasure of its colonial empire,” and Meursault, contre-enquête is “a book that would read very differently—and perhaps should—if its primary interlocutor were read to be Fanon instead of Camus.” But in fact the novel is at once a reappropriation of Camus and a commentary on many of the themes raised by Fanon. Fanon, like Camus, died very young, before the Algerian independence movement for which he struggled emerged victorious. Fanon was a complex thinker. But there can be no doubt that he was a partisan of revolutionary violence in the name of national liberation. Fanon is “present” in the second half of The Meursault Investigation. He is present at the moment when Harun kills the European (Harun reflects: “I didn’t really think I had anything to worry about . . . Nobody kills a specific individual during a war. It’s not a question of murder, it’s a question of battle, of combat”); in Harun’s account of the “random killing” and uncontrolled violence of the 1962 uprising, and in his account of the way his own distance from “the liberation struggle” made him an object of suspicion; and especially in his summons, arrest, and inquisition by the new FLN authorities because of his failure to join the movement. “I didn’t collaborate with the colonists and everyone in the village knew it, but I wasn’t a mujahid either, and it bothered a great many people that I was sitting there in the middle, in that intermediary state. . . .” (It is hard to read these words without thinking of Camus’s Neither Victims Nor Executioners.)
Fanon is a kind of interlocutor in the novel. But what he represents seems far from both the novel’s protagonist and its author. Daoud deliberately chose Camus and not Fanon as his primary reference. For while the Martinique-born Fanon is buried in a martyr’s graveyard in eastern Algeria, Camus—an Algerian-born “pied noir” of French and Spanish descent, who grew up poor on the streets of Algiers and consistently advocated for a just reconciliation in Algeria—is buried in a small French cemetery in the village of Lourmarin in Provence. There is something tragic about this. And Daoud’s novel can be read as an investigation into the meaning of this tragedy, and perhaps a way of pursuing “the justice that comes when the scales are balanced.”
Daoud is a novelist in a world that seems to have forsaken the subtleties of experience and meaning that novels can disclose. And he is a secular liberal in a part of the world where it is hard to be a secular liberal—a zone that seems to expand with each passing day. Meursault, contre-enquête can be read as an effort to counter this illiberalism, and to promote a richer, more reflexive, and indeed more liberal post-colonialism. Daoud the journalist has bravely defended the freedoms whose exercise made the publication of his novel possible. When asked his response to the massacre of Charlie Hebdo workers, he offered: “After two days of silence and shock that were impossible to overcome, I wrote that between a cartoonist and a killer, I’ll always defend the cartoonist. It was essential, I wrote, to save the world from those who wish to bring the world to an end. I defended freedom and claimed the right to be insolent.”
Yet he is no ideologue. He is as critical of Western self-righteousness and Islamophobia as he is of the militant Islam that is overtaking parts of his world. In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Daoud observed: “Today, it is abstractions that kill in the name of religion or in the name of democracy.” And in the face of the abstraction and the killing, he defends intellectual freedom: “The intellectual is the unbending witness to his era . . . the voice that carries and proclaims, but also reminds. In the face of the rising totalitarianisms of our new century, it is a question of witnessing . . . on behalf of humanity, but especially on behalf of liberty—its value and its necessity. . . . [A] society attached to just one book is intolerant, while those that embrace many books are free and tolerant. My struggle is for all books: to write them and read them, to cultivate their potential and enjoy their freedom.”
Years ago Hannah Arendt observed that all politics rests on the experience of natality, the human capacity to begin again that is grounded in the fact that to be human is to come into the world and to pass from the world, and to share this experience—and this world—with a plurality of others. Arendt recognized that communities typically originate in fratricidal struggle, something symbolized by the stories of Cain and Abel and Romulus and Remus. She also believed that in an age of violence and exclusion, it was necessary to promote a politics based on reparation and understanding.
In 1957 Albert Camus uttered a widely misquoted criticism of terrorism. What he meant to say, what he in fact said, is that a policy of killing innocent civilians—whether his own mother or the mother of his adversary—is not properly named “justice.” At the same time, Kateb Yacine reached out to Camus privately, despairing of the violence that was destroying their common world, and appealing to the possibility of communication and, perhaps, community.
“Mama’s still alive today, but what’s the point? She says practically nothing. And for my part, I talk too much, I think.” Thus begins the final page of The Meursault Investigation. The novel ends on a note of defiance. Like Meursault in The Stranger, Harun anticipates the hostility his sentiments and his story are likely to engender. He raises questions about his own veracity, and invites his interlocutors—his readers—to decide on the “suitability” of his narrative. He suggests that perhaps he talks too much. But in fact Harun is the creation of Kamel Daoud, and he says everything that his creator needs him to say, no more and no less. “Mama” is still alive. But she is mute. Perhaps Daoud means to suggest that we need to do the talking. And that instead of a monologue of guilty, if reflective, “murderers,” we need a dialogue of sisters and brothers who are equals committed to working through our differences and sharing a common world.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and editor-in-chief of Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere. His second book was Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion (Yale University Press, 1992).