Kamel Daoud’s Inner Vigilance


Photograph via CFDA, Collectif des Familles des Disparus en Algerie, Algiers March 2014

by Suzanne Ruta

The Meursault Investigation,
by Kamel Daoud, translated by John Cullen,
Other Press, 160 pp.

George W. Bush read The Stranger during his second term in office, at the urging of historian Alexander Horne, whose Algerian war classic, A Savage War of Peace, Bush had also read, we were told. Algeria as a key to understanding Iraq? As if Arabs or “Arabs” were interchangeable? Oh dear.

And what would Bush make of Camus’ passionate opposition to the death penalty? Texas is our leading death penalty state. 152 people were executed while Bush was governor, including a woman it was thought he might spare. Instead he mocked her plea for clemency, imitating her plaintive voice to a shocked magazine reporter.

Forget Bush, Camus has millions of other fans and an ironclad reputation as one of the great moralists of the twentieth century. So when Kamel Daoud rewrote The Stranger lately, from the point of view of Meursault’s Arab victim, lots of people got the joke. A sensation in France, last summer, his book has been showered with literary prizes including the Goncourt for a first novel. It’s being translated into twenty languages (the Vietnamese were the first to sign on) and staged at this summer’s Avignon festival. A film version is in the works.

“The French think they own the language,” a French friend living in New York since 1957 commiserated, when I complained about patronizing Parisian critics astounded by Daoud’s terse eloquence. Why the surprise? Daoud has written an 800-1000 word column several times a week for the Quotidien d’Oran since 2003. Before that, he was a reporter for the paper during the 1990s civil war, when journalists were under the guns of the Islamists on the one hand, and hounded by military censors on the other. The names of 123 journalists and media workers assassinated in Algeria between 1993-1997 – was published by Reporters without Borders in 2012.

At New Year’s 1998, during secret negotiations between Islamists and several competing government factions, to end the civil war, violence spiked in his part of the country. Daoud’s editors sent him into the foothills of the nearby Ouarsenis Mountains to check out rumors of a massacre. He rented a donkey to climb the steep slopes to the remains of a village where it became clear that a thousand people had been butchered in two nights, and that there was simply no way to report the fact in the press. “In Had Chekala there was the biggest massacre of Algeria by another kind of Algeria… but the dead were compressed and politely invited to correct their disproportionate statistic… The death toll of a thousand, remained a kind of kilometric monstrosity on the road to the beyond, and no one was willing to take responsibility for it.” Daoud’s paper finessed the problem with the headline “A Massacre Behind Closed Doors.” The truth was admitted only in 2006 by the same government official who had engineered the cover-up in 1998. Daoud announced it in his column, a tart belated elegy for the expendable peasants of Had Chekala.

He had already sought to give the massacre victims a decent burial in an early novella, O Pharaon, about a corrupt army-appointed warlord, who turns an entire province on its ear in the mid-1990s. “This story is neither true nor false but for years it was heavier than truth,” he starts out, sounding like a very sardonic Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The reporter buries his field notes and his disgust in this early comic work, now out of print. Daoud has doubts about the book now, but says he would like to rewrite it some day. Meanwhile, the Charter of Reconciliation that ended the civil war in 2005, bans public discussion of the “tragédie nationale” — the official euphemism for the horrors of the civil war.

Censorship is the mother of invention. The Meursault Investigation delves deep into recent Algerian history, in a playful, distancing way. Like the Oulipo school of French novelists, who impose “constraints” on composition – Georges Perec writing an entire novel (La Disparition) without the letter e, Hervé Tellier taking a domino match as a guide to plot twists (Enough About Love) – Daoud lets the Camus of The Stranger, but also The Fall and The First Man – constrain his literary choices. This creates an eerie ontological (or do I mean existential?) puzzle. Even when Daoud’s characters are roundly contradicting the words of Camus’ stranger, they are trapped in a game where the rules were set in advance. Mektoub. His loyalty to Camus is both liberating (for Daoud) and a trap (for his characters). All Algeria’s a prison. The reader meanwhile, may feel boxed in at times. A novel is not a game of dominos or backgammon.

The New York Times review of The Stranger, in 1946, when Camus was only slightly better known in the United States than Daoud is now, comments (in a parenthesis) “Incidentally, the fate of the Arab’s family is completely overlooked in the proceedings.” Why did it take so long for someone to fill the gap, Daoud wonders? Well, he’s done it now with great panache and soul.

“My brother, who died in a book,” says his narrator, framing the literary paradox in half a sentence. The constraints of journalism have taught Daoud to combine speed and substance. It’s part of the pleasure of reading him. The year is 2010 or thereabouts. In a dim bar in Oran (scene of The Plague) an old guy makes a long spiraling confession (as in The Fall which Daoud says is his favorite among Camus’ works) to a young man in town looking for traces of the great author. You have to picture the old gentleman-confessor. He’s from another era. Are there still men in Algeria who dress as he does, with a red tarbush, bow tie and jacket? His shoes are carefully shined. No t-shirts and sweat pants in his universe, and certainly not the Zuckerberg hoodie some young Algerians affect these days. The old man’s speech is a mixture of precision and bafflement. He introduces himself. He is the younger brother of the man Meursault shot dead on an Algiers beach in summer 1942.

And here Daoud takes comic liberties. He identifies Meursault as the author of the world-renowned book, The Stranger (since even sophisticated readers may confuse authors and their characters) and thus doubly guilty. Not only did he murder, but he boasted about it, in dazzling sentences, while omitting the victim’s name from his famous book – calling him only lazily, repeatedly, “l’Arabe”. What’s more, Daoud’s Meursault got away with murder, as the death sentence reported in The Stranger as we know it, was never carried out. This of course demotes him from the tragic figure Camus made of him, to something more ordinary.

The garrulous old guy in the bar tells his story to the young visitor from out of town. His name is Harun, his older brother was Musa. The Koran follows the Bible in making Aaron Moses’ spokesperson. And had both brothers lived, who knows what they might have accomplished, between them. But when Harun was seven years old in 1942, his older brother Musa was shot dead on an Algiers beach.

Harun’s memories of his adored old brother clash painfully with Meursault’s cool account of his run-in with the nameless knife wielding Arab. Musa had three tattoos. “Be quiet on his left forearm, under a drawing of a broken heart. That was the only book Musa wrote. Shorter than a last sigh, consisting of three sentences on the oldest paper in the world, his own skin.”

As Harun piles on the poignant details, an American reader is carried forward from colonial Algeria to post colonial America, where in the past year unexamined racism has left the families of Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, to tell their stories on CNN and MSNBC. This book gathers their stories together in a single volume, so to speak.

Camus’ The Stranger famously begins, “Mother died yesterday.” Daoud’s study in reverse symmetry, begins, “Mama’s still alive today.” Mute with old age, conversing only with the ancestors, the eternally bereft mother is Meursault’s victim too. Daoud adds another baroque wrinkle to her suffering. She learns, from a couple of newspaper clippings, that her son has been shot on an Algiers beach, but his body was never recovered. Was it carried off by the sea? Courageous and determined, she ventures alone into off-limits European neighborhoods of Algiers, hunting for clues, burdened by a terrible uncertainty. In her desperate search, she recalls the thousands of mothers whose sons were disappeared during the Algerian civil war – arrested by security forces or kidnapped by Islamists, tortured, murdered, left in unmarked graves. After 2005, families were offered compensation for their loss, on condition they agree to “turn the page” and forego answers. Many families accepted this arrangement. The holdouts continue to struggle. This past June 1, International Children’s Day, the families of the missing scheduled a demonstration in Algiers in remembrance of their sons who were under eighteen when they disappeared in the mid 1990s. As usual, the modest demonstration was roughly broken up by the police. Assembly in the streets of Algiers has been banned since 2001.

Mama is an iconic figure. Daoud’s portrait of her is suitably unsentimental but so harsh at times it frightened me. I laid the book aside after the first few chapters and returned to it only weeks later. Has he made Camus’ tough, controlling grandmother in the First Man, the model for Harun’s mother? Is he channeling Euripedes, or pursuing some private Rothian grudge? Why must an old woman carry the burden of the plot? What has happened to Algeria since Kateb Yacine surrounded his tragic, charming, gifted mother with sharp-eyed tenderness in the classic novel Nedjma (1956)? Yacine’s Algeria was aspirational, a dream state. Daoud’s really existing Algeria is increasingly unlivable.

Meursault’s detachment from his mother led him to grief. Harun’s mother keeps her son on a short leash and finally pushes him to commit an act of soul-destroying vengeance for his brother’s death that will lock him into guilt and solitude from then on. So that when at last he reads that famous book, The Stranger, he identifies at once with that loser, Meursault. Both men get away with murder.

In a lovely, fluid late chapter Haroun recalls, as if in a dream, his erotic awakening. One day in 1963, an educated young woman with short hair and a briefcase full of books shows up in the backwater where Harun lives with his mother. Intellectual discovery mingles with desire. But this interlude has no sequels. Mama won’t let him out of her clutches.

When WikiLeaks spilled the U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford’s verdict that Algeria was an “unhappy country” (“un pays malheureux”) Daoud took note in his column. This is, for all its inventiveness and ontological hijinks, an unhappy book. “The civil war destroyed our solidarity,” a colleague of Daoud’s told me a few years back. “Everyone went to ground.” Harun, in The Meursault Investigation, has two modes. Raging anger against Islamist imams’ hectoring and bullying; quiet desperation, looking back on his wasted life.

In February 2011, at the start of the Arab spring, Daoud was roughed up by the police at an pro-democracy demonstration in Oran. He wrote about it in his column, wondering was it worth it to take a beating for fellow citizens who seemed either indifferent, resigned or pessimistic. One worried about his safety. Now he’s a celebrity in the French-speaking world and beyond, that turns out to be the really dangerous position. In December, after he dared to question the role of religion in Arab countries on a French TV talk show, an Algerian imam back home called for his trial and execution on grounds of blasphemy. Incensed, Daoud went to court to file a complaint against this incitement to violence. So far there has been no response from the Algerian judiciary. That doesn’t surprise him, he wrote the other day, when the same imam – Daoud dubs him “a two bit Khomeini” – called for the opening of an ISIS Embassy in Algeria. Whither Algeria?

Travelling these days to present his book, he discovers his country is unknown in the world. Not surprising. There is no tourist industry; visas are hard to come by. (Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch was excluded from 2005 to 2014.) There are no visuals in peoples’ minds. French historians called the civil war “une guerre sans images” Conversations languish, Daoud complains because people can’t even think of questions to ask him.

Perhaps if they read more of his work? The novels he plans to write, if journalism leaves him time. And meanwhile, why not the chroniques? His Algerian publisher, Editions Barzakh, are talking about something for 2016. The chroniques at their best offer devastating social psychology, deeper than politics. And now and then, they float off into their own kind of poetry, with a down to earth feel that links them to rai, the musical form, born in western Algeria, a fusion of French and local traditional and pop influences, that are the country’s answer to reggae, and proof of a vitality that will some day take charge. Here are three samples, out of hundreds.

The Telex, published a few years back, is one of those pieces that pretends to be about something else but is really about madness. A woman three months pregnant and with third degree burns is being transferred from a small town hospital to the university medical center in Oran. Her ambulance arrives before the admission papers, telexed from the small town hospital. Waiting for the paperwork to reach them, the staff at the larger hospital leave her unattended. Then the telex arrives, they rush to her side, and find her dead. Daoud concludes that it’s the telex that killed her. Then he turns to Hanah Arendt for backup. In her discussion of the concentration camps, he finds the word “superfluous.” In the mind of the hospital staff, paperwork and correct procedures were essential, the dying woman was superfluous. An Algerian mindset, he says, found also in terrorists for whom an idea is essential, most people superfluous, expendable.

On the mysterious profession of columnist is a long lazy riff on possible analogies between writing and fishing (appropriate for Oran, a fishing port). A conversation in a café between two men. Both of them, you suspect, are the writer. But you can’t be sure. That gives the piece a spacious quality, like a lyric poem with floating pronouns.

“Algerians, never or only rarely, have an inner life. Just the mosque or a few memories constitute their universe. This man is different,” the narrator says. The writer of whom he is speaking offers, “You know those photos where a fisherman ecstatic to the point of vulgarity poses with his big fish, his boat and the sea as background?” He thinks of those photos when people ask where he gets his ideas. And he goes on, “I am only the fisher of my story, not its author. The meaning belongs to the ocean, not to my boat. You follow? When you write, there’s a fishing line pulled practically to the breaking point, with you at one end and at the other, something infinite that’s bucking and fighting. You follow? Today it’s low tide. Nothing but stones. Nothing going on behind the door. Not even the portrait of your President can inspire me. Sand everywhere. Time running loose and not in an hourglass. OK, see you tomorrow.”

And finally, a rousing rant against the Algerian state religion, not Islam but the cult of the million and a half martyrs who sacrificed their lives in the war of liberation. Harun, born 1935, guilty for outliving his murdered brother and for not having fought in the war of liberation, is a sort of stand in for Daoud’s entire generation, born 1970 and raised to feel worthless and undeserving. “As if I were a traitor in a war that took place long before my birth.”

Like all great satirists (Karl Kraus’s Nörgler/Grumbler in the Last Days of Mankind comes to mind) Daoud is good at telling you what he doesn’t like. But the last lines of this chronique move beyond complaint, to define a freedom that may be available to the writer only in the act of naming it.

“I don’t long for the return of France, or the martyrs, or the war or history as it’s been taught us. All I want back are the best moments in each life. I want to know the immense breadth of life, I want to make life glow more brightly by the exercise of my own inner vigilance.”

About the Author:


Suzanne Ruta is an author and translator. Her latest novel To Algeria, with Love (Virago, 2011), was published in Italy by Einaudi under the title La Repubblica di Wally.