Literature as post-colonial reality? Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

Natalya Vince

University of Portsmouth

 

Albert Camus’s L’Etranger (1942) is probably one of the few books that undergraduate students of French are likely to read.Its language is admirably accessible: cold and flat like its narrator, Meursault, who feels nothing upon his mother’s death. He kills the “Arab” brother of his friend Raymond’s mistreated mistress, perhaps because the sun gets in his eyes, and is executed at the end. Its famous opening line, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte” is deceptive in its simplicity. Besides its complicated standing in the philosophy of the acte gratuit, the novel also raises questions about the representation of the colonial relationship.

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For Conor Cruise O’Brian, the idea that a colonial court would not give favourable treatment to a European is unrealistic: “It implicitly denies the colonial reality and sustains the colonial fiction.”[1] Edward Said likewise argued that Camus represented the voice of the coloniser, expressing “the result of a victory won over a pacified, decimated Muslim population whose rights to the land have been severely curtailed.”[2] Many others have commented on the undeveloped treatment of Camus’s “Arabs” – peripheral, nameless figures who blur into the background. Camus’s inability to “see” Algerians is often linked to his own identity. The child of poor settlers of Alsatian and Spanish origins, he actively denounced colonial exploitation and at the same time clung to the settler myth of Algeria as a “Mediterranean melting pot,”[3] where settlers had just as much right to the land as the autochthonous inhabitants. He steadfastly refused to countenance Algerian independence right up until his death in 1960.

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Camus’s legacy is, of course, much more complex and ambiguous than this cursory sketch suggests. He provides plentiful material by which to examine the complexities of “European” identity in Algeria – and indeed Algerian post-colonial identity. During the civil violence of the 1990s, he was strategically appropriated by some Algerian authors as an “anti-anti-Western” figure, embodying a more plural vision of Algerian identity than the narrow Arab, Arabophone and Muslim version of the Islamists. Kamel Daoud neither rejects nor appropriates Camus. Rather, The Meursault Investigation, internationally praised and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, has been widely depicted as a post-colonial sequel, criticizing modern Algeria, as much as a corrective to the original.[4] Daoud’s mode of riposte to Camus offers some delightful passages, joyous to any reader frustrated by Camus’s blinkered vision:

Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! His world is clean, clear, exact, honed by morning sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by “The Arabs,” blurred, incongruous objects left over from “days gone by,” like ghosts, with no language except the sound of a flute. I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves. How he must have suffered, poor man! To be the child of a place that never gave you birth… (pp.2-3)

The Meursault Investigation will become essential reading for those studying Camus, because it evokes – even if it does not neatly describe – the impact of colonialism on the colonised population: the loss of land, the menial jobs, the illiteracy, the fragmented families, and the dispossession of identity

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The novel is narrated by the elderly Harun, the younger brother of “the Arab” killed by Meursault. Harun is furious at Camus’s indifference towards his brother, who was not even given the dignity of a name, referred to only as “the Arab.” His name, we are told immediately, was Musa. What really killed Musa, Harun tells us, was not Meursault’s bullets but the way his death did not matter. Instead it was treated as a detail in the exploration of the absurdity of life. “I rejected the absurdity of his death, and I needed a story to give him a shroud,” the narrator tells us (p. 21). Meursault, the first person narrator of L’Etranger, and Albert Camus, its author, often merge  – not quite one and the same, they nevertheless form one-and-a-half persons, not two.[5]

Propped against a bar in Oran, Harun describes his and his mother’s struggle to find out what happened to Musa. They were never given a body to bury. The two newspaper articles that recounted his death never named him. Eight years after the murder, when Harun was 15, they moved to Hadjout (colonial Marengo, where Meursault’s mother’s old-age home was located). Living in grinding rural poverty, Mama worked as a cleaning lady and Harun as an odd-job boy for a terrifying colon from Alsace. He went to school and learned to read and write French so he might better be able to continue his investigation into his brother’s death. Then, in the heady days following the declaration of independence on 5 July 1962, Harun shot dead a European, Joseph Larquais, who stumbled upon their house one night. He was hauled before the new men in charge. These local mujahidin questioned not so much his killing of a European, but why he had not done so during the war. A year later, Meriem, a beautiful student from Constantine, turns up at their house and tells Harun about the book by “Albert Meursault.” Harun continues to lead his own investigation. The novel goes back and forth between the period 1942–1963 and the present, which also provides Harun with the opportunity to rail against against ugly mosques, noisy Koran recitals, slovenly religious dress, proselytising imams and a dearth of wine.

How then might The Meursault Investigation be used as to explore post-colonial Algeria? More precisely, how do we locate The Meursault Investigation within post-independence history when historical works on that post-independence history are so thin on the ground?

When fiction is our sole source for history

Much of our knowledge of post-independence Algeria comes from fiction – literature and cinema. Whilst 1962 triggered an explosion of cultural production in Algeria, asking what it meant to be independent and Algerian, there are very few post-independence histories of Algeria. This is not least the result of the creation of the single-party state in 1962 and its close scrutiny of the writing of history.[6] The end of the single-party state in 1989 was followed by the “black decade” of the 1990s. During that period research in Algeria became almost impossible, although nurturing a whole new body of fictional works as Algerian intellectuals grappled with the crisis gripping their country.

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Figure 1 illustration by Lyndsay Lombard, Financial Times July 10, 2015

Given the the absence of, or difficulty accessing, the context within which these works were produced, the novels and films themselves have turned into both primary and secondary sources for analyses of contemporary Algeria. In The Meursault Investigation Daoud knowingly pre-empts the use of his book to “explain” Algeria to the outside world. The narrator’s monologue is really a dialogue with a silent interlocutor, who is researching the original event and is variously referred to as “my young friend. (p.4), a “cunning pilgrim,” (p.51) “Mr. Investigator,” (p. 17) and “Mr. Student Detective” (p. 20).[7] Harun appears an authoritative source, although sometimes condescending, but also, as he regularly reminds his listener – potentially unreliable. He warns readers, and in particular students and academics, not to take his dystopian rendering of post-independence Algeria at face value or as the definitive account.

There are a lot of missing years in The Meursault Investigation, as the narrative oscillates between 1942–1963 and the post-1990s present. This juxtaposition heightens the narrator’s sense of disappointment and displacement, but those seeking to take the book as a straightforward post-colonial sequel to L’Etranger might well heed Frederick Cooper’s warning about the dangers of  “leapfrogging legacies.”[8]

A tale of two Algerias?

Drinking alcohol alongside a bunch of other social misfits, the narrator clearly sees himself as an outsider. Daoud’s Harun rejects the increasing religious and social conservatism of his country in the same way that Camus’s Meursault refuses to let the priest who visits him in prison give meaning to his existence. The dominant reading of the book as “a lamentation for a modern Algeria gripped by pious fundamentalism”[9] was accentuated by a “Facebook fatwa” pronounced against Daoud by minor political actor and self-proclaimed theologian Abdelfatah Hamadache during the author’s book tour in late 2014. Hamadache’s call for the “apostate” Daoud to be publicly executed promoted a flurry of condemnation and open letters supporting Daoud from other Algerian and international writers and artists.

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Yet despite the temptation to see the book as depicting two distinct Algerias: the wine-drinking, non-believing individualistic minority versus the religious and socially conservative majority, Harun belongs to both worlds even if he likes to set up mutually exclusive categories. This is reflected in his discussions of the rural/urban divide, and the schism between state and citizen. Harun rather disparagingly describes “landless peasants ennobled en masse by independence,” (p.12) yet he is one of them – he and his mother move into the home of one of the fleeing French—and he too is a peasant who came to the city (from Hadjout to Oran). Despite his critique of the post-independence state, he is part of that state. His role as a government official in Land Administration during the colonial period is described by the colonel who interviews him about Joseph Larquais’s murder as “‘A useful profession for the nation’” (p. 110). This hints that Harun’s “usefulness” to the post-independence state might be a disincentive for punishing him.

Although in his journalism [10] Daoud is quick to diagnose his society as schizophrenic, what the character of Harun reveals is not so much a personality disorder as an ability to move across different codes and languages. Daoud himself – although often presented as a Francophone liberal (which he is) – is also well able to hold his own in Arabic-language debates on the populist Islamist Echourouk TV, perhaps because he was himself a teenage Islamist. Getting students to think about how Harun masters different versions of “Algerianness” is a useful starting point to get away from oft-repeated clichés about an Algeria fractured into a series of mutually exclusive identities.

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Figure 2 http://algerie.eklablog.fr/l-armee-de-liberation-national-a40914014

Veterans and martyrs

Harun’s mother wants her Musa to be recognised as a shahid, a martyr. This Arabic word has a religious connotation – he who died for God – but tends to be used by the Algerian state and those who fought in the War of Independence 1954–1962 as a term describing someone who died fighting the colonial oppressor. Because it took place a dozen years before the beginning of the war, Musa’s death was hard to treat as that of a shahid. This was compounded by the way his murder had been presented as the effect of sunstroke, rather than of the murderous effects of the colonial system. Since the murderer never uttered his victim’s name, how could one prove that the man Meursault had killed was Musa:

For your guidance, I’ll tell you that for years after Independence, Mama fought to be awarded a pension as the mother of a martyr. As you can imagine, she never got it, and why not, if you please? Because it was impossible to prove the Arab was a son– and a brother. Impossible to prove he existed, even though he was killed in public. Impossible to find and confirm a connection between Musa and Musa, between Musa and himself! How can you tell the world about that when you don’t know how to write books? Mama wore herself out for a while in the first few months after Independence, trying to gather signatures or witnesses, but in vain. Nothing was left of Musa, not even a corpse! (pp.13-14)

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In a similar piece of bad timing, Harun kills the Frenchman who breaks into his home a day too late – just after independence has been declared on 5 July 1962 – turning it into a banal crime rather than an act of war. The brothers killed or died at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, so they have no place in the nationalist narrative. Musa cannot be a martyr and Harun cannot be a veteran.

After 1962, political legitimacy came (and continues to come) from being able to demonstrate that one participated in the anti-colonial struggle. The economic and social benefits are considerable, easing veterans’ ownership of taxis and cafés, granting them pensions, tax breaks on imported cars as well as status. The children of martyrs have been given financial compensation and privileged access to educational and employment opportunities. For women whose husbands or sons had died, a pension provided vital income. Women faced particular difficulties in getting pensions. Like Musa and Harun’s mother, they were often illiterate and unable to fill the necessary forms. It was often hard for them to demonstrate their own role in the war, because women were more likely to provide logistical support than take up arms. Finding the bodies of their loved ones, to prove that they had died in the war, was a major challenge.[11] Even today the lack of a pension remains a major bone of contention between many women and the state.[12]

In a country built on the sacrifice of “one and half million martyrs,” debates about false veterans still rage –proving false someone’s claims to be a war veteran instantly brings political discredit to that person. “False mujahidin” scandals are regularly splashed across the Algerian press, and at one point Algeria had the demographically dubious achievement of having an increasing – rather than declining – number of officially recognised veterans. Indeed, the figure of the false mujahid is at the heart of popular culture.[13]  Harun refers to eleventh-hour mujahidin and his fake veteran neighbour. More broadly Daoud exposes the absurdity of veteran status through Harun’s killing one-day-too-late. These passages provide students with a good entry-point into the construction of the “veteran” and the “martyr” in post-independence Algeria.[14]

Women, gender and generation: matriarchs, thighs, short hair and hijabs

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Figure 3 source: fanonunveiled.wordpress.com

Women are central to The Meursault Investigation. Camus’s “maman,” dead before the story begins and provoking only indifference in her son, becomes Harun’s tenaciously alive “Mama.” Determined to find out where her son’s body is and what happened to him, she crosses over into the European quarter and hurls curses at a woman she believes to be Meursault’s grandmother. She stands behind Harun, willing him to kill Joseph Larquais in retribution for Musa’s death; goes to the mujahidin and wins them over so they release Harun after his arrest. She is omnipresent and suffocating, punishing him for being alive and at the time trying to prevent him from suffering the same fate as his brother. Unlike Harun she does not learn to speak and write French in order to “speak in the place of a dead man,” (p.1) but leads her own struggle, with the weapons she has at her disposal. In this sense – and somewhat ironically since Harun did not fight in the War of Independence – she is an exaggerated version of the kind of mother encountered in many veteran memoirs, who, despite their lack of a French education, turned the weapons of the coloniser against him,[15] showing the importance of their mothers’ more visceral anti-colonialism.

Harun declares that there was no sister, Raymond’s supposed mistress in Camus’s work. The woman Meursault refers to was perhaps Musa’s putative girlfriend, who might have been called Zubida, and whose honour Musa possibly died to protect:

Men in the working class neighborhoods of Algiers actually did have an exaggerated, grotesque sense of honor. Defend our women and their thighs! I tell myself that after losing their land, their wells, and their livestock, women were all our guys had left. This rather feudal explanation makes me smile too, but do me a favor and think about it. It’s not completely crazy. (p.19)

This is a good passage to get students thinking about the kinds of frames we use to interpret colonial representations of women, depicted either as veiled mysteries or sexually available bodies.  One might ponder why it is important for Harun that “Zubida” not be Raymond’s mistress; why the idea that Musa died to protect her honour should be attractive to the narrator; and why this idea becomes less important as he gets older. What does this say about his shifting attachment to nationalist narratives?[16]

The other key female character in the book is Meriem, the female student who reveals the existence of L’Etranger in 1963, and with whom the narrator experiences a fleeting moment of happiness.

Her type of woman has disappeared in this country today: free, brash, disobedient, aware of their body as a gift, not as a sin or shame. The only time I saw a cold shadow come over her was when she told me about her domineering, polygamous father, whose lecherous eyes stirred up doubt and panic in her. Books delivered her from her family and offered her a pretext for getting away from Constantine; as soon as she could, she’d enrolled in the University of Algiers. (p. 135)

The shorthaired Meriem is – to paraphrase Assia Djebar – un enfant d’un nouveau monde.[17] Boys and girls benefitted from free education after independence, with major drives to address Algerians’ illiteracy. Education seemed the route to social promotion for the first post-independence generation, especially for women. There are few studies of this generation, but when Harun states that “her type of women has disappeared,” he is railing against the way that women “like” Meriem have been replaced by today’s young women – in their majority veiled, more religiously rigorous, often more conservative. The bar where the story is told in the present is hypermasculine – this is no place for a woman – and the world outside is described as controlled by religious fanatics who veil a little girl’s head “even though she’s not old enough to know what a body is, or what desire is.” (p. 69-70)

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Daoud thus reproduces a fairly common typology of Algerian women, familiar in popular culture and liberal, francophone narratives: for the colonial period, the illiterate matriarch, plus the young woman whose honour needs protecting; for the post-independence period of the 1960s, a young woman liberated through education to challenge societal and familial pressures; and for the present (c. 1980s, and especially the 1990s onwards), the veiled woman representing a socially and religiously conservative society, reinforcing gender separation more strictly than ever. This is tricky to unpick because of the paucity of sources, but sociological and ethnographical data show that Algerian society in the 1960s and 1970s was highly conservative, even if religious justifications were less overtly invoked. We also know that female students today – the majority of whom wear the hijab – outnumber their male counterparts. It is easy to imagine Meriem as a respected professor of French literature in an Algerian, or indeed French or Canadian, university, as many of her generation have become.

Finally, a note on the translation

The English translation is very readable, capturing the tone of the original. However, in regard to accuracy, and particularly because denial of identity is a key theme of the book, it is disconcerting to find words and phrases in Algerian Arabic (derja) that Daoud transliterated according to French-influenced linguistic conventions changed to the more English-influenced conventions used to translate Modern Standard Arabic (fusha). Thus “Moussa” becomes “Musa,” “Haroun” becomes “Harun,” and M’ma becomes Mama, hadj becomes hajj, and Zoudj, which is a distinctly Algerian word for two, becomes Zujj, and so forth. Given that the “Arab” identity of Algeria and Arab(ic)isation are intensely politicised – Harun mentions this and Daoud himself insists that he speaks Algerian, not Arabic –  this editorial choice would have benefitted from an explanation. The transliteration of “M’ma” into “Mama” – a key word in the book – is particularly problematic because their connotations differ. “M’ma” is much closer to the Arabic for mother (“Oum”) and tends be used by an older, more rural generation (as befits the elderly Harun). “Mama” is drawn from the Romance languages on the northern shores of the Mediterranean and is used by younger, more middle class generations. Students should be aware that some of the sense of time and place is lost in this translation.

Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation (Great Britain and Australia: Oneworld Publications, 2015) Translation by John Cullen. Originally published in French as Meursault, contre-enquête (Algiers: Editions Barzakh, 2013)

NOTES

  1. Conor Cruise O’Brian, Camus (London: Fontana, 1970), p. 23.
  2. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism. (London: Vintage, 1994 [1993]), pp. 218-19.
  3. For two of the most thorough reviews, most useful to students (both of which make the argument for the novel as a sequel), see Adam Shatz, “Stranger Still,” The New York Times Magazine (1 April 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/magazine/stranger-still.html and Alice Kaplan, “Camus Redux,” Nation, (23 February 2015)
  4. The original French novel explicitly refers to L’Etranger and its author “Albert Meursault” (p. 171), whilst the English translation is more ambiguous, with L’Etranger becoming The Other (although the convention is to translate L’Etranger as The Stranger, and more unusually, The Outsider), and the author simply “Meursault” (p. 127) – the justification for this is not clear.
  5. Malika Rahal, ‘Comment faire l’histoire de l’Algérie indépendante?’, La vie des idées (13 March 2012) laviedesidees.fr/Comment-faire-l-histoire-de-l.html
  6. In the original French, the interlocutor is less student-like and more generally an academic – “Monsieur “l’inspecteur universitaire”” (p. 34)
  7. Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (University of California Press, 2005), pp. 19-20.
  8. ‘Stranger and stranger’, The Economist, 30 May 2015. http://www.economist.com/node/21652251/comments#comments
  9. The web address of Le Quotidien d’Oran, which Daoud writes for is here: http://www.lequotidien-oran.com/. Its search facility is somewhat uneven, a collection of some of Daoud’s journalism published in the Quotidien can be found here: http://www.djazairess.com/fr/author/Kamel+Daoud
  10. On this theme, Tahar Djaout’s Les Chercheurs d’Os (1984) might be fruitfully read alongside The Meursault Investigation.
  11. On women and pensions, see Natalya Vince, Our Fighting Sisters: Nation, Gender and Memory in Algeria, 1954-2012 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp. 130-133 and 236-239.
  12. See, for example, the cult films Le Clandestin/Taxi al-Makhfi (Benamar Bakhti, 1991) and the drawings of cartoonist Slim, with captions such as “BEFORE: to benefit from the title of former mujahid you needed have been in the maquis and have two witnesses. Now it’s more complicated: you need four witnesses even if you weren’t in the maquis.” Slim, Avant c’était mieux (Alger: Ed Diwan 2010)
  13. For students who only read English, I would recommend partnering these fictional passages with Raphaëlle Branche’s article “The martyr’s torch: memory and power in Algeria,” Journal of North African Studies 16: 3 (2011), pp. 431-224 which provides a useful overview of the issues.
  14. In writer Kateb Yacine’s famous phrase: “To write in French is almost, on a much more elevated level, to snatch the gun from the hands of a paratrooper.” Interview in 1962 reproduced in K. Yacine, Le Poète comme un boxer: entretiens 1958-1989 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1994).
  15. Thinking about the ways in which anti-colonial nationalism – like all nationalisms – is heavily gendered, it would be useful to read the passages on “Zubiba” alongside Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987) and Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. In the second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014) Enloe declares “Malek Alloula used these images to explore his own identity as a male nationalist: for a man, to be conquered is to have his women turned into fodder for imperialist postcards. Becoming a nationalist requires a man to resist the foreigner’s use and abuse of his But what of the women themselves? [….]”
  16. Assia Djebar, Les Enfants du nouvel monde (Paris: René Julliard, 1962)
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