The Politics of the Other

Algerian desert

The Meursault Investigation is a new novel by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud that challenges the erasure of the unnamed Arab killed in The Outsider. But in its own right, the book is also a rich, provocative investigation of identity and place in post-colonial Algeria. Tony Boardman reports.

The single reason people outside Algeria know about this country. He is our only ambassador.

Algerian documentary maker Yazid Ait Mahieddine discussing Albert Camus in an interview with The Smithsonian magazine in 2013.

Albert Camus was born close to Tunisia in the small Algerian coastal town of Dréan, and spoke throughout his career of the influence of his home country on his work, basing some of his most prominent novels there.

Yet despite Camus’ fondness for the country and its role as a setting for his work, in today’s Algeria, Camus’ books cannot be found in bookstores, his work is not taught in schools, and readings of Camus and events concerning the author are met with hostility from authorities and the public. Camus, a ‘pied-noir’, or colonist of European roots in Algeria, believed throughout his life (despite his abhorrence of French colonial prejudices) in the need for Algeria to remain part of France, and therefore is perceived as a colonialist in Algerian society.

Perhaps Camus’ most famous novel, The Outsider (LEtranger) (1942), while set in Algiers, is difficult to locate as a specifically Algerian novel. It tells the tale of a French Algerian, Meursault, who kills an unnamed Arab for no clear reason, and subsequently finds himself tried and sentenced to death; yet this judgment appears to be made based more in response to the behaviour of Meursault at his mother’s funeral than it is in response to the actual murder. And while a specific Mediterranean climate influences the novel’s events, these events are understood as expressing universal feelings of alienation and absurdity.

The Meursault Investigation (Meursault, Contre-enquête) (2015), the new novel from Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, takes The Outsider and re-imagines its events. In Daoud’s version there are historical and geographical contexts to the killing of an unnamed Arab, the murder is real, concrete, and affects a community and a people. The Meursault Investigation gives the murdered Arab a name – Musa – and invents a brother for Musa – Harun. We hear the story of The Outsider from Harun’s perspective, as well as his own personal history, which takes us through the Algerian War of Independence of 1954-62, the country’s Civil War of the 1990s and to the present day. The novel takes its own turn to the absurd when Harun kills a Frenchman entering his house a week after the end of the War of Independence, and is universally chastised for not having killed him a week earlier.

In retrospect, the lack of reference to colonialism or Algerian identity in The Outsider was an oversight.

Undoubtedly it would drastically alter The Outsider, which privileges Meursault’s immediate physical experience so much that social context becomes meaningless. Thus trying to write a political response to a novel that is so intensely apolitical demands a real skill. The Meursault Investigation manages to avoid becoming a dry esoteric polemic that such a project may risk, through a story that moves deftly between postcolonial literary critique and fluid plot development. Daoud puts Meursault on trial once more and in doing so actually exploits the gaps in Camus’ narrative. The ‘counter-investigation’(contre-enquête) of the French title is revealed late on in the novel to be a book Harun has written by extrapolating from two newspaper articles, ‘swell[ing] their volume until I made a cosmos’.

The Meursault Investigation begins as pure theoretical analysis, but develops into a rich, conflicted and ambiguous novel, which delights in exploiting the spaces left by Camus, and whose tragedy lays largely in the way that Harun’s story of post-independence echoes its colonial predecessor.

Daoud is playful with his source material, simultaneously imagining The Outsider as both a report on true events and an unreliable, biased and deceptive account of the killing. The frame narrative is not immediately clear, but is hugely inventive: you, the reader, are required to play the part of a Western, educated literature student coming to Algeria to investigate the events of The Outsider (a copy of which is in your bag), and imagine yourself sat opposite the narrator, Harun, in a bar in (Algeria’s second city) Oran. At this point, Daoud dethrones Camus, when Harun rereads The Outsider for you, and removes it of all its poetic quality:

I’m going to outline the story before I tell it to you. A man who knows how to write kills an Arab who, on the day he dies, doesn’t even have a name…Then the man begins to explain that his act was the fault of a God who doesn’t exist and that he did it because of what he’d just realised in the sun and because the sea salt obliged him to shut his eyes.

Beneath such humour lies a sinister conclusion; Meursault’s ‘murderous idleness’ entails a response, the second murder Daoud depicts. Daoud, in an interview with The Sunday Times, warns of the present-day implications of such boredom: ‘People in Algeria are not hungry, they are not poor. But even when they are 20, they have nothing to do but wait until they get old. They call that age ‘waithood’. They are waiting for death and paradise.’ Daoud is all too aware of the lure of Islamism to provide meaning in this age.

There is of course something refreshing in hearing a formerly repressed voice relate a familiar story, reclaiming a narrative. Harun reclaims his brother’s death; ‘My brother was the one who got shot, not him! It was Musa, not Meursault, see?’ Here, through the ownership of a narrative, Harun is granted clear certainties, space to philosophise, and given a narrative arc of his own. As he broods over Musa, Harun says: ‘Nobody’s granted a final day, just an accidental interruption.’

To revenge the way Musa’s narrative was upset so violently by Meursault, Harun corners a Frenchman (so that ‘his only way out was my story’), and kills him. There is a definite allegory here for a nation whose narrative has been lost in civil war and taken and rewritten by European colonisers; the imagery is clear when Harun describes Oran as ‘a city with its legs open towards the sea’, a city ‘inseminated’ by a French general in the 19th Century and whose inhabitants imagine themselves the descendants of Spaniards and Turks.

While Harun asks you to read The Outsider ‘right to left’, there is an evident melancholy that his story must not be conveyed in native Arabic but a learned French, a language that holds a sort of magical aura for Harun, that has always appeared to him to provide ‘the solution to the dissonances of the world’. Though Harun tells you that his mother’s Arabic is ‘rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts and improvisations, …not too big on precision’, French is, to Harun, a language of power and domination, equated with Camus’ ‘clean, clear, exact’ language, and earns the same sort of apprehensive and curious admiration from the narrator.

Harun asks you to read ‘The Outsider’ right to left

Throughout the novel, Daoud balances between a mischievous belittlement and an almost fearful awe of the mathematical precision of Camus’ text. With the two other texts that recur prominently through the novel, Robinson Crusoe and the Koran, a sort of trilogy is formed of huge, inescapable texts that seem to describe thought that shadows over all Algerian/Arab life: Robinson Crusoe as a crucial text of colonial domination, the Koran as the founding text of Islam, and The Outsider as a founding myth of Algerian existence. The novel is skeptical of all these forms of guiding narrative, and shows how the Arabic and Islamic ideas of Algerian identity formed post-independence relate only to other forms of dominance and come with their own problems. Daoud recently told, ‘Arabism is a heritage, it is a culture. It’s as if I asked you: are you French or Latin? You are French. Me, I am Algerian. Arab, it is not a nationality, it is a culture, a domination, a colonisation’.

It is bold, daring even, that Daoud would state so assertively that these issues are more pressing than Camus’ theme (that, as Camus put it, ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death’); The Meursault Investigation emerges as a triumphant, surprising assessment of a social condition, and one whose defiant politicism emerges retrospectively as an absolute requisite for its source text.

Photo by Patrick Gruban