Kamel Daoud (born in 1970) is a journalist who lives in Oran, Algeria, and writes a regular column for Algeria’s bestselling daily Francophone newspaper. His first novel, “Meursault, contre-enquête,” was published in Algeria in 2013, and later in France where it was highly praised. Daoud was the subject of a recent profile in the New York Times by the London Review of Books’ Adam Shatz following the translation of his novel into English. (I read a French edition published by Actes Sud in 2014, so quotations are my own translation.)
His starting point in Meursault, contre-enquête is the story told in L’Étranger, (“The Outsider”), Albert Camus’ novel of 1942. In that book the narrator, Meursault, who like Camus is a lower-middle class Algerian of European descent, shoots to death an Arab (who goes unnamed) one day on the beach. For this crime Meursault is condemned to death; though really, we are led to believe, he is condemned to death for failing to grieve in a socially accepted manner over his mother, whose death is announced in the first line of the book, ‘Mother died today.’ From this story, Daoud retrieves ‘The Arab’, giving him a name and a history: Moussa, the older brother of Daoud’s narrator Haroun. Why should the story be about Meursault, Haroun says, ‘It was my brother that took the bullet, not him!’ Why should the colonist and his crimes be placed at the centre of the narrative?
Haroun tells his story in the form of a monologue to a stranger in a bar, the same device with which Camus began his later novel La Chute (“The Fall”). The echo is deliberate, as it is in Daoud’s opening line, ‘Mother is still alive today’. This is not to say that Daoud imitates Camus but rather, I think, that he sees the two novels as entangled. The murder of his brother is the dominant theme in Haroun’s psychology, one that he cannot simply escape. In Arabic, Haroun tells us, Meursault is pronounced “El-Merssoul”, “one who has been sent”, or “the messenger”. ‘Not bad, eh?’ he jokes. Daoud delights in these plays on words, these doublings. Moussa for Meursault, Haroun’s love interest Meriem for Meursault’s Marie. This doubleness lies at the heart of the project of telling Moussa’s story, an act by which Haroun hopes to achieve ‘justice… not the justice of a tribunal, but that of balance.’
In a sense, Haroun is Meursault’s double for he has also committed a murder. The victim is a French colonist, and Haroun kills him for no particular reason, a few days after independence has been declared. On arrest he is treated with suspicion for not having joined ‘the brothers’ in the liberation struggle. Like Meursault, he is hated for something other than his crime, namely the fact he committed it on his own initiative and for the wrong reasons. ‘You should simply have done it before [independence],’ an officer tells him, ‘there are rules to respect.’ In making Haroun a murderer Daoud is not suggesting that some facile notion of “balance” requires that colonist and colonised be condemned in identical terms, but rather that a faithful portrait of him needs an honest reckoning with his guilt as well as his trauma.
As a journalist, Daoud is known for his critical perspective on contemporary Algeria. In particular, he has a vexed relationship with religion, as does his narrator. In one of the novel’s many casually witty lines, Haroun describes religion as ‘public transport which I don’t take – I like to travel towards God, on foot if necessary, but not on an organized trip.’ Nevertheless, the narrator and the novelist should not be confounded with each other. Indeed, the author drops several hints that the writer of the novel is in fact that unnamed stranger to whom Haroun tells his story in the bar over many glasses of wine. In one of the last lines of the book Haroun says to him: “Two unknowns with two stories on an endless beach. Which is the most truthful? It’s a private question. It’s for you to determine. El-Merssoul! Ha, ha.”