Naming the Arab: Kamel Daoud’s “Meursault, contre-enquête”

By Suzanne Ruta

The Algerian novelist and journalist Kamel Daoud publishes a pithy, fast-paced critique of Algerian society five times a week in the French-language daily Quotidien d’Oran, and on Facebook. Readers value his insight, his poetry, his well-directed rage. 

In 2010 a French reporter, in Oran to research Camus’ connection with the town, irritated Daoud by raising the tired question of whether Camus belongs to France or Algeria. “He’s not a leg of lamb to be cut in half,” Daoud complained in a recent interview. He went home and wrote a riff on L’Étranger, in the voice of the imagined younger brother of the unnamed “Arabe” shot five times by Meursault on that fateful Algiers beach in 1942. And realized he was on to something. What started as a chronique wound up filling an entire book.

Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter-inquiry) was published late last year by Éditions Barzakh in Algiers, and this year by Actes Sud in France. Of all the many tributes paid Camus in his 2013 centenary, this may be the most intimate, heartfelt, and enlightening.

The year is 2010 or thereabouts. The narrator, a man in his late seventies, hangs out in an Oran bar, the Titanic, making his confession (like Jean-Baptiste Clamence in Camus' Le Chute) to a returned expat Algerian who can’t get a word in edgewise. The monologist, Haroun, was all of seven when his brother Moussa—a Biblical name—was shot by Meursault on that famous beach.  Seventy years later Haroun is still outraged at the way his family was reduced to anonymity, overlooked completely, by the world-renowned author of L'Étranger, whom he identifies with his brother’s murderer. To him they are one and the same man, Albert Meursault, who has a lot to answer for.

His older brother’s death, his widowed mother’s desperate search for her missing son (his body apparently washed away by the tide), her boundless grief and demand for vengeance—all of this stunts Haroun’s development but also drives him, in the end, to rebel.  In his teens he learns French, to tell his brother’s story but also to escape his overbearing mother’s grip. In his twenties, there’s a brief, chaste romance with a young woman who hands him a novel called L'Étranger. He learns it by heart. He lives on, a clerk in a Kafkaesque government office, a friendless bachelor, as much a guilt-ridden, disconnected outsider in “decolonized” twenty-first-century Algeria as Meursault was in colonial times: a clever, complicated way of saying that Algeria is trapped in a time warp, and needs to break free at last.

In a playful paradox, this novel posing as an attack on L’Étranger celebrates Camus on every page, recycling tropes and sentences and whole passages from his works, including the posthumous Premier Homme. We might call this approach "intertextual"; Daoud has referred to it as “paratextual." From the first sentence, “M'ma is still alive today,” to the final pages where Haroun rebukes the neighborhood imam in the very same words Meursault hurled at the prison chaplain, Daoud enlists Camus in his campaign against the weary, life-denying beliefs of nationalism and Islamism that hold Algeria in thrall.

Beyond all the allusions—Camusian, Biblical, Koranic—and the suggestive similes (the bay of Oran is like a woman spreading her legs, the bay of Algiers like an open jaw), there is the simple power of the tale, the fable. The poetic justice of giving the anonymous “Arabe” and his family their names and histories and voices resonates with readers; the novel has just been nominated for France’s annual Prix François Mauriac, and theater and film versions are already in the works.

In April, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika—a seventy-seven-year-old holdover from the 1960s and by now a wheelchair-bound stroke victim, barely capable of public speaking—was reelected to a fourth straight term. The continued rule of Bouteflika, or “Lui” as Daoud has begun to refer to him, shreds every remaining illusion about the march toward democratic reform.  But like the comic alter ego in his novel, Daoud won’t shut up. Too much is at stake. Not so much his own future—as he admitted in his column of March 5, "I have lost the best years of my life"—but those of younger generations. Perhaps the most moving line in his novel is the dedication to his children, "mes yeux ouverts": my open eyes. 

In this brief excerpt, Haroun has buttonholed his unwitting audience and launched into his tale.

It’s simple, this story should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left. That is to say, beginning with the body, still alive, the narrow streets that led him to his end, the Arab’s given name, up until his encounter with the bullet. I learned this language, in part, to tell this story on behalf of my brother, the friend of the sun. Does that seem improbable to you? You’re wrong. I had to find the answer no one was ever willing to give me when I needed it. You drink a language, you speak it, and one day it takes possession of you; from then on, it gets used to making choices for you, it grabs your mouth the way a couple does in a voracious kiss. I knew someone who learned to write French because one day his illiterate father received a telegram that no one could decipher—this was in the era of your hero and the colonials.   The telegram rotted in his pocket for a week, until someone read it to him. It announced, in three lines, the death of his mother, somewhere in the treeless depths of the country.

“I learned to write for my father’s sake, to make sure that never happened again,” the man told me. “I will never forget his anger at himself and the look he gave me, asking me for help.”  It’s basically the same with me. Go ahead, go on reading, even if it’s all written in my head. Every evening my brother Moussa, alias Zoudj, rises from the kingdom of the dead and tugs on my beard, crying “O brother Haroun, why did you let them get away with it? I’m not a cow, for god’s sake, I’m your brother.” Go ahead, read.

Let’s get the facts straight, to begin with. We were two brothers only, there were no sisters with loose morals, the way your hero suggested in his book. Moussa was my older brother, his head bumped against the clouds. Yes, he was tall, with a skinny, sinewy body, from hunger and the strength that comes with anger. He had an angular face, big hands that used to defend me, and hard eyes because of the land stolen from our ancestors. But when I think about it, I believe he already loved us the way the dead love, gazing at us from the beyond and not wasting his words. I have few mental images of him, but I want to describe them carefully. Like the day he came back early from the market in our neighborhood or from the port. He worked there as a porter or an odd-job man, carrying, dragging, lifting, sweating. That day he found me playing with an old tire, so he took me on his shoulders and told me to hold onto his ears as if his head were a steering wheel. I remember my joy at touching the sky, while he rolled the tire in front of him imitating the noise of a motor. The smell of him comes back to me. A tenacious odor of rotten vegetables and a mix of sweat, muscle, breath. Another scene, the day of the Eid. The day before, he had given me a thrashing for some stupidity of mine and now we were both ill at ease. It was the day of pardon, he was supposed to embrace me, but I didn’t want him to lose any of his pride or debase himself by apologizing to me, not even in the name of God.  I remember, too, his way of standing completely motionless in the doorway of our house, looking across at the neighbors’ wall, with a cigarette and a cup of black coffee our mother served him.

Our father had vanished centuries ago, reduced to scraps of rumors from men who said they had run into him in France, and only Moussa heard his voice and used to tell us what he dictated to him in his dreams. My brother had seen him again only once and from so far away he wasn’t sure. As a child I could distinguish the days with rumors from the days without. When my brother Moussa had heard talk of our father, he came home gesturing feverishly, his eyes aflame, long whispered conversations with M’ma that used to end in violent quarrels.  

I was left out of it but I got the gist. My brother blamed M’ma for some reason that wasn’t clear and she defended herself in ways that were still less clear. Those were anxious days and nights, filled with anger, and I remember my panic at the thought that Moussa could leave us too. But he always came back at dawn, drunk, oddly proud of his rebellion and as if endowed with new strength. Then my brother Moussa would sober up, as if extinguished. All he wanted was to sleep, and my mother regained control of him.  I have pictures in my head, it’s all I can offer you. A cup of coffee, cigarette butts, his espadrilles. M’ma weeping and then very quickly regaining her composure to smile at a neighbor woman who had come to borrow tea or spices, switching so quickly from sadness to politeness it made me doubt her sincerity. Everything revolved around Moussa and Moussa revolved around our father whom I never knew and who left me nothing but our family name. You know what we were called in those days? Ouled el-assasse. The sons of the guardian.

Or the watchman, to be more exact. My father worked as night watchman in some kind of factory. One night, he vanished. And that’s all. That’s the whole story.

It was right after my birth, during the 1930s. That’s why I always imagine him dark, concealed in a black coat or djellaba, hunkered in a dimly lit corner, mute and with no answers for me.

Moussa was a somber taciturn god, his full beard made him seem a giant, and his arms that could have wrung the neck of a soldier in any ancient pharaoh’s army.

And that’s why, on the day we learned of his death and the circumstances surrounding it, I felt neither sorrow nor anger but first of all disappointment, the offense, as if I’d been insulted. My brother Moussa was capable of parting the sea in two and he died in a stupid incident, in a lowly walk-on part, on a beach that has since disappeared, close by the waters that ought to have made him famous forever!

I almost never wept for him. I just stopped gazing at the sky the way I used to. What’s more, later on I didn’t fight in the war of liberation. I knew it was won in advance from the moment my kin were killed because of lassitude and sunstroke. For me, everything became clear once I learned to read and write. I had my mother while Meursault had lost his. He killed, but I knew it was a case of suicide. At least that’s what I thought before the scenery rotated on its base and the roles were switched. Before I realized to what degree we were, the two of us, companions in the same cell, in a dungeon where our bodies are only costumes.

And so the story of this murder does not begin with that famous sentence “Mother died today,” but with what no one has ever heard, that is, what my brother Moussa told my mother before he left the house that morning:

“I’ll be home earlier than usual.”

From Meursault, contre-enquête (Algiers: Éditions Barzakh in Algiers, 2013). © Kamel Daoud. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2014 by Suzanne Ruta. All rights reserved.

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