Review by Janice Tsang
Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation, trans. John Cullen (Other Press, 2015) pp. 180.
‘Isn’t storytelling a way of searching for one’s origin?’ – Roland Barthes
Barthes’s powerful question is to be kept in mind when reading Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. This is a philosophical novel about an Algerian protagonist searching for a face and a name in his homeland after being treated as an outsider in his own birthplace for over a century of French colonial rule. This story is about origins, a search for firstness, priority – the first crime, the first victim, and a desire for a legitimate attempt to get even against oppression. It is about a need for recognition, and for reckoning—of a subjectivity that has been, in Azzedine Haddour’s words, systematically ‘denied both voice in discourse and representation before the law.’ With this in mind, Daoud’s novel aims to reclaim the role of the storyteller from Camus’s Meursault, from the 1942 novel L’Étranger, part of the French tradition to which Algeria was subjected.
While this review is based on John Cullen’s English translation, I want to highlight something in Daoud’s French title that is lost in the English version. The original title is Meursault, contre-enquête. This is a strike-back, right on the book’s cover, an attempt of postcolonial ‘Writing Back,’ a counter-discursive criticism. Counter-discourse is a strategy that takes a classic text as a departure point while contesting its apparent canonical authority (examples include Mr Pip, Foe, and of course, Wide Sargasso Sea). Contre (against) might suggest binarism and opposition, but this text, like many others from this ‘genre’, seeks not to reverse the hierarchy and to replace the dominant discourse with another one, but rather, to continually ‘consume their own biases’ and at the same time ‘expose and erode those of the dominant discourse.’ Here, Daoud tries to stage an Algerian re-write/re-right to Camus’s awkward Frenchness as a leftist pied-noir. Pun-intended, first because Arabic abjad is from the right to the left and second because after July 5 1962 was the beginning of a rightful declaration of Arab Algerian nationalism.
Daoud’s book is full of such radical reversals, stark parallels and parodies. The more familiar you are with Camus’s works, novels and philosophical essays, the better you’ll be able to appreciate the nuanced political forte, permeating between the lines of sensuous, spicy, scandalous remarks, alongside a drunkard’s seeming melancholic, melodramatic, hallucinatory lucidity. On the other hand, the book can be enjoyed by someone completely unfamiliar with Camus, as it stands firmly on its own two feet. This story is not a resentful tale of revenge against the original and there is nothing bitter or moralizing about in its approach to Camus. Rather, it playfully ‘disturbs the rule of coloniality and the legitimacy of its imposition’ evident in Camus’s (unconsciously) colonialist text, his ambition for a universalist portrayal of the human condition that somehow exposes his blindness of his own colonist politics. Daoud’s protagonist says directly that Meursault the ‘writer-murderer was wrong,’ but Meursault did not know that his writing was a form of murder. It is perhaps meant in the Islamic sense that ’everything is written,’ Mektoub, predestined, and that Meursault was destined to carry out a colonial oppression. It is this that we must combat, rather than Camus himself. Writing, in any case, is presented as a form of murder.
Aside from its post-colonial intentions, this is a funny novel. It offers a hilarious parody of some of the unforgettable scenes in Camus’s L’Étranger. For instance, an examining magistrate’s questioning is restaged as a patriotic post-Independence rant about the slippery difference between violently murdering and liberating the nation. The humor then, quickly becomes very serious. The existentialist overtones of Camus’s ‘absurd’ gives way to a much cruder and yet comical portrayal of fanatical religious practices, rendering the protagonist more or less like Meursault, sitting there in the middle, in that intermediary state not a collaborator with colonists nor a mujahid.
Names are important in this investigation. Our storyteller is Harun (Aaron), who relentlessly forces upon us the story of his brother, Musa (Moses), so that this book comes from a tissue of texts that starts not from Camus but from far beyond, indeed, perhaps there is no origin of the text. In a tone similar to Camus’s Meursault, Daoud’s existential hero Harun, fearless against accusations or even execution for his blasphemous speech, scolds an iman for wasting his time discussing God: ’I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer, and that I want to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.’
Kamel Daoud has expressed his skepticism of religion and Arabism national French television. Daoud commented: ‘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 colonization.’ The forging of the Algerian national identity has been a painful, atrocious path and Daoud presents us with the fact that the post-colonial Algeria is far from being liberated. The Algerian national identity, for Daoud, has been forged by hegemonic state discourses after independence and allows no room for divergences from the one authorized definition of being Arabic: it has been colonized. Other identities are neither desired nor tolerated. It was based on a specific combination of Islamic, Arabic and socialist ideas, legitimized through the war of independence, authorized by the ruling regime and expressed, in the state slogan ‘L’Algerie est ma patrie, l’arabe ma langue, l’Islam ma religion.’ When national identity is asserted via this idea of sameness, it necessarily involves eradicating ‘difference’, either in terms of marginalising, obliterating, or forcefully removing it. Dauod opposes this construction of national identity.
It is therefore unsurprising that Daoud received death threats after publishing the book. Abdelfattah Hamadache, an Islamist preacher, called for the Algerian government to publicly execute Daoud for his ’guerre contre Dieu, son Prophète, son Livre, les musulmans et leurs pays’ (‘war against God, his prophet, his text, the Muslims and their country’). Like the courageous writers of his country before him (e.g. Tahar Djaout and others who were assassinated by militant Islamists in the 1990s Black Decade) Daoud remains resolutely defiant and refuses to leave his country whilst continuing to speak out for what he believes in. I think of lines from the brave Algerian poet Kateb Yacine: Le silence c’est la mort, / et toi, si tu te tais, tu meurs, / et si tu parles, tu meurs. / Alors, dis et meurs… (Silence is death, / and you, if you remain silent, you die / and if you speak, you die. / So, speak and die..).
In reading the book my mind turned to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and to discourses discussing immigration in Europe and America right now. Such things show that the analysis of exclusivist rhetoric is more necessary than ever. In many ways this novel provides what is needed here: disputing and re-opening conversations with official ideas of nationality. Kamel Daoud’s text belongs to what Helen Tiffin has called ’an ongoing dialectic between hegemonic centrist systems and peripheral subversion of them’. This novel challenges hegemonic ideas not only of the literary canon and the colonizer but of official nationality and dangerous discourses of the nation state.
Janice Tsang is conducting postgraduate study in Postcolonialism and World Literatures at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Born in Hong Kong, she is interested in languages, religion, radical politics, and poetics. She is involved in various social movements.