The gruesome Algerian War ended in 1962 with France walking away empty-handed from a territory that it had held for 130 years and considered not just a colony but an integral part of itself. The refusal of the pieds-noirs, the French colonists in Algeria, to concede meaningful rights to Arab citizens had made a peaceful independence impossible. The war, which featured ideological and tactical use of terrorism and torture on both sides, now a hallmark of intractable conflicts between the West and the Islamic world, brought down multiple French governments and the Fourth Republic before Charles de Gaulle accepted the inevitable. It also brought a flood of immigrants, harkis, Algerians who had fought on the French side; and many more who hadn’t, as France entered les trente glorieuses, its 30-year period of post-war prosperity. During this same period, Algeria’s economy, weighed down by state dominance, corruption, and dependence on hydrocarbons, failed to produce opportunity for its youthful, fast-growing population. Some five million people of Algerian descent live in France today, many in the crime-ridden housing projects of French suburbs, where integration is almost impossible.
On January 7, 2015, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi massacred 11 people at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine that publishes irreverent cartoons and commentary about Mohammed and many other religious and political figures. The Kouachis, two orphaned brothers of Algerian parents, were part of France’s marginalized and increasingly radicalized North and West African underclass.
Discussions of how such crimes germinate have focused more on contemporary conditions in France and the spread of radical Islam globally than what happened across the Mediterranean between 1954 and 1962. But French President François Hollande, who recently made a third visit to Algeria and acknowledged French acts of brutality, including a massacre of pro-liberation Algerians demonstrating in Paris in 1961, seems to be trying to look more deeply at the fraught history.
As is Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, who has captured French attention with a first novel that talks back to the most famous pied noir, Albert Camus, and his best-known work, The Stranger. Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête, published in 2013, won the Prix Goncourt for a first novel this May (after missing it by one vote in 2014) and has appeared in an English translation by John Cullen (Other Books) as The Meursault Investigation. The book made Daoud, whose caustic critiques of his country arewidely read in Algeria, something of a celebrity in France and earned him an Algerian cleric’s fatwa for the book’s anti-religious remarks.
Daoud isn’t the first to take on Camus, by any means. Camus’s views on Algeria were widely criticized during his lifetime, the more so because of his prominence as a Nobel Laureate. He remained attached to the idea of a French Algeria, in opposition to other leftist intellectuals, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who supported the Front de Libération Nationale, which still controls Algeria. Camus’s failed effort in 1956 to broker a truce outlawing attacks on civilians was ridiculed as naïve. In an article in Le Monde Diplomatique in November, 2000, Edward Saïd said the The Stranger was not a universal tragedy but a specific reflection of the French colonial mindset as the empire crumbled, hence its “feeling of waste and sadness.”(Claire Messud’s November 2013 New York Review of Books article on the translation of his Algerian Chronicles summarizes this history and gives a sympathetic analysis of Camus’s feelings about Algeria from the perspective of her own pied noir family heritage.)
Daoud’s novel is political, but not a polemic. It’s a thoughtful and independent-minded work of literature that takes Camus’s work as the jumping-off place for a new creation, in the vein of Jean Rhys’s Wild Sargasso Sea or José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. (Rhys made Mr. Rochester’s mad wife from Jane Eyre into her protagonist, and Saramago turned one of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s many alter-egos, Ricardo Reis, into a person who doesn’t realize he’s only alive as long as his creator is.) Daoud goes beyond using another writer’s character or piece of the plot. His book talks directly to and about Camus and The Stranger, making the writer, the book, and its characters, into characters in his story. It corrects The Stranger as if it were reportage or history. The effect is disorienting, a little crazy. Daoud parallels, interweaves, and compares the two texts, echoing the language ofThe Stranger in places and acting as a counterpoint to it in others. Skirting both post-colonial nostalgia and bitterness, the book pays homage to what Algeria inspired in Camus and to the expressiveness of the French language. Referring to Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger, the narrator says, “The murderer’s words and his expressions are my abandoned property.” He uses the term “bien vacants,” implying that the language, like the houses and businesses the French left in 1962, was game for expropriation.
You need to know The Stranger to make sense of Daoud’s work. (It’s worth reading them together.) So here’s a recap: Meursault, a detached young pied noir living in Algiers, gets drawn into a friend’s dispute with his mistress and shoots an Arab, possibly a friend of her brother, on the beach in a moment of confusion, fear, and sunstroke. He is arrested, tried, and sentenced to die, not on the evidence, but because his lack of emotion at his mother’s recent death and indifference to religion are deemed proof of his innate depravity. Counter-intuitively, the story arouses not resignation but indignation at the arbitrary injustice, the cruelty of true believers. The point of the book is the absurdity of belief in God or assigning meaning to one’s life. The book is considered one of the great modern fables. Yet the Arab’s fate—if anything more absurd and arbitrary, because Meursault isn’t even sure why he shot him—merits no comment or even empathy. He is never named or described beyond wearing blue workmen’s clothes. He dies and disappears from the story. He’s immaterial. Camus doesn’t even bother to dispose of the body. Daoud takes this choice as symbolic, representative of France’s feelings about Algeria, a country it exploited, fought brutally to keep, and, having failed, would just as soon forget.
Daoud’s multi-level word-sparring with Camus begins with the first line:“Aujourd’hui, M’ma est encore vivante.” Today, M’ma is still alive. The first line of The Stranger is: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” The degree of warmth expressed by maman vs mom/mother/mama has vexed Camus translators for decades. The latest translation by Matthew Ward punts: “Maman died today.” In Camus’s sentence, “today” refers to a finished time, while Daoud’s “today” is the ongoing present. Farther on, the narrator sees a group of French people in Algeria, looking at Arabs as if they were “stones or dead trees. He imagines them thinking: ‘But now it’s finished, this business,’” picking up a line that Meursault utters on the beach when he sees the Arab and wonders why he’s continuing the fight: “For me, it was finished, this business.”
Haroun, the narrator in Meursault, contre-enquête, is in his 70s, the younger brother of the dead Arab, whom he calls Moussa and occasionally Zoudj, which means two in Arabic, because Moussa/Zoudj was shot at quatorze heures or two p.m., the time of the siesta, when no one was around to come to his defense. Haroun’s tragedy is that of the surviving child. His mother, previously abandoned by her husband, grieves obsessively for her eldest, and seeks recognition as a martyr’s mother. Haroun can never make up for her loss, nor can he be careful enough, because he is all his mother has. He can’t marry, because how can he leave M’ma? The conceit of the book is that Haroun is in a bar (one of a dwindling number in Muslim Algeria) talking to a young French person (note: immaterial, nameless, genderless, and mute) who has come to find out the Arab’s story. Haroun rambles in the way of a melancholy intellectual barfly, alternately telling his story, shadow-boxing with Camus, venerating his crystalline prose, reminding his interlocuteur of incidents of the Algerian War, and complaining about the tyranny of Islam.
It takes Haroun more than a chapter to get into his story. First, he has to tell his listener the things that annoy him the most about The Stranger and restate it for ironic effect:
A man who knows how to write kills an Arab who doesn’t even have a name that day—as if he’d left it hanging on a nail when he walked on stage—then he starts explaining that it’s the fault of a God who doesn’t exist and, as he just realized, standing out in the sun and because the sea salt made him close his eyes. Suddenly, murder goes unpunished and isn’t even a crime because there’s no law between noon and two p.m., between him and Zoudj, between Meursault and Moussa. And then, for seventy years, everyone took his side to whisk the victim’s corpse away and turn the crime site into an immaterial museum.
Haroun can’t fully remember his brother, though he can recite The Stranger “like the Koran.” His mother has glorified Moussa into “a god,” with full beard and strong arms, a giant capable of “wringing the neck of any ancient pharoah’s soldier.” Haroun only recalls his brother’s irascible temper, reputation as a fighter, and his tattoos.
Finally, Haroun’s story, as told to his French listener, gets rolling. They leave Algiers and experience extreme poverty. His mother finds a job as a maid for a French family in Hadjout, formerly Marengo, where Meursault’s mother died. When the French family fled at independence in July, 1962, they moved into their former employers’ house. The war bears some fruit for them, at least. In the middle of the book, Haroun confesses that he too has a murder on his conscience. A pied noir, a neighbor who took refuge in their shed fearing Algerian reprisals as the French evacuated. Pushed by his mother to avenge Moussa’s death 20 years earlier, Haroun had shot the man, and they buried him in the garden.
Here the story veers back into a sort of call and response with Camus—which is where it becomes most compelling. Haroun is arrested and put in jail. The scene where his mother visits him in Algerian jail, with French visitors on either side, is the mirror opposite of the one in The Stranger where Meursault’s girlfriend, Marie, visits him in a French jail, and they struggle to communicate over the sound of Arabs.
Haroun’s mother gets him off the hook by telling the police that he’s the brother of a martyr. Another ironic twist, the mother tells him that the policeman believed her because she didn’t cry. Meursault’s failure to cry at his mother’s funeral was inculpating evidence.
Instead of being happy, Haroun’s insulted that his vengeance is too trivial to even merit a trial. He wants to publicly face everyone, including Camus, and accuse his mad, embittered mother, who made him pull the trigger, of ruining his life. Now that he knows how easy it is to resolve a problem with two shots, his own life has lost its value. He can’t love, for one thing. He has a brief chance at a relationship, which comes to naught. Ultimately, what he has to say to his young French listener is that his brother’s death cut him off from life.
And, since this is a political allegory, what of Algeria? Like Meursault, Haroun finds no comfort in collective truth. He says to the French person:
You live somewhere else, you can’t understand what an old man endures here if he doesn’t believe in God, doesn’t go to the mosque, isn’t waiting for paradise, has neither wife nor son and trots his liberty out as a provocation.
The book ends with a tirade that reprises, almost word for word, the last lines of The Stranger, in which convicted Meursault rejects a priest’s hollow comforts, substituting imam for priest and Muslim terms for Catholic ones. Here Daoud seems to lose control of his finely calibrated vehicle. The attack on religion doesn’t make a satisfying resolution to his story or tie the two books together. Instead of sparring with Camus’s language, he copies it. Haroun grouses about the stifling effect of Islam throughout, but it’s not essential to the narrative in the way that Christianity is to Meursault’s. Haroun’s beef is with Camus and by inference with French indifference. His beef with religion is to some extent a separate but related story.
This is a book about language. A writer, whose native language is not French but claims it as part of his heritage, calls out one of the most admired writers in the French language. Meursault, contre-enquête needs a translation that captures its writer’s linguistic agility, subtletly, and playfulness. Unfortunately, Cullen’s translation doesn’t do that. I read the translation first and, while impressed with the concept, was surprised that it had received such literary accolades. The writing seemed uneven and unidiomatic. When I got to this passage on page nine, I ordered the book in French: “We were the ghosts in this country, when the settlers were exploiting it and bestowing on it their church bells and cypresses and swans.” Swans? The original, as I guessed, is cigognes, storks, which migrate between Europe and Algeria and symbolize fertility, fidelity, and Christ. Swan is cygne. Daoud refers to storks three times in this short book, and each time the word is mistranslated, giving us such odd images as swans and their bulky nests on minarets. A translator doesn’t have to be an ornithologist, but it’s the sort of mistake that should have caught someone’s eye. Elsewhere, too, mistranslations and wordy solutions to phrasing or syntax problems undermine meaning. For example: “There were just two siblings, my brother and me. We didn’t have a sister, much less a slutty one…” Compare this with Daoud’s ironically polite, elliptical phrase: “Nous étions seulement deux frères, sans soeur aux moeurs légères…” We were only two brothers, no sister with easy [literally light] morals… It’s a tricky phrase to translate cleanly because sans means without and aux translates as with, but “moeurs légères” is a euphemism; slutty is a club.
I worked in France during the early 1990s as a reporter, a period when Algeria was constantly in the news. In 1991, during a period of liberalization, multi-party elections were permitted. After the Front Islamique du Salut or FIS trounced the FLN in the first round of parliamentary elections, the FLN cancelled the next round. A military coup ensued. The GIA (Group Islamique Armé) launched a terrorist campaign against foreigners and secularists. The country descended into a civil war that lasted years and killed over 100,000 people over the next decade. Yet I cannot recall having a single substantive conversation about Algeria in four years in France or since. That partly reflects my lack of attention and knowledge. Algeria wasn’t my beat, after all. I also suspect that Algeria’s chaos was and is background noise to many in France (and a complete blank to Americans). Reading Daoud’s book, I realized that knowing The Stranger as literature was not enough to fully grasp his message. I turned to Alistair Horne’s empathetic, comprehensive, and balanced A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962. Originally published in 1977, it has been repeatedly reissued, most recently by New York Review Books in 2006. References and dates that I’d glossed over became meaningful. Horne introduces a chapter with this quote from Emperor Louis-Philippe in 1835: “So what if a hundred thousand gunshots ring out in Africa! Europe doesn’t hear them.” As Daoud reminds us, we hear them now and will continue to do so, whether we want to or not. The names of the dead are known to someone.
Julia Lichtblau is the Book Reviews Editor for The Common.