by Kamel Daoud
"Aujord'hui, M'ma est encore vivante" ["Mama is still alive today"] (11) intones the narrator at the outset of Meursault, contre-enquète [The Meursault Investigation] in words that clearly echo but just as clearly subvert the familiar opening lines of Albert Camus' L'étranger. The subversive narrator of this postcolonial call and response almost three quarters of a century in the making? Haroun, a now 70-something Algerian who claims to be the brother of "l'Arabe" gunned down on the beach by the French Algerian protagonist of the 1942 best seller that inspired this counter-inquiry into l'affaire Meursault. So how does what Haroun refers to as "un crime commis dans un livre" ["a crime committed in a book"] (27), a book itself described as a "mensonge sublime" ["sublime lie"] (58), morph into such fascinating intertextual reading matter? To begin with, beyond the expected settling of scores with L'étranger's author on literary accounts--"As-tu vu sa façon d'écrire?" ["Have you seen his style of writing?"], he asks. "Il semble utiliser l'art du poème pour parler d'un coup de feu!" ["He seems to use the art of the poem to speak of a gunshot!"] (12); for sloppy ethnocentrism--"On le désignait comme l'Arabe" ["He's called the Arab"], Haroun says of his murdered brother Moussa, "même chez les Arabes. C'est une nationalité, 'Arabe', dis-moi? Il est-où, ce pays que tous proclament comme leur ventre, leurs entrailles,qui ne trouve nulle part?" ["even among Arabs. Tell me, is 'Arab' a nationality? Where is it, this country which everybody claims as their womb, their heart, but which can't be found anywhere?"] (148); and for the perhaps much greater crime of having become famous for the writing of a book about a murder in which he couldn't even be bothered to mention the name of "l'Arabe" whom he had killed under a blinding sun, Haroun goes off script so to speak and dialogues not just with the author of L'étranger but with Algerian history and memory. One particularly juicy example of how his rambling monologue intersects with Algerian history and lit in such delightfully messy ways is that Haroun expressly politicizes the situation by mocking Meursault and his kind for never really belonging in or to Algeria in the first place. "Le meurtre qu'il a commis semble celui d'un amant déçu par une terre qu'il ne peut posséder" ["The murder which he committed resembles that of a lover deceived by a land which he could not possess"], we read. "Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre! Étre l'enfant d'un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance" ["How he must have suffered, the poor guy! To be the child of a place which did not give birth to you"] (13). On that note, this is probably a good time to point out how Haroun's strange gendered topography of both Oran ("cette ville a les jambes ouvertes vers la mer, les cuisses écartées, depuis la baie jusqu'à ses hauteurs, là où se trouve ce jardin exubérant et odorant" ["this city with its legs open to the sea, thighs spread, from the bay to its hills, there where this exuberant and fragant garden is located"]--a garden which he has just compared to a woman's vagina! (22)--and Algiers ("vielle actrice démodée de l'art révolutionnaire" ["an over the hill, old-fashioned actress of the art of revolution"] (62) frames Algeria as a once desirable female fought over by possessors and possessed. Whatever the character's views on whether this "woman" was really worth fighting over, the salient point is that Haroun--who, to be fair, also admits to loving Oran at night "malgré la prolifération des rats" ["despite the proliferation of rats"] (59) in what seems like a mischievous reference prompted by another Oran-situated novel by the name of La peste--suggests that even though "chasser tous les Meursault" ["hunting all the Meursaults"] (92) was an explicit strategy of Algeria's quest for independence, the anti-intruder violence didn't cease after all the Meursaults were pushed into the sea. In fact, "La mort, aux premiers jours de l'Indépendance, était aussi gratuite, absurde et inattendu qu'elle avait l'avait été sur une plage ensoleillée de 1942" ["in the days following Independence, death was as gratuitous, absurd and unexpected as it had been on a beach bathed in sunshine in 1942"] (115). In other words, et voilà!
Thanks to The Modern Novel blog for introducing me to Meursault, contre-enquête just over a year ago in this review here. Thanks to Frances of Nonsuch Book for reading Daoud's novel with me this past week. Her review can be found here.