“Mama is still alive today.” Kamel Daoud’s reversal of the legendary opening sentence of Camus’ The Outsider, “My mother died today” – sets the tone of what the Algerian author wants to achieve. It is a retelling of the canonical work of French existentialism but from the opposite viewpoint: The perspective of the nameless Arab, infamously killed by Camus’ anti-hero, Meursault, on a deserted beach for apparently no good reason.
There is a minor tradition of re-imagining great works of literature through its lesser characters, for example Wild Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story Mr Rochester’s Jamaican wife who is ostracised by her husband because of her Creole heritage. The Meursault Investigation firmly sits within this post-colonial endeavour of giving voice to the marginalized.
It is of course laudable to give literature’s nameless victims a story and thus restoring their dignity, but for it to work, the reader needs to know and more importantly care enough about the original work. And herein lies my problem with The Meursault Investigation: rereading The Outsider, albeit in the excellent new translation by Sandra Smith, I found it far less engaging than I remembered.
Surely, it is a work firmly entrenched in the Western canon – never been out of print and oft-quoted, translated into most world languages and included in many a school curriculum. It even inspired a global hit by British pop group, The Cure. And yet, it has become very much a product of its time, having been originally published in 1942 during the height of the Second World War which influenced Camus’ thinking a great deal more than the French colonialism in Algiers where he grew up. His ruminations about living in a godless, amoral universe seem to be a lot less pressing to the Western reader now, seven decades later. In fact, the book’s main character, Meursault, comes across more as a petulant, psychopathic misfit, unable or unwilling to engage with the world, than the existential antihero struggling with the absurdity of existence and refusing to conform to societal norms.
At first The Meursault Investigation appears to be built on opposition, rejection even, of The Outsider both in content and style. Where Camus’ classic is written in a linear style of almost mathematical precision, Daoud’s book is conversational and elliptical, told by Harun, the brother of the slain Arab called Musa, over a number of nights to an unseen journalist at a bar. His is a story of growing up with the burden of his brother’s death, of his mother’s fruitless pursuit of justice and also of the anarchy in the wake of Algiers’ independence and the recent shift towards a more Islamic society. Harun’s story serves as a mirror image to its famous original, even to the point where he ends up killing a Frenchman, Joseph, in 1962 to avenge his brother. Like the killing of Musa twenty years earlier, it is a senseless act with Joseph simply serving as a cipher for the colonial oppressed.
Yet, underneath Harun’s long, seemingly rambling monologues, there is a more controlled structure at work. Daoud is homing in to the core of his story in ever tightening circles until the themes of original and mirror images overlap and the parallels of his and Camus’ stories converge. As it turns out, the most hackneyed aspect of The Outsider, namely Meursault’s confrontation with the prison chaplain, is the most explosive in Daoud’s work where Harun clashes with the local Iman – a scene that earned Daoud strong rebukes and even a death threat in Algeria.
While proclaiming the absence of god generates little more than a yawn in the secular West these days, it still has the power to provoke, to shock even, in the increasingly religious Arab world. In that sense, Daoud’s contemporary retelling of The Outsider has done much more than rehash its timeworn template. By putting the spotlight on the Arab experience of French colonialism and its aftermath, he has rescued Camus’ book from the ravages of time and the irrelevance that comes with being a classic.
Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation (translated from French by John Cullen), Other Press, New York 2015
Albert Camus, The Outsider (new translation from French by Sandra Smith), Penguin Classic, 2012