“A sort of post-colonial studies joke”: Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

Do you need to read Camus before you read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation? If you read The Stranger ten years ago, twenty years ago, do you need to re-read it?

I had a Camus phase, in adolescence. I read The Stranger—and even bought L’etranger, with the ambition of using it to improve my French—as well as The Plague, The Fall, and others whose titles I don’t remember. I know that I read them, because while I bought those books new, they looked used when I gave them away. But books I read when I was a teenager didn’t stay in my brain, or at least these haven’t. Of The Stranger, I remember that mother died today, and ennui, and existentialism, I guess. Smoking. Killing an Arab because of the sun. The last time I thought about The Stranger was probably when George Bush reported reading it in Crawford, on vacation, and we all made jokes like “Ah! A book about killing an Arab and not feeling bad about it! Seems legit!”

As Piali Roy observes, the postcolonial retort is to take philosophical pretensions and make fun of them: “The Stranger (L’Étranger) became a sort of post-colonial studies joke,” she writes, “[after] the late great anti-Orientalist, Edward Said once pointed out that the Arabs in the novel were, “nameless beings used as background for the portentous metaphysics explored by Camus.” Squinted at from the right perspective, it makes more sense to make fun of “the book that once was the embodiment of a male adolescent’s ideas of rebellion at the futility of the commonplaces of life — career, marriage, belief in God” than to revere its seriousness of vision.
I remember those jokes much more clearly than I remember the scene in question. I remember the fact that Camus killed an Arab because of the sun, much better than I remember the actual experience of reading the book. I don’t remember the novel as philosophy, or even as novel. Which is to say, the book I read at some point in my teenage years has been thoroughly overwritten in my memory by my sense of why that novel is significant: it’s an exemplary text in the West’s literary erasure of its colonial empire. What I remember about The Stranger is not what it is ostensibly about, but what, in retrospect, it can be seen not to be about. What I remember about The Stranger, primarily, is why I don’t need to re-read it.

Most of the reviews of The Meursault Investigation frame Kamel Daoud’s novel in terms of its retort to the novel Camus is remembered to have written, by the sort of person who is likely to read Kamel Daoud’s novel. I am the sort of person who is likely to read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, for example, because I’m also the sort of person who has forgotten The Stranger in remembering what Camus erased: Africa. But because I am a reader who is aware that Africa exists, isn’t a book which “critiques” Camus in those terms a little bit superfluous? If my primary reference point for The Stranger is already the critique that is sometimes made of this Algerian-born French writer—the “perverse arrogance” that Achebe once described as Conrad’s choice, in Heart of Darkness, to reduce Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind—then why do I need to read “a bold riposte to Albert Camus’s existential classic,” as the Irish Times calls it? And yet, if I require that critique—if I need to be reminded of the existence of Africa—am I likely to read this novel? I bet I am not likely to read this novel.

I’ve constructed this somewhat elaborate problem not to criticize reviewers for staging Daoud-contre-Camus.

“An Algerian novelist takes on Camus in ‘The Meursault Investigation’” as the Washington Post puts it, and opens by reminding you how “Published in 1942, Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” remains a landmark of international literature.” Or, over at the NYT, “Kamel Daoud Interrogates Camus in ‘The Meursault Investigation’” we are told; “Harun, the narrator of Kamel Daoud’s stunning debut novel, “The Meursault Investigation,” is the brother of the nameless Arab murdered by Meursault, the narrator of Camus’s existential classic, “The Stranger.”
I don’t know how else you’d introduce the book, honestly; it’s a novel whose first-person narrator, Harun, literally tells you that he’s speaking back to Camus and correcting his wrong-telling of the past. There is no novel without this framing; the first line of Daoud’s book is a revision of the famous first line of Camus’ novel. And the protagonist of Daoud’s novel has not only read Camus’ novel, but he presumes that you have as well; indeed, the novel is narrated to a journalist in the bar who literally has a copy of The Stranger in his briefcase. Without that context, the book literally makes no sense. But just as Harun conflates Camus and Meursault in his effort to repudiate both—turning a novel into a truth claim, so he can demonstrate that it is a fiction—something important is lost if we do the same thing to Kamel Daoud’s novel. Daoud is not Harun, any more than Camus was Meursault. And the inversion of a fiction is not truth. It’s another fiction.

In her review of The Meursault Investigation, Laila Lalami suggests that “because they offer us a chance to look at the same story with new eyes, literary retellings have always been popular”:

“Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” reimagines “King Lear” on a farm in Iowa. Tayeb Salih’s “Season of Migration to the North” borrows its structure from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” uncovers the story of the madwoman in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.” But to be successful, a literary retelling must not simply dress up an old story in new clothes. It must also be so convincing and so satisfying that we no longer think of the original story as the truth, but rather come to question it.”

Lalami’s own novel, The Moor’s Account, begins in exactly these terms: its protagonist (the titular “Moor”) has read the account that Cabeza de Vaca gave of the Narvaez expedition, and he writes to supplement and correct it, to tell the real story of what happened. It is fiction, but it opens up the space in which Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative becomes legible as equally fictional, just as creative. When I interviewed her about her book, I felt the need to re-read Cabeza de Vaca; as I read Daoud’s novel, I found myself needing to re-read the novel that Camus wrote in 1942, and I did. Especially when it comes to the imperial fictions that the West has been producing about its others, for centuries, re-telling a canonical story in terms of the consciousness it suppresses does a certain kind of very powerful work.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Why must I read Camus first, in order to read this book? (and if I must read Camus first, why must I read this book?) If reading this book takes me back, inevitably, to the observation that Camus has his limitations, and that’s why I read it, then there’s a tautology nested in the critique of Camus that ends up placing Camus back at the center. Camus remains the original, against which Daoud’s retort or comment or counter or supplement come to seem secondary. It feels like we’ve missed something, and maybe it’s the punchline.

It would do a disservice to Lalami’s own novel, in fact, to think of it only in terms of her imaginative revision of Cabeza de Vaca; the most interesting thing her novel does—if you ask me—is how she plays with the notion of captivity, exploring the forms of un-freedom that derive not from formal enslavement but from exile and deprivation: one can be rendered un-free by solitude and hunger, not only by chains. There is little or no economy in Cabeza de Vaca (and a scrupulous effort not to think about how where we are produces who we are), but Lalami’s effort to sketch out how macro-political waves wash across human societies and transform their fundamental sense of who they are and why is what makes The Moor’s Account vital and interesting.

By the same token, it does a real disservice to this strange and vibrant and conflicted book to think of it as primarily a retort to Camus, and to thereby frame it as a secondary literature. Maybe it’s not a literature at all? Camus is dead, but Literature is still alive today, and what seems most crucial about these kinds of literary re-tellings is that they unsettle the basis on which some stories get privileged over others. There is something radically anti-literary about this novel, in other words, and it seems as crucial to what it’s doing as any reference to Camus.After all, if Camus and his creation seem to blur together, Harun’s treatment of Camus as if he literally was Meursault is so flagrantly and blatantly wrong that it undercuts whatever pretensions this novel might otherwise seem to have to a corrective function. Harun is locked in the past, an this novel is his struggle to emerge. In place of the literary, then, the word “historical” suggests itself to me, if only in reference to the nightmare from which this novel seeks to awake. And it’s a book that would read very differently—and perhaps should—if its primary interlocutor were read to be Fanon instead of Camus.

(Next up: reading it through Fanon?)