Ask most people to name the best-known French novel of the twentieth century, and they’d almost certainly come up with Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 and moved to France in 1940, but as his greatest novels L’Étranger and La Peste testify, his imagination was firmly rooted in Algeria (as is Les Noces, a collection of meditations that contain his most rapturous writing). Since his death in 1960 there’s been a struggle for ownership of Camus that has played out within a postcolonial critical context. Last year Algerian writer Kamel Daoud – who, like Camus, is a journalist by trade and who lives in Oran – published Meursault, Contre-ênquete. The novel has had remarkable success in both France and Algeria (it was just pipped to the Prix Goncourt in 2014 by Lydie Salvayre’s Pas Pleurer), precisely because it resituates the complex modern reception of Camus in fictional form.
L’Étranger is the story of Meursault, who attends his mother’s funeral but does not show grief. He becomes embroiled in a quarrel with some Arabs and under a blazing sun, shoots one of them; arrested and put on trial for murder, he is condemned to the guillotine, partly because the prosecution plays on his reaction to his mother’s death. Rather as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea spins out of Jane Eyre, Daoud’s Meursault, Contre-enquête is a text born in the gap at the centre of Camus’s novel. The man into whom Meursault empties his gun on the beach is never named by Camus, but Daoud constructs a biography for him. Moussa’s story is retold by his brother Haroun, who is now in his late seventies. His mother mourns every day, since the body has never been found. Meursault, Contre-ênquete maps out the effect on his family, not only of the death of a brother and son but also of the fictionalisation of the killer Meursault into a post-war absurdist hero within French culture.
For the central literary conceit here is that L’Étranger was not a novel but real-life testimony, written while Meursault was in jail, and to which Haroun now responds, seventy years later. It’s a cute sleight of hand; indeed, the intense consciousness of its own fictionality lifts Meursault, Contre-enquête out of a monochrome postcolonial polemic. There’s a dense interplay of Camus texts throughout: ‘Moussa’, of course, echoes ‘Meursault’ while the first line of Daoud’s novel (‘Aujourd’hui, M’ma est encore vivante’) explicitly references the famous opening of L’Étranger: ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’. Just as the evangelising priest in L’Étranger rails at an impassive Meursault for his lack of belief, so the does the imam to an unreceptive Haroun. Whereas Meursault’s inability to mourn his mother condemns him to the scaffold, the obsessive mourning of Haroun’s silent but vengeful mother precipitates another death. During the chaos of the Algerian revolution Haroun, urged on by his mother, commits a murder of a Frenchman apparently picked at random. The meaning of that killing is contingent; to have killed him before the day of Algerian liberation would categorise the death as an act of war; the day after, the Frenchman’s death is a meaningless one.
For all its homage to L’Étranger, though, the novel that Daoud references most closely in structural terms is Camus’s 1956 work La Chute (The Fall), in which the narrator Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells how he, a liberal and respected lawyer, realises he is living a life of hypocrisy and futility; there is no such thing as justice or social fairness. Like La Chute, Meursault, Contre-enquête is constructed around a series of monologues in a bar. It revels in pointing out individual and social hypocrisy, whether it be that of elite French culture and of the reader him- or herself in collaborating with the Meursault’s celebrity, that of the Algerian revolutionary movement, and even the hypocrisy and futility of religion. It figures the Algerian revolution as a series of absurd and violent acts that never connect to a higher or noble purpose, and the novel has also earned Daoud a Facebook fatwa from an obscure Algerian imam, to whom he has rather splendidly responded by filing a criminal complaint. Meursault, Contre-ênquete is an extraordinarily bold reappropriation of the canonical post-war French novel. I give it a year for Daoud and Camus to be paired on university reading lists.
Kamel Daoud, Meursault, Contre-enquête (Actes Sud)