We're still living with the absurd: in war, in words. Where do you feel it?
Under The Algerian Sun: Camus and Daoud
It’s the rare writer who can pick up where Albert Camus — master of midcentury philosophy and fiction — left off in the modern classic, The Outsider (formerly translated as The Stranger). But Kamel Daoud, an Algerian journalist and writer, has done just that in his new novel, The Meursault Investigation, just released in English.
Maybe you read Camus’s Outsider in college — or absorbed its frank fatalism through noir or New Wave cinema, in ‘80s rock, or in the televised angst of A. J. Soprano. The book’s antihero is Meursault, a disenchanted young clerk who murders a nameless Arab on the beach at Algiers, under the weight of heat and circumstance. Unable to defend himself or show remorse, Meursault is condemned to death — and confronts the essential absurdity of the universe.
What about the Arab, though? For many L’Étranger is a miscarriage of justice. Daoud’s project is to retrieve the victim and re-prosecute this literary crime. His novel gives Meursault’s victim a name, a history, and one angry brother living in the aftermath of both death and Independence. Our guest Adam Shatz, who profiled Daoud this spring, said the result is a unique post-postcolonial work, one that lives and seethes in a truly absurd present, shaped also by the liberators:
He turns this novel into a critique of postcolonial Algeria. He really situates the absurd in post-colonial Algeria, in a country that achieved liberation after this long and bloody war of decolonization but did not render liberty to Algerian citizens. So in a sense, he’s critiquing Camus, he’s paying tribute to Camus, and he’s appropriating the whole theme of absurdity, saying, “if anyone suffers from a predicament of absurdity, it’s not settlers like Meursault, it’s Algerians after their liberation.”
Camus and Daoud, after all, have much in common. They’re both lively men who want to make words and the ethics they describe matter in the world. Robert Zaretsky reminded us that long before Daoud took aim at Meursault, the creator walked away from his own creation:
In 1942, soon after publication of both The Stranger as well as The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote in his notebooks, “Absurdity teaches nothing.” At that moment, he joins the resistance and becomes one of the leading voices of the resistance press. Camus recognizes that there is — if not something autistic — something solipsistic about Meursault. And it’s time to move on. Yes, the world is absurd. But that’s only a diagnosis Now the time has arrived to find a cure, to find a prescription, some way out of this. In his complexity, in his elusiveness, he poses these perennial questions about life, about our responsibility towards others. Not just towards one’s mother or towards one’s lover, but towards one’s fellow human being, like the Arab who’s never named.
Like Camus, Daoud rails against religion, making him non grata in many parts of the Algeria he loves. Professor Kamran Rastegar wondered whether Daoud’s motifs, driven by overwhelming “ideological exhaustion,” resonate with the young, and often faithful, energy of Tahrir Square.
But, over the course of the program, we were reminded that religion is too narrow a target for either man. Worse than enforced piety is the everyday inhuman abstraction that justifies everything from colonialism, to “counter-terror” and its blowback, to the easy guns and bureaucratized violence favored by our own Meursaults.
Kamel Daoud dares Camus and his readers to name the victims, view their faces, and insist that black, brown, colonial, and postcolonial lives matter. In doing so, according to Judith Gurewich, Daoud goes back to “the root of existentialism,” saying, “when you kill someone, you kill a part of yourself.”
As our hour closed, Adam Shatz returned to the absurdity of suffering:
There is this shared history of suffering. …The story doesn’t end after Camus’s death. It very much continues in the lives of the victims of Meursault. That’s very much true in what we’re seeing today in things like drone killing. We are linked to these other histories. We’re not separated from them.
Field Recording: At Boston Latin, getting to know Meursault.
I learned in high school English that it’s always one of three things: man versus man, man versus society or man versus himself. On their first day as seniors at Boston Latin School, students have to reckon with all three.
Every year, Lynn Burke assigns an English translation of L’Étranger for summer reading. Camus’s classic is a mainstay of late high school and early college, but it’s heavy stuff. (In only one way does it really qualify as “beach reading.”)
When her students arrive, however, Ms. Burke says they’re ready to lead her into existential depths. They’re also ready to hear out Camus’s young, anomic protagonist. I wonder if, every September, Ms. Burke feels as happily unnerved as I did. It’s strange talking with four kids so good and poised, and yet so eager to confront meaninglessness.
Graduation was last month, and Isabelle, Anna, Sean, and Edwood are fanning out to colleges after one last Boston summer — this one probably Camus-free.
But Meursault is staying with them. What could they see in this guy and his strange conclusions? It’s not really that he helps the students confront evil, isolation, and meaningless. There will be time for all of that, and they have more immediate concerns. After a few years of explaining themselves — to parents, to teachers, this year to colleges — some of them like the idea of a man without an answer.
Who’s Camus to you? A primer.
Take Alain de Botton‘s short video course on why Camus the thinker looms so large, then enjoy our podcast:
essayist, journalist, and critic for The London Review of Books and The Nation.
the publisher at Other Press of The Meursault Investigation.
an Algerian-born professor of French at Boston University.
associate professor of Arabic literature and culture at Tufts, musician, and author of Surviving Images: Cinema, War, and Cultural Memory in the Middle East.
Adam Shatz, The New York Times Magazine
Shatz introduces Kamel Daoud the crime reporter, columnist, polarizing literary son of Algeria — and his host for a couple of weeks in January. The writer has long been irritated by the political and spiritual "symptom[s]" of an Algeria that, he says, needs to be "liberated from its liberators." Both Camus and his country's problems are unavoidable:
The most profound question in Camus is religious: What do you do in relation to God if God doesn’t exist? The most powerful scene in The Stranger is the confrontation between the priest and the condemned man. Meursault is indifferent with women, with the judge, but he becomes choleric in the face of the priest. And here, in my novel, is someone revolting against God. Harun, for me, is a hero in a conservative society.
Robert Zaretsky, Los Angeles Review of Books
Zaretsky wants to put Daoud and Camus in the same boat, floating precariously somewhere between Algiers and Marseilles. But Daoud says his novel — which, on one level, reads like a condemnation of his predecessor — brings Camus ashore as an Algerian:
I don’t know what Camus would have thought of my book. But one mustn’t read a novel like this as if it were an essay: Literature goes beyond Good and Evil. Camus was aware of colonial injustices, but literature is a dream that cannot be controlled and does not lie. It is not an allegory. An entire life was necessary to pass from The Stranger to The First Man — even more than a single life. If Camus gave Arabs both bodies and names in The First Man, it shows that the dream led him to act on the duty of naming the Arab. A novel is not a pedagogical exercise, but the revelation of meaning. It does not accommodate itself to justice, but instead to a vision of reality it can transform.
Alice Kaplan, The Nation
How much of Haroun, The Mersault Investigation's angry mourner, lives in Kamel Daoud, the lightning rod columnist? Both wonder what liberation was for. The distance between character and creator is great, though, and it evokes (as they do) the ghost of Camus:
Daoud turns the novel into an aesthetic platform for his particular sense of the Algerian absurd: the tyranny of official religion and an asphyxiating national history. There’s not much in common between Haroun and Daoud, for Haroun is a mass of regrets and neuroses, whereas Daoud’s anger, in his regular newspaper columns in Le Quotidien d’Oran, is exquisitely controlled and logical. He lambastes whatever brand of conformism is ruling his world, and he does it in a country where thought police aren’t even necessary: the direction of the satellite dish outside your apartment tells the whole block whether you’re watching television in French or Arabic.
Claire Messud, New York Review of Books
In her essay on Arthur Goldhammer's recent translation of Algerian Chronicles, Claire Messud plots the contours of Camus's moral imagination:
Camus writes: “Between the sky and these faces turned toward it, there is nowhere to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic or a religion, but rather stones, flesh, stars, and those truths that the hand can touch.” It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this landscape of coastal Algeria—the sun, the sea, the stones, the heat—in Camus’s imagination; and as with the effects of his poverty and his gratitude to France, to appreciate this aspect of his character is better to understand his position on the Algerian question. The end of French Algeria—the demise of an Algeria in which he might belong—implied not simply the loss of his youth, but more perilously the disappearance of his creative wellspring and his joy.