June 19, 2015

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, ...

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.

Daoud’s book renews L’Étranger as an Algerian story for everyone, an incandescent read already acclaimed in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Nation.

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.

One of Matthew Richardson's illustrations of "The Outsider" for the Folio Society.

One of Matthew Richardson’s illustrations of “The Outsider” for the Folio Society.

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.

—Pat Tomaino.

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: