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:

June 1, 2007

The Plague: Camus’s Fable in Our Time

Thanks to Andrew Kinney, patsyb, and Sutter for suggesting another “literary lessons for Iraq” show. Read The Plague this weekend, and help us milk Camus’s metaphor for our own pestilential times! We will be guided ...

Thanks to Andrew Kinney, patsyb, and Sutter for suggesting another “literary lessons for Iraq” show.

Read The Plague this weekend, and help us milk Camus’s metaphor for our own pestilential times!

We will be guided on air by James A.W. Heffernan, Professor of English, Emeritus, at Dartmouth, Jim Fitzmorris, plawright and theatre historian, and by the political scientist John Mearsheimer of Chicago, who remembers The Plague as a staple of his own West Point education.

But the reading assignment is for everybody.

I read The Plague last weekend and can’t stop searching for facets of its meaning today. In its time (1947) Camus’s plague meant World War II, Fascism and the fall of France. Today the plague is the war in Iraq, surely, but it’s also Katrina. And AIDS, everywhere. It’s malaria in Haiti and genocide in Darfur; it’s mass poverty in most of the world.

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history,” says Camus’s narrator, “yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” When the bleeding rats start dying by the thousands in Oran, the Algerian port town where Camus set his tale, people dismiss the portent as a bad dream. “But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”

The moral fable, of course, is not about the disease. It’s about us… and about the range of responses to the dreaded blank at the end of human life. The tireless young Doctor Rieux observes: “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

For the journalist Rambert, the plague stands for the repetition compulsion in human affairs; it means “exactly that — the same thing over and over and over again.”

In the end, as Rieux says to Rambert, the plague is a dark and obscure challenge that can only be met with the equally multiple mystery called life. “It is a matter of common decency,” the faithful doctor decides. “That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting plague is — common decency.”

For the stern voice of Catholic orthodoxy in the novel, Father Paneloux, the plague is the flail of God, with the saving grace that “it opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought.”

Let The Plague stretch your own vision this weekend, and help us all “take thought” Monday evening at 7.

Sharpening the questions: In your own head, what stands for “the plague” in our time? Is “the plague” an affliction of choice, a subjective judgement? What about the multiple plagues that compete for our active attention? If “terror” is a plague (and Camus’ conclusion suggests it is), and if war is a plague (which seems obvious), is a “war on terror” a contradiction in terms, or a double plague? If genocide is a modern plague, and the overreach of American military power is another, what can we, must we, should we do in the matter of Darfur. If death is the mother and model of all plagues, can we imagine addressing various instances of “the plague” with something other than triumphal eradication of the problem as a plausible and worthy goal of thought and action