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Novelist Kamel Daoud, Finding Dignity In The Absurd

Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud's new book, <em>The Meursault Investigation,</em> reworks Albert Camus' <em>The Stranger.</em>
Bertrand Langlois
AFP/Getty Images
Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud's new book, The Meursault Investigation, reworks Albert Camus' The Stranger.

The most talked-about novel written in French recently is not by a Frenchman, but by an Algerian, newspaper editor Kamel Daoud. It's called The Meursault Investigation, and it's a response to the most famous novel ever written by a French Algerian, a mainstay of the 20th century canon: The Stranger, by Albert Camus.

"Algerian writers, whether or not they agreed with Camus, they've always loved this novel. And it's really part of the literary patrimony of Algeria," says Alice Kaplan, a Camus scholar at Yale. She says The Stranger has been a source of endless debate since it was published more than 70 years ago.

What do we make of its alienated, impassive protagonist and narrator, a Frenchman named Meursault? What do we make of Meursault's senseless murder of an Arab, who has no name; of the death sentence Meursault receives — imposed largely because he didn't cry at his mother's funeral?

The death of Meursault's mother provides one of the most famous opening lines in 20th century literature, the opening lines of The Stranger: "Today, Ma died. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know."

The Meursault Investigation is told from the point of view of an Algerian named Harun, the younger brother of the Arab man Meursault killed. Meursault was a European who killed an Arab. Harun is an Arab who — we learn — killed a European. Harun's first line? "Mama's still alive today."

"Really, all he's doing is changing point of view," says Kaplan, "but it's an incredibly powerful move to change that point of view. I think he has given new life to The Stranger, as he's created his own fictional universe. It's very much about contemporary Algeria."

Daoud says he sees his novel as complementing and continuing Camus' novel. "My novel takes off from The Stranger, but it also uses The Stranger as a pretext for questioning myself, to find out who I am in the world today."

Does Daoud consider his novel a rebuttal to Camus? "I contradict him, but I also vindicate his position," he says. "You have to know that the status of Camus in Algeria today is extremely complex. He's at once both French and Algerian. He's both claimed by some people and rejected by others. And he's also someone who evokes an extremely painful moment in Algerian history."

My novel takes off from 'The Stranger,' but it also uses 'The Stranger' as a pretext for questioning myself, to find out who I am in the world today.

In the 1950s and '60s Algerians fought for their independence from France, and the French left supported them, but Camus broke with the left. "He doesn't believe in their cause," says Alice Kaplan. "He can only see Algeria as part of France." Camus, she adds, wanted full rights for Algerian Muslims and Berbers, "and he thought it could happen with France. He was very idealistic and his ideas were, they weren't realistic by the late '50s."

So for Algerians, who fought a bloody war for independence, Camus' status has been controversial. But Daoud says that what's fascinating for him is not Camus the Algerian or Frenchman, but Camus the philosopher who questioned his century. "What is remarkable for me is that Camus also asks himself those very questions that I ask myself today," he says.

Camus was in the French resistance against Nazism. Later he rejected Communism. He wrote about life as absurd, defying neat philosophical systems. Daoud was born into revolutionary, secular Algeria. In the 1990s, the regime there fought a civil war against Islamists. Daoud says Camus' insistence on the absurd is liberating.

"It is the fundamental question about freedom, about what is freedom. I'm born alone and I die alone. This gives me the right to interrogate the world, and to put the world into question the way I choose," he says. "For me fundamentally, the absurd — Camus' absurd — gave me back my feeling of dignity.

I will try to summarize this very simply: I have noticed that people who function within a closed philosophical system are the ones that practice the absurd, and those people are the ones who end up killing others. On the other hand the man who understands that the world is absurd, he's in a position to make sense of the world, to find meaning. It is because I know the world is absurd that I'm not going to kill you. But if I somehow figure out that the world has meaning, I can kill you in the name of that meaning. It's called Nazism, Jihadism, Islamism, and the extreme right."

In The Meursault Investigation, Harun — Daoud's central character — is interrogated by a colonel of the newly independent Algerian regime. The colonel says, "This Frenchman, you should have killed him with us, during the war, not last week."

The fundamental question of our time is what prevents us from killing. What is most important is how we define what is sacred about life.

"That's exactly what's absurd about the situation, because to kill is to kill," Daoud says. "According to the situation, it's called legitimate defense, or murder, or war, or conquest, or civilization, it depends. You take a man who kills another, and if you add a woman you call it an honor killing. If you add a flag, you call it war, and if you remove both you can call it a crime. The fundamental question of our time is what prevents us from killing. What is most important is how we define what is sacred about life."

Daoud has described himself as a liberal individualist, which makes him something of a stranger himself in contemporary Algeria. "Today I'm a child of a culture that is collectivist and unanimist. The individual doesn't exist as such — only the collective exists," he says. "There was the famous slogan after what happened in Paris, 'I Am Charlie,' and in Algeria they came up with an anti-slogan which was 'We Are Muhammad.' It was not 'I' am Charlie but 'We' are Muhammad, and this for me illustrates perfectly the impossibility of the respect for the individual in Algeria today. It's an us, and not an I."

But, he adds, the place where it's hardest to write is also the place it's most interesting to be a writer. "If I'm in a place that's too beautiful then I'd rather live than write."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.