By Nat Krieger
The Meursault Investigation
by Kamel Daoud.
Other Press, 143 pp.
Journal 1955-1962, Reflections on the French-Algerian War
by Mouloud Feraoun
University of Nebraska Press, 315 pp.
The Last Summer of Reason
by Tahar Djaout
Ruminator Books, 145 pp.
When you tire of the televised prescriptions of funereal amnesiacs, and you’re feeling nauseated by generalizations repeated so often they become shorthand for not thinking, you could do worse than listen to voices from a Muslim land where the hatreds and the loves produced by the encounter with the West—specifically La France—have been cooking and periodically exploding for a long time.
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 … It is because I know the world is absurd that I’m not going to kill you. But if I somehow figure out the world has meaning, I can kill you in the name of that meaning. It’s called Nazism, Jihadism, Islamism, and the extreme right.
The words come from Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. A journalist and editor based in Oran, Algeria, Daoud was being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air because he has a written a novel, The Meursault Investigation, that is purported to be the Arab answer to Albert Camus’ The Stanger. Daoud’s novel turns out to be both reply and mirror, reflecting a complexity and ambiguity that ideology and theology condemn as heretical. In The Meursault Investigation the anonymous “Arab” who Meursault casually murders in The Stranger becomes Musa, the narrator’s older brother.
“My poor brother had no say in the story” says the narrator at the book’s outset. “It’s just that … it’s just what? I don’t know. I think I’d like justice to be done.” But things are not so simple. Just one paragraph after the victim’s little brother rails at the world famous novel that treats the murdered Musa (“He had a name”) as nothing more than a prop in Meursault’s internal drama of existential ennui, Daoud works in a tribute to the author he never names, a pied noir, or European Algerian, who went on to win the Nobel Prize.
“A man who’s drinking is always dreaming of a man who’ll listen.” Musa’s brother describes his own investigation to a never identified “you” in a seen-better-days bar facing the Mediterranean; one of the last bars in Oran, a city where pious fundamentalists are literally on the march. From beginning to end, a reader of The Fall—Camus’ novel of guilt and no redemption—is also a paying customer; in fact “you” buy the narrator the first round as he begins to recount his tale from a waterfront dive facing the canals of Amsterdam.
Although he’s never named, the deaf-mute ghost of Camus (whose own mother was deaf-mute) sits in the Oran bar, near the narrator and you … “His eternal cigarette, connecting him to heaven by the fine coil of smoke twisting and rising above him. He’s hardly ever looked at me despite the years we’ve been neighbors in here. Ha, ha, I’m his Arab. Or maybe he’s mine.”
As journalist and editor for Le Quotidien d’Oran Kamel Daoud writes in French, the tongue of the colonizer and of Meursault (Camus), and early on Musa’s kid brother, now an old man, is grappling with the language he has made his own, in spite of himself.
The story we’re talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left … You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you; and from then on it falls into the habit of grasping things in your place, it takes over your mouth like a lover’s voracious kiss.
All three books reviewed here were written in French by Algerians and the three authors confront and unwillingly embody the central contradiction of the French colonial enterprise: an empire run by a republic born of a revolution against unmerited privilege. The motto of that revolution, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, is still inscribed on the front of France’s civic buildings. It’s a motto that has served as the rallying cry for uprisings of the oppressed around the globe over the last two centuries.
So it’s hardly surprising that the Enlightenment values communicated through the proudly secular French school system—and scholastically the colonial schools were carbon copies of those in metropolitan France—would appeal to young people looking to help their own countrymen gain access to decent water, food, sanitation, and education.
Born in 1913, Mouloud Feraoun was educated in French colonial schools and Algerian Muslim students of his generation—whether they were Berber like Feraoun, or Arab—found the ideas of Diderot and Danton they learned within the halls of academe mocked by the legal discrimination and casual bigotry they encountered without. Talk about unmerited privilege.
Feraoun went onto work as a teacher and later inspector in the French administered school system. It was in these two jobs that he witnessed and almost survived the Algerian War of Independence. Feraoun’s Journal 1955-1962 is his eyewitness account of two peoples’ descent into unimaginable horror.
In an entry from June 1956, Feraoun summed up his impossibly conflicted moral position in a speech he imagined he saw in the searching eyes of a French Army General who visited his school. The uprising was two years old when General Olié and his entourage drove into Fort National (now Larbaâ Nath Irathen) to see the mayor and inspect the school. The French had embarked too late, too late, on a campaign to win Algerian Muslim hearts and minds.
They were building new schools in impoverished villages, sending out mobile health teams, promising political reforms … all programs that might have made a difference 17 years before when a small group of Algerian leaders and a young French Algerian investigative journalist named Albert Camus were demanding them. The General knew of Feraoun’s work, which included an auto-biographical novel, The Poor Man’s Son. Instead of receiving the teacher in the Mayor’s office in City Hall, Olié was coming to Feraoun. The General had made it known he wanted a word.
“You see,” he seemed to be telling me, “you write, and that is very good. Do not condemn us, you above all. We have educated you; we have given you a formidable weapon. We want your gratitude. Of course, we’re not asking you to compromise yourself—you are a family man. All we ask is that you plug your ears and close your eyes, nothing more. The thought, the cruel thought, that you might be keeping track of everything is unbearable. That would be the greatest of crimes, be sure of that. Think of the gravity of such behavior.”
General Olié’s threat winks through La Politesse with chilling Gallic aplomb. Two years into Feraoun’s war journal and we already know the slim odds of any Muslim Algerian (Berbers and Arabs in other words) returning from arrest alive and not tortured.
Feraoun was murdered by French extremists in 1962, three days before the agreement that would end the war and make Algeria an independent nation. Thirty one years later another writer, Tahar Djaout, was murdered by Islamic extremists early in Algeria’s Civil War; a conflict that saw the Algerian government, still ruled by veterans of the liberation struggle, adapt the extreme terror for terror measures of their old enemy, the French.
The manuscript of The Last Summer of Reason was found among Djaout’s papers after his death. The book is fiction, yet not. It’s the beautiful, sad, and angry chronicle of a murder foretold—the author’s own. Feraoun was 49 when he was killed, Djaout, 39.
While Feraoun’s book is a non-fiction journal punctuated with the horrifying specifics of escalating atrocities and intimidation from both sides, and Daoud’s Investigation is rooted in the endlessly relived details of a particular murder, albeit a fictional one, Djaout’s final work reads more like a fable—the city where bookseller Boualem Yekker lives is never named. The forces of life, found in nature and the arts are in full retreat, and triumphant death, in the forms of the Vigilant Brothers, are both distilled to their essence, as if the author knew he would not have another chance to capture them.
Boualem owns a small bookshop, a window on wider worlds, and for this he has been turned into a human target awaiting his marksman. His family has left him, gone over to the fundamentalist Brotherhood, and Boualem is alone. If the drinkers and musicians in the Oran of The Meursault Investigation are still holding out against the forces of Islamic fundamentalism, the unnamed city of The last Summer of Reason has been swallowed whole; and the book seller has become a stranger in his own land.
Is it still possible to meet a brother with a loving and poetic face on these precipitant roads where Dogma floats like a shrieking flag, and death lies nearby in ambush and ready to take out its spear … Music and dance have been banned. Anything that kindles feelings of sacrilege in human beings has been banned … Only dreaming is still allowed, to those who know how to find refuge within themselves.
Djaout contrasts the arid Word as preached by the Vigilant Brothers with the living world of the senses.
This kaleidoscope universe is teeming with nourishing, cooling and shade giving trees, decorative plants, caged birds, and free-flying birds connected by their love of song.
Djaout’s hymns to sky, clouds, and earth join those of Camus and Turgenev, among many others. The bookseller remembers his last outing with his family to a little beach far from town:
The sea raised a turbulent surface on which three thick bands, gigantic strips, stood out, going from antimony blue to bilious green. The wind was prodding a lazy herd of clouds across the sky, some opaque, some translucent, in shapes that were threatening, good-natured, or crazy. Fantastic constructions were sketched and then undone. In the resulting rifts, floods of sunlight came streaming through. The shadows projected by the clouds were like gaping wounds in the earth.
Although Kamel Daoud is a generation younger than Tahar Djaout, and The Meursault Investigation was written 20 years after Djaout wrote his terrifying final prophesy, it is The Last Summer of Reason that seems furthest from the world of Feraoun and Camus. In the bookseller’s Algeria the French influence has shriveled to ghostly images on a screen inside Boualem’s head. It’s not even specifically French anymore, just a vanished way of being, where men and women could treat each other as equals.
… scenes that were once normal and natural, of men and women having discussions like human beings with reason, restraint, and consideration; people capable of friendship, affection, respect, civic responsibility and anger—men and women so vastly different from the watchful beasts they have become to each other.
The pathologically brutal masculinity of the fundamentalists’ God commands men:
Separate yourself from your mother, not only her flesh but also from the memory of her tenderness.
Ah, but there are links with the torment of Feraoun after all. What a General once demanded in the name of France, is now required by the self-appointed representatives of God:
To find access to the path of God … Stop up your ears, tame your eyes, rein in the thrusts of your heart, tear up your books that are too bold, and break everything that vibrates and sings.
And perhaps a connection with an earlier Algerian’s love of life and freedom is echoed by the season in Djaout’s title. In Return to Tipasa, Albert Camus has left the gray clouds and grayer cremation pits of post-war Europe and returned to his native land:
O light! This is the cry of all the characters of ancient drama brought face to face with their fate. This last resort was ours, too, and I knew it now. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.
Like his creator, Boualem the bookseller has chosen sides. Faced with an earlier conflict, Mouloud Feraoun walked a tight rope between the revolutionaries and the French authorities. Both men, one fictional, one real, remain on the lookout for flashes of kindness and simple decency from whoever can offer them.
Feraoun found a kindred spirit in Camus, although he disagreed with his friend’s stubbornly held impossible dream of an egalitarian Algeria that was still part of France. From an entry on Camus’ visit in the spring of 1958:
His position on events is exactly as I thought it would be—incredibly human. He feels tremendous pity for those who are suffering. But he also knows that pity or love is impotent, completely powerless to overcome the evil that kills, that destroys, and that would like to wipe everything out and create a new world where the timid and the skeptical are banished …
On December 25 of the preceding year Feraoun puts his finger on one source of the growing inhumanity around him, and in it he prefigures Kamel Daoud’s take on the absurd:
Both the rebel and the paratrooper make the mistake of believing that they are defending a just cause, killing for a just cause … they become cruel like trapped animals and try to prevent their own deaths by suppressing the lives of others.
Painfully self-aware, Feraoun’s description of the first step down the road that ends at the unthinkable is a classic, climaxing with the timeless giddiness of bigotry triumphant:
Besides, as soon as it is legitimate to judge them as a group, it is no longer troubling for anyone to point out their faults. It is no longer a question of Mr. Eugène or Jojo but of the triumphant Frenchman who has taken over his place and gotten rich off our backs. Once you buttress yourself with generalities, you are amazed to discover some very broad horizons. [Emphasis added].
The willful refusal to know the Other, more than this, to dehumanize the Other so he can be eliminated with calm; deserving of death not because he is an individual guilty of a crime—the crime is the fact he exists at all. The narrator of The Meursault Investigation repays Meursault’s murder of his brother by murdering his own stranger twenty years later—a Frenchman who had sought shelter in a tool shed, hiding from a wave of Algerian Muslim revenge sweeping the land AFTER the peace agreement had been signed.
Musa’s brother is arrested and brought before a National Liberation Army colonel who tells him that he’s guilty of bad timing. If he had killed the Frenchman while the war was still going Musa’s brother would have been a hero, or at least a resistance fighter, but now …
“It should simply have been done before,” he murmured, almost pensively. “There are rules to obey” …
With the rules of murder we come full circle back to the absurd á l’algérienne.
“For me fundamentally” Daoud told NPR, “the absurd—Camus’ absurd—gave me back my feeling of dignity.” And there’s also something absurd and wonderful about embracing multiple identities in a world that is forever demanding only one, demanding to know whose team you’re on.
“I am a centaur”, said Primo Levi, referring to his own multiple identities as an Italian and a Jew, a writer and a chemist, a victim and a resistor. Like the Egyptian writer Horapollo of the 5th Century CE who took his name from the Egyptian god Horus and the Greek divinity Apollo, the three Algerian writers are the centauric children of the Middle East and the West. Two of them were hunted down and killed by men. Do such crimes plant a creeping nostalgia for polyglot empires, whether it was the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, or Algérie Française?
In retrospect they appear as multi-cultural relics overwhelmed by the more modern forces of nationalist and now religious monoculture. It’s a longing for societies that never really existed: A Mediterranean Republic, a dream country with port cities shaped like amphitheaters spilling down to harbors sheltering the sleek hulls of Odyssean ships and the upward curving bows of dhows riding alongside docks crowded with different peoples and faiths strolling over paving stones lit to a soft gold by a classical sun that never sets.
The only dream left to Musa’s brother sounds more like an anguished plea to be left in peace. In the final pages of The Meursault Investigation he grabs an imam who is trying to save his soul and yells at him word for word the speech Meursault hurled at the priest who visited him on the eve of his execution. Only now God’s representatives are turning all of Algeria into a prison. After the imam, like the priest, turns and disappears, Musa’s brother adds something of his own:
If I believe in God? Don’t make me laugh! After all the hours we spent together … I don’t know why every time someone has a question about the existence of God he turns to man for the answer. Ask him the question, put it directly to him. [Emphasis in original].
Almost twenty years after Musa’s murder, his brother reads a book we understand to be The Stranger although now it’s written by Meursault himself—the murderer has become the author. Musa’s brother is overwhelmed:
A masterpiece my friend. A mirror held up to my soul and to what would become of me in this country, between Allah and ennui.
Kamel Daoud shines that mirror for all to see, in spite of death threats from an imam upset with his book. Ideas and the languages that carry them are the author’s only weapons.
Early in The Meursault Investigation the narrator mocks the name of his brother’s killer, creating two puns, both in French.
Meurt seul, dies alone? Meurt sot, dies a fool?
When last call arrives at the bar Musa’s brother tells us that in Arabic El-Merssoul means the envoy or messenger. He says that’s his last joke; a message from the receding past riding into an uncertain future.