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The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

February 25, 2018 25 comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (2013) Original French title: Meursault, contre-enquête.

Preamble: I downloaded a sample of the English translation on my kindle. All the translations of this post are by John Cullen who translated The Meursault Investigation into English.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is a story based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, told from the side of the victim’s family. The narrator is the victim’s younger brother and Daoud’s novel relates both the murder seen from the Arabs’ side and the consequences of this event on the younger brother’s life.

From the first sentence, the reader knows that The Meursault Investigation is constructed as a mirror to The Stranger. Indeed, it opens with Aujourd’hui, M’ma est toujours vivante. (Mama’s still alive today), a counterpart to Camus’s Aujourd’hui Maman est morte. (Maman died today) In a sense, the book is like a negative in photography.

In the first pages, the narrator mulls over the fact that the Arab killed in L’Etranger has no name. His first mission is to give him his name back, he says he was named Moussa. Our narrator is in a café, drinking wine and telling his story to a stranger. French is the language because this story needed to be told with the language of the colonizer. The pace of the story is in short chapters and often they end with a direct address to the reader, as if he were in the café, listening a storyteller. It’s like Scheherazade leaving cliffhangers to have her audience back the next day. You don’t see it in English, but in French, it’s said with the “tu” form and not “vous”. For me, it’s also a way to remind us that the narrator doesn’t use his native language for this story, that his native language is Arabic were the “vous” form isn’t used in spoken language.

Daoud never mentions Camus in his novel but he’s everywhere. He’s paraphrased in chapters, a mirroring text to the original, a text in reverse, the same way Arabic is written from right to left when French is written from left to right.

As I said, Camus is never mentioned directly and L’Etranger is a first-person narrative. This allows a confusion between the writer and the character, something that is very clear in this paragraph:

Comme tous les autres, tu as dû lire cette histoire telle que l’a racontée l’homme qui l’a écrite. Il écrit si bien que ses mots paraissent comme des pierres taillées par l’exactitude même. C’était quelqu’un de très sévère avec les nuances, ton héros, il les obligeait presque à être des mathématiques. D’infinis calculs à base de pierres et de minéraux. As-tu vu sa façon d’écrire ? Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! Son monde est propre, ciselé par la clarté matinale, précis, net, tracé à coup d’arômes et d’horizons. La seule ombre est celle des « Arabes », objets flous et incongrus, venus « d’autrefois », comme des fantômes et avec, pour toute langue, un son de flûte. Je me dis qu’il devait en avoir marre de tourner en rond dans un pays qui ne voulait de lui ni mort ni vivant. Le meurtre qu’il a commis semble celui d’un amant déçu par une terre qu’il ne peut posséder. Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre ! Etre l’enfant d’un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance. I’m sure you’re like everyone else, you’ve read the tale as told by the man who wrote it. He writes so well that his words are like precious stones, jewels cut with the utmost precision. A man very strict about shades of meaning, you hero was; he practically required them to be mathematical. Endless calculations, based on gems and minerals. Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! His world is clean, clear, exact, honed by morning sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by “the Arabs,” blurred, incongruous objects left over from “days gone by”, like ghost, with no language except the sound of a flute. I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves. How he must have suffered, poor man! The be the child of a place that never gave you birth…

Where does the assimilation between Camus and Meursault begin and end? The man who wrote it can be both Camus writing a novel and Meursault writing his journal. They were both born in Algeria. L’Etranger was written in 1942, before the War of Independence but I imagine that the tensions between the French colonizer and the locals were already palpable. Camus and Meursault were strangers to the land they were born to.

Let’s stop a bit and contemplate this paragraph.

Daoud perfectly nailed Camus’s style. That’s how I felt when I reread L’Etranger. I was dazzled by his words, his perfect way to describe the landscape and the Mediterranean light. Short sentences chiseled with precision. I have a reservation about the translation. When I read the French and the passage about Camus’s style, Daoud only uses the word pierre, not pierre précieuse. And John Cullen translated it with precious stone, and then jewels which takes the Anglophone reader to another path than the one I took. Perhaps Daoud told him that was his intention. That’s not the way I see it. When I read Daoud, I see carved stones, not gem stones. I see the rectilinear lines of buildings at the sea front in Algiers. I see light stones from a quarry, shaped into perfect geometrical stones to build buildings, to set up the inevitable ending of L’Etranger. I don’t see Camus as a jeweler, I see Camus as an architect and a builder.

Daoud also writes Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! and not Il parle d’un coup de feu et on dirait de la poésie ! which would be He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! In French, the use of art du poème is not natural and I wonder if it’s a way to show that the narrator is not a native French speaker and that he comes from a literary tradition where poetry holds a major place.

The end of the paragraph refers to the awkward place of French colonizers in Algeria. Some came to Algeria from Alsace and Lorraine after the 1870 debacle and the annexing of these regions to Germany. Part of the French living in Algeria were born there; they were not only people sent in Algeria for a few years as a military, a civil servant or an expat for a company. From an individual point of view, it was their country, in the sense of the place you were born. But of course, it was not their land because their presence was based on a conquest that took thirty years and they were living on stolen land, on a lie. Daoud’s words explain that for Algeria, Meursault was a stranger. For the French community, he was an outsider. This is why it’s difficult to clearly choose between the two titles used in English for L’Etranger, which covers both meanings in French.

I won’t tell more about the plot and how far the mirroring goes because it would spoil your reading. Suffice to say that it shows a narrator living in poverty and probably saved by the school system. (Like Camus and in the background, like Meursault) It shows Algeria after the independence, after the terrible decade of the 1990s and how a man who doesn’t comply to religious duties and drinks alcohol can feel as an outsider in his own country. The narrator might have something in common with Meursault after all.

The Meursault Investigation assumes that Camus never named the Arab who was killed because as an Arab, he was a non-entity. I don’t agree with this. I’m sure that a lot of scholars more qualified than me have written essays about it. As a common reader, when I closed L’Etranger recently, I thought this was a universal story and that the Algerian setting was incidental. Maybe Camus missed his place of birth in 1942, in the middle of the horrible WWII. To me, L’Etranger is closer to a Greek tragedy, something set up from the start, a literary machinery that corralled the character into the path designed by a writer who wanted to point out the absurdity of life, the narrowmindedness of his society and show his vision of life through a novel. I don’t read anything into the Algiers setting, sorry.

I think The Meursault Investigation is a brilliant book that left me puzzled. Its construction is skillfully done, Daoud knows Camus’s work inside out. There are obviouns references to L’Etranger but to other works by Camus like Caligula or The Myth of Sisyphus. I don’t fully agree with his interpretation of L’Etranger but Daoud wrote a compelling story and also used Camus’ novel as a stepladder to criticize his own country. I really recommend (re)reading L’Etranger before diving into The Meursault Investigation. It’s only 120 pages long and it will enhance your reading of Daoud’s novel.

Other reviews:

 

The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus

February 6, 2018 23 comments

The Outsider / The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942) Original French title: L’Etranger.

Preamble: I know that L’Etranger by Albert Camus has been translated into The Outsider or The Stranger. I’ll stick to the French title to keep everyone happy even if I think that The Outsider is a better title.

Like a lot of French teenagers, I studied L’Etranger in school. I was fourteen when I read it and I remember that I enjoyed it despite studying it in class. Now it’s my daughter’s turn to read it and I decided to read it along with her.

For those who haven’t read this stunning novella by Albert Camus, it opens with some of the most famous sentences of French literature.

Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.

Translation by Matthew Ward.

Meursault is a young bachelor living in Algiers during the French colonization. His mother was in an old home when she died, and the first chapters describe his going to the home and attending the funeral. The heat is blinding and staggering.

Back in Algiers, Meursault resumes his everyday life. He works in an office in a shipping company. He’s reliable enough and his boss is thinking about sending him to the new office in Paris. He has a liaison with Marie, goes to the beach with her and gets to know his neighbor Raymond. Meursault’s life changes for the worst when he kills an Arab on the beach on a hot Sunday. The first part of the book is about Meursault’s life before his crime and the second part is about his imprisonment and his trial.

Meursault is a strange character. He glides through life, letting people around him leading the way. He’s not involved in his life. He enjoys his quotidian but wouldn’t fight for it. He’s not in love with Marie, he likes her well enough but he wouldn’t be affected by her leaving him. He spends time with his neighbor who openly asks him to be his buddy, he acquiesces without conviction. He’s adrift, nothing makes sense and is worth fighting for. He’s an outsider because he refuses to obey to society’s rules. He also refuses to lie and express feelings or opinions that he doesn’t feel or think.

I’m not going to analyze L’Etranger. I’m not qualified for that and honestly, what could I bring to what academics have already written about it? I’d rather discuss my response to it.

When I first read L’Etranger, it stayed with me for the story, its absurd ending and the unfairness of it. I remember I wanted to shake Meursault up, to yell at him and push him to react, to force him to take action and do something to save himself. Teenagers are always hit hard by unfairness. I was also irritated by his passivity.

My second reading is more educated, I suppose. I still want to shake him because I tend to act and not stay put when something happens. However, I’m more tolerant to his reaction now, not as irritated as I was as a teenager.

I’m also more aware of the context, of the description of life in Algiers under the French colonization. Algeria was a French department, a special status that meant that this territory was ruled the same way as departments on mainland France. I was shocked to see the investigation judge pulling out a crucifix from his drawer and starting to ask Meursault whether he believed in God. This has been so forbidden in France since 1905. The trial seems to be happening a political or religious court: the verdict is known before the hearing starts and beliefs are more important than facts. There’s no appeal for trials at the court of assizes at the time and the guillotine was still working.

But after years of reading literature, I was bowled over by Camus’s flawless style. I didn’t realize how good he was the first time I read it. I loved the descriptions of the landscape, the sun, the seaside and life in Algiers. I could imagine the beaches, the hot sand and the stifling heat. I have two quotes to share, I couldn’t find any translation, so I played translator. *cringe* Please forgive their clumsiness.

Aujourd’hui, le soleil débordant qui faisait tressaillir le paysage le rendait inhumain et déprimant. Today, the overflowing sun that made the landscape quiver rendered it inhuman and depressing.

And…

C’était le même éclatement rouge. Sur le sable, la mer haletait de toute la respiration rapide et étouffée de ses petites vagues. Je marchais lentement vers les rochers et je sentais mon front se gonfler sous le soleil. Toute cette chaleur s’appuyait sur moi et s’opposait à mon avance. Et chaque fois que je sentais son grand souffle chaud sur mon visage, je serrais les dents, je fermais les poings dans les poches de mon pantalon, je me tendais tout entier pour triompher du soleil et de cette ivresse opaque qu’il me déversait. A chaque épée de lumière jaillie du sable, d’un coquillage blanchi ou d’un débris de verre, mes mâchoires se crispaient. J’ai marché longtemps. It was the same red eruption. On the sand, the sea was panting from the quick and shallow breathing of her little waves. I was walking slowly towards the rocks and I felt my forehead swell under the sun. All this heat was weighing me down and pushing against my progression. And each time that I felt its deep hot breath on my face I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trousers’ pockets, I coiled my all self to win against the sun and the opaque intoxication he poured on me. For each sword of light spurting out of the sand from a whitened shell or a piece of glass, my jaw tensed up. I walked for a long time.

Aren’t we with Meursault on this hot beach under the biting sun? I love the images, the way the elements seem to assault Meursault’s senses. His narrative is also concise and precise. It’s straight to the point and extremely efficient. Mind-blowing.

I’ll end this billet by mentioning the BD version of L’Etranger by Jacques Fernandez. It’s faithful to the novel. The characters jump out of the pages; the landscapes and the city of Algiers seem real. It’s available in English and it’s a good companion to the novel.

Now I’m going to read The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud.

He changes his philosophy into corpses

March 13, 2014 11 comments

Caligula by Albert Camus (1945)

Caligula is Camus’s earlier work of fiction and one he amended several times. He wrote the first version of the play in 1938 and the last one in 1958. I have seen the 1945 version, the one the public saw at the Théâtre Hébertot in Paris, with Gérard Philippe as Caligula. The title of the play sounds like Shakespeare, or for France, like Corneille or Racine. But, forget about references to plays like Julius Caesar or Horace or Britannicus. Think about Hamlet and Ubu Rex by Alfred Jarry, you’ll be closer to the mark.

The play opens on an act where different persons from the court are looking for the Emperor Caligula. He’s been MIA for three days, since his sister and lover Drusilla died. When he finally comes back, he’s haggard and has had an epiphany: Les gens meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux. (People die and they’re not happy). Life is absurd and Caligula turned his existential angst into a new vision of life.

Ce monde, tel qu’il est fait, n’est pas supportable. J’ai donc besoin de la lune, ou du bonheur, ou de l’immortalité, de quelque chose qui soit dément peut-être, mais qui ne soit pas de ce monde. Really, this world of ours, the scheme of things as they call it, is quite intolerable. That’s why I want the moon, or happiness, or eternal life –something, in fact, that may sound crazy, but which isn’t of this world. Translated by Justin O’Brien.

Since he’s an emperor his new philosophy results in a new version of exercising power. He can do whatever he wants to pursue his dream and make all the decisions he judges necessary.

Je viens de comprendre enfin l’utilité du pouvoir. Il donne ses chances à l’impossible. Aujourd’hui, et pour tout ce qui va venir, la liberté n’a plus de frontières. Ah my dears, at last I’ve come to see the uses of supremacy. It gives impossibilities a run. From this day on, so long as life is mine, my freedom has no frontier. Translated by Justin O’Brien.

The first act sets the context and prepares the spectator for the three other acts. In these acts, we are three years later and Caligula has put his ideas into practice. The Patricians are outraged and are plotting to murder Caligula. The emperor stripped them of their possessions, violates their wives, mocks them publicly. He kills people after fallacious reasoning. Meanwhile he’s still depressed and aching. This is where Hamlet and Ubu come into one named Caligula. Mix Hamlet’s angst with Ubu’s hard-liner’s tendencies and you can picture Caligula. There’s is in Caligula a bit of the outrageous comedy you see in Ubu Rex. Caligula’s action are funny sometimes, bordering to farce and it lightens the mood, even if it doesn’t erase the horror of his ways.

Camus_caligulaIn appearance, he’s crazy. The director sang that tune. Caligula yells, gesticulates, laughs like a lunatic sometimes and Drusilla’s ghost visits him. I had read half of the play before going to the theatre and it wasn’t how I had pictured Caligula. For me, he’s not crazy. In appearance, he is but he’s just someone who has the power to put his personal philosophy into practice and at a large scale. Unfortunately, he’s unbalanced and his deadpanned reasoning leads to deaths and disasters. Thinking Caligula is crazy is a way to say he’s irresponsible of his actions. He is not. He knows what he’s doing and he’s playing with other people’s lives. Caligula is a criminal, not a lunatic. The real Caligula had an odd childhood and lived in troubled times. History made of him a cruel and crazy emperor but from what I’ve read, historians tend to balance what Suetonius wrote about him with other sources.

In the old tradition of authors writing in times when freedom of speech was limited, Camus used a character from the Ancient Rome as a device. There are a lot of thought-provoking lines in Caligula. Given the time and the political context of the years it was written, it’s hard not to look for political references in the text. The way Caligula confiscated the Patricians’ wealth recalls communism. Caligula is a dictator of the cruellest kind and the time provided numerous examples. His twisted mind allied to unlimited power led to chaos. That side of the play brings thoughts about power and how to exercise it. The other side of the play is all about the meaning of life. Is it absurd as Camus states it is? Despite his unlimited freedom of mind and action, Caligula never manages to deal with the revelation of the beginning: Les gens meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.

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