Remember the jolt you had reading the opening of Albert Camus’s (1913-1960) L’Étranger (The Stranger): “Aujourd’hui, mama est morte.” If you read the original translation into English by Stuart Gilbert, you encountered, “Mother died today,” which Matthew Ward has referred to as “a sacred cow of sorts.” So Ward in his re-translation of the book, in 1988, altered it to “Maman died today,” arguing that “Maman ” is the child’s word for mother, reflecting the nature of the narrator’s “curious feeling for her.” Whichever version you prefer, or whichever language, it is still one of the most startling openings of a novel ever written. It sticks with the reader, once read, never to be forgotten.
Consider the surprise, then, of the opening sentence of the English translation of Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation: “Mama’s still alive today.” What do we have here: a palimpsest? Yes, of sorts, but also a profound commentary, but not on colonial Algeria, in 1942, when The Stranger was first published, but on Daoud’s Algeria today and the country Algeria has become. It’s a daring undertaking in no way reflective of what numerous other writers have done when they have re-told an earlier book, usually a classic, typically from another character’s point-of-view. And it is this disturbing picture of Algeria that has inflamed Daoud’s contemporaries, one of them issuing a fatwa against the writer. In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine (April 5th), Adam Shatz refers to the charges as “apostate and Zionized criminal,” because Daoud writes in French (the language of the colonizer) and—in addition to publishing and then publicizing his novel on French TV—he has dared to be critical of the Algerian government in his frequent journalistic pieces. Worse, he just won the Goncourt Prize for his novel!
All that said, “Mama’s still alive today” offers its own kind of shock for those of us who are familiar with Camus’s masterpiece—and who isn’t, including Algeria’s intellectuals? The narrator, Harun, is the much younger brother of the Arab whom Meursault shot in Camus’s story. He was seven at the time. When he relates his response, he is much older—as is his mother, who must be in her nineties. What both Harun and his mother were so grieved about all those years ago was the fact that “Arab” was all their brother and son had for a name, and his body disappeared. The Arab’s family never had any possibility of closure with his death. (The father in the story is missing). Harun provides his brother’s name immediately (Musa); for years his mother searched for any trace of her son who—in so many words—vanished.
Mother and son move to Oran some years after Musa’s death, leaving Algiers intentionally. As he grows older, Harun learns French fluently, eventually reads the account of his deceased brother and becomes obsessed with Camus’s novel. And when he comments on the novel, you have to admit that his understanding of the story is profound: “A Frenchman kills an Arab who’s lying on a deserted beach. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon on a sunny day in 1942. Five gunshots, followed by a trial. The killer’s condemned to death for having buried his mother badly and spoken of her with too much indifference. Technically, the killing itself is due either to the sun or to pure idleness. A pimp named Raymond is angry with a whore and asks your hero to write her a threatening letter, which he does. The story degenerates and then seems to resolve itself in a murder. The Arab is killed because the murderer thinks he wants to avenge the prostitute, or maybe because he has the insolence to take a siesta.” That’s an extraordinary understanding of Camus’s story. As much as anything, the sun is responsible for the murder. And the Arab? He doesn’t really matter; he’s pure background, an inconvenience that got in the way. But in his death, he also becomes a stranger, not simply Meursault.
Harun has always thought of himself as a prisoner “confined within the perimeter established by Musa’s death and [his] mother’s vigilance….” When his mother observed him studying French, beginning to read the language, she set his life on a track for revenge. First, she waited for Harun to be able to read to her (because she is illiterate) the newspaper accounts of Musa’s death that she carried around with her for years. Then, once he was more proficient, his objective became Camus’s novel. Daoud treats the novel as fact, a disturbing commentary on French/Arab relations during colonialism. Mother is determined that her son’s death will be avenged. Son can’t escape her guidelines for his life. And mother is still there, still alive after Harun carries out her plan and strikes back at the French, after Algeria’s independence. And then, the old woman lives on and on, reminding him of what his entire life has been like: an obsession for revenge, with no possibility of escape.
What I will not tell you is what Harun does—his act of vengeance—or what he finally becomes by the end of his investigations into why the murder of his older brother all those decades ago, commented on so casually by the press. But the doubling of Harun and Meursault—making them twins of a tortured event way in the past—is further reason for Kamel Daoud’s precarious situation in Algeria today. Yes, mother is mother Algeria, likely to live on forever. But Harun’s fate will probably be no better than Meursault’s, or even Camus’s who died in an automobile accident years before what we assume would have been his natural death. It was also before he could admit that the Algerians needed their own independence, their own identity.
John Cullen’s translation into English is a reward of its own.
Kamel Daoud: The Meursault Investigation
Trans. By John Cullen
Other Press, 143 pp., $14.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com