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Meursault and the Sickness of Imperialism

In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s masterwork of revolutionary thought, The Wretched of the Earth, there is a little sentence from Jean-Paul Sartre that reads : “Europeans, you must open this book and enter into it.” He then goes on to describe the essential process of anticolonial struggle as it unfolded in the Twentieth Century. Of course, Fanon himself goes even further in the text of the book itself, describing the reasons for revolutionary violence and the social psychology of anti-colonialist struggles themselves. Similarly, the 2014 novel The Meursault Investigation by the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud attempts a portrait of an angry Algerian looking to seek revenge for his murdered brother and his nation’s life under the French. What makes this novel worth mentioning is the fact that the protagonist’s brother is none other than the anonymous man murdered by the French man named Miersault in Albert Camus’ famous novel L’Etranger.

Most western reviewers have pegged The Meursault Investigation as a post-colonialist novel, utilizing the protagonist’s hatred of religion’s role in the Algerian government to disparage the revolutionary project in that nation. This is a misreading of the text. The novel is a fiction about a fiction that is the result of the fictions underlying colonialism. It is equally a search for the truth. Yet, more than anything else, it is an anti-colonialist fiction. When the narrator kills the French man in his garden, it is an act straight out of Frantz Fanon’s discussion of violence in The Wretched of the Earth. In his insistence on giving his brother–the murdered Arab of Camus’ novel–a name, he is not only acknowledging the humanity of the colonized, he is also turning the colonizer’s attempt to dehumanize an entire people on its head. In a world dominated by those whose intention is to rip their subject’s humanity from their souls, insisting on being named can be a revolutionary act.5195R1wCSLL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

As I write this, U.S. and Israeli media are hysterical over the seemingly random acts of violence being perpetrated on Israeli citizens by Palestinians. Mostly, these acts are knifings and vehicular hit-and-runs. The majority of the attacks seemed to be against settlers—individuals who have stolen Palestinian land and moved onto it. In a historical situation where their political power is denied and their organizations of resistance are in shambles, it seems to the outside observer (and to the Israeli civilian, too perhaps) that some Palestinians have gone over the edge into some kind of murderous psychopathy. Yet, to those who live in the Israeli occupation’s web of surveillance, brutality, military overkill, and just plain murder, it is Tel Aviv that is the psychopathic force, killing at will and justifying almost every one. Indeed, one need to look no further than the recent decision by the Israeli government that virtually requires the use of live ammunition by Israeli troops against Palestinians of any age throwing stones.

If one recalls the story of Camus’ L’Etranger, they will remember that Meursault’s victim is never named. This very fact dehumanizes that victim and makes it easier for the colonizer and killer to dismiss him. This is the same psychology drilled into invading and occupying forces during their training. For example, US forces were trained to call Vietnamese “gooks” and Iraqis “hajis.” When I lived in Pakistan as the dependent of a US military officer, the majority of the American on the base called the locals a variety of denigrating names, the least offensive of which was “Pakis.” The preference of the Pakistanis was to be called Pakistani. By calling them something other than what they preferred to be called, even children were enabled to consider the Pakistanis as something less than any US person on the base. In the United States itself, the use of words like “nigger,” “Beaner,” “Chink,” and so on serve to create a social psychology where those of northern European descent are trained to think they are better than any other resident even if all are legally considered citizens and therefore equal. This dynamic is exactly why one of the main goals of the narrator in The Miersault Investigation is to make certain the reader knows his brother’s (the victim) name.

In Camus’ L’Etranger, the self-centeredness of the protagonist is actually and metaphorically the egocentrism of the colonizer’s mind. In such a mindset, there is no apparent reason to concern one’s self with the colonized’s family or life. This self-absorption is ultimately solipsistic in nature; the average reader in the West finds nothing extraordinary about it. It is how they are educated to think. In Daoud’s novel, this namelessness is one of the personality traits of his brother’s killer that infuriates him the most. In his effort to name Miersault’s victim—his brother—he is also insisting on his brother’s (and his own) humanity and equal worth to that of his killer.

On a similar note, let us go back to Jean-Paul Sartre and his introduction to Fanon’s work. There is another sentence in that preface that addresses the violence of the Palestinians armed with knives. “(Fanon) shows clearly that this irrepressible violence is neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself.” It is a violence that happens only when there are no other avenues to resist an oppression so overwhelming it makes it not only impossible to exist, it becomes impossible, as Fanon writes in the main text of the book, “simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” This is not so much justification as it is rationale; although it is justification too. Fanon points out that both the colonizer and the colonized are enslaved by their identification as such. Each struggle for national liberation, every protest for dignity by the colonized—inside internal colonies like Black America and the Native American reservations, and colonies controlled by invaders both settler and military—are therapeutic exercises in resolving the neurosis such enslavement brings to the colonized. The neurosis the dynamic of imperialism creates for the occupier is likewise only resolved when the colonies are truly liberated and all involved exist in an economic and cultural equanimity.

Originally published in Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives December 2015.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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