By Roger Cohen
July 24, 2015
At the core of any conflict lies invisibility. The enemy cannot be seen, at least not if seeing betokens the start of understanding. The other is there, a menacing and ineffaceable presence, but is invisible in his or her human dimensions.
Demonization blocks any glimmer of shared humanity or sympathy. Only when the nameless foe becomes a man or a woman confronted with the puzzle of life does the path to understanding begin to open. No gun was turned to plowshare without some form, however tentative, of mutual recognition.
This question of invisibility is the starting point of Kamel Daoud’s remarkable first novel, “The Meursault Investigation.” His core idea is of startling ingenuity. Daoud, an Algerian journalist, takes Albert Camus’s classic novel, “The Stranger” — or more precisely the “majestically nonchalant” murder of an Arab at the heart of it — and turns that Arab into a human being rather than the voiceless, characterless, nameless object of a “philosophical crime” by a Frenchman called Meursault on an Algiers beach 20 years before the culmination of Algeria’s brutal war of independence.
By inverting the perspective, and turning the anonymous Arab into a young man named Musa Uld el-Assas rather than someone “replaceable by a thousand others of his kind, or by a crow, even,” Daoud shifts the focus from the absurdity of Meursault’s act in the giddying sunlight to the blindness of the colonial mind-set.
The issue is no longer Meursault’s devastating honesty about the human condition — he does not love, he does not pretend, he does not believe in God, he does not mourn his dead mother, he does not judge, he does not repress desire, he does not regret anything, he does not hide from life’s farce or shrink from death’s finality — but the blood he has spattered on the sand with five gunshots into young Musa.
Daoud’s device is to treat the fictional murder committed by Meursault in 1942 as a real event and create a narrator named Harun who is the younger brother of the dead Musa, a flailing chronicler of irreparable loss. Harun cannot get over how Musa has been blotted out: “My brother’s name was Musa. He had a name. But he’ll remain ‘the Arab’ forever.” He was “capable of parting the sea, and yet he died in insignificance.” Daoud writes that the French “watched us — us Arabs — in silence, as if we were nothing but stones or dead trees.”
Musa is invisible even in death. If he had been named, Harun reflects, perhaps their mother would have received a pension. Perhaps life would not have consisted of an unrequited attempt to find the body, locate the murderer, understand the crime — even avenge it somehow.
The Arabs are sullen. They wait. Harun’s reflection on the demise of French Algeria is devastating: “I didn’t even fight in the War of Liberation. I knew it was won in advance, from the moment when a member of my family was killed because somebody felt lethargic from too much sun.”
At the moment of liberation, or just after it, Harun kills a Frenchman, Joseph Larquais: “The Frenchman had been erased with the same meticulousness applied to the Arab on the beach twenty years earlier.” But this reciprocal murder, committed without conviction in the blinding night rather than the blinding heat, brings no real respite — from the fury Harun feels toward his relentless mother who wants him to be his lost brother, or from the quandary of the Algerian condition.
Independence will only bring disappointment. Algeria drifts toward the suffocating stranglehold of religion that Daoud, like Camus, deplores. Vineyards are uprooted because of Islam’s strictures. Harun laments that his one ephemeral love, Meriem, embodies a woman who has “disappeared in this country today: free, brash, disobedient, aware of their body as a gift, not as a sin or a shame.” His words recall Meursault’s dismissal of all the priest’s entreaties before his execution: “None of his certainties was worth one hair on the head of the woman I loved.”
Religion, for Daoud’s hero, is “public transportation I never use.” Who is God to give lessons? After all, “I alone pay the electric bills, I alone will be eaten by worms in the end. So get lost!”
Of course, an imam from a Salafist group has issued a fatwa for Daoud to be put to death. The author, in turn, has called the absence of alternatives to Islamism “the philosophical disaster of the Arab world.” Much more such honesty is needed.
Daoud’s novel has sometimes been portrayed as a rebuke to the pied-noir Frenchman Camus. But there is more that binds their protagonists than separates them — a shared loathing of hypocrisy, shallowness, simplification and falsification. Each, from his different perspective, renders the world visible — the only path to understanding for Arab and Jew, for American and Iranian, for all the world’s “strangers” unseen by each other.