Albert Camus — The Outsider (1942) / Kamel Daoud — The Meursault Investigation (2013)
Setting: Colonial & Post-colonial Algeria
What’s its about? The Outsider is the ultimate introduction to francophone literature, but its dehumanisation of Arab characters makes it more dated every year. It creates epic scenes out of mundane moments, the walk to bury his mother in the sweltering heat, the flirtation with an office colleague that same day, the rejection of the priest’s offer of salvation at the bitter end.
I have always wanted to see the story told from the point of view of the mother of the character Camus only refers to as “The Arab” shot by Meursault on the beach: watching the murder trial that turns on whether the killer cried at his own mother’s burial.
The plot of The Outsider feels like its set in France, which is what Camus and other colonialists thought Algeria was. But the book is worth reading for the sheer elegance of its sparse, simple prose.
Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : « Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. » Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier.”
Fortunately two writers have redressed the balance. Kamel Daoud tells the story from the perspective of the murdered Arab’s brother, while his sisters tale is told by Leila Abouleila’s The Insider, a radio drama. The Meursault Investigation is post-colonial Algeria’s retort.
So much of the book and the brother is the antithetical to The Outsider: the narrative is more frenetic and rambling, literally a drunk talking to you in a bar; Relationships are more complicated, beginning with a direct retort to Camus’ famous opening:
Mama’s still alive today. She doesn’t say anything now, but there are many tales she could tell.”
The brother’s monologue rejects colonialism but is at the same time trapped by it, and by the shadow of departed relatives:
For centuries, the settler increases his fortune, giving names to whatever he appropriates and taking them away from whatever makes him feel uncomfortable. If he calls my brother “the Arab,” it’s so he can kill him the way one kills time, by strolling around aimlessly.”
What does it tell us about Algeria? While it scorns the departed coloniser, it is brutally honest about the failings of postcolonial Algeria, into which the narrator struggles to fit. The Outsider tells you so much about French colonialism just from what it doesn’t say: one of the few books that is almost better for its ethical and moral flaws.
Why you should read them: The Outsider for the prose and the blind self-assurance with which the colonialist stumbles through life, and the thoughtless, inexplicable violence the coloniser perpetrates against the colonised in those chilling last lines at the end of the first part of the book:
I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness. ”
The Meursault Investigation is must-read for a demolition of the illusions of that colonial world, and an excavation of its legacies in a failing post-colonial state.
The definitive Algerian novel? Perhaps not. See rather Mohammed Dib’s The Fire a raging beast of a novel seething with anger against French colonialism, in stark contrast to the existentialist passivity of The Outsider.
My rating: **