Monday, May 4, 2015

The Other Stranger

Of all the conceivable angles from which a response to Albert Camus's novel L'Etranger could've been written, probably the most surprising concerns itself with the nameless Arab whom Meursault murders on the beach. Kamel Daoud, author of The Meursault Investigation, who gave the name "Moussa" to Meursault's victim, is an Algerian journalist living in Oran, the city that Camus hated and which he used as the setting of his second novel, The Plague. Significantly, Daoud wrote the novel in French. He did so, he said, to enable him to "take one by one the stones of the old homes of the colonists and make of them a home of my own, a language to myself." His novel, published in Algeria in 2013 and in France last year (an English translation is due to be published in June) gives me a perfect excuse to return to the scene of the crime, to Camus's brilliant first novel.

The cause of all of Meursault's problems, even if, later on, he refused to see it that way, was his friendship with the petty criminal, Raymond. It was Raymond who pimped for an Arab girl and then beat her when she tried to cheat him. When the police showed up, the girl filed a complaint against Raymond. Later, Raymond asked Meursault to give a statement in his defense. It was this besmirchment of the girl's honor (so to speak) that compelled the girls's brother to follow Raymond and Meursault to the beach and confront them there. Because of a strange coincidence of timing and the weather, Meursault murdered the Arab.

The scene at the beach where this act of violence unfolds is impressively written, and Camus's language certainly makes it seem as if Meursault's frame of mind, so extremely affected by the sun and the heat, made his crime possible. After they had already confronted the Arabs, whom Meursault, as narrator, made no effort to particularize, he accompanied Raymond back to Masson's bungalow.

"When we reached the bungalow Raymond promptly went up the wooden steps, but I halted on the bottom one. The light seemed thudding in my head and I couldn't face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable to the women. But the heat was so great that it was just as bad staying where I was, under the flood of blinding light falling from the sky. To stay, or to make a move - it came to much the same. After a moment I returned to the beach, and started walking.

"There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulder at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me."

But when he walked toward a rock from which an inviting stream of cool water was flowing, Meursault came face to face with "Raymond's Arab." That time, however, Meursault had Raymond's revolver in his pocket. The two men - although the Arab seemed hardly human - barely moved, as the sun and heat went on pressing down on Meursault. Then the Arab pulled a knife from his pocket: "A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs." 

Then Meursault found the revolver in his pocket: "Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The triggergave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging well of light. I knew I'd shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing." ("Et c'etait comme quatre coups brefs que je frappais sur la porte du malheur.")

As I said before, it's quite impressively written. But, honestly, Camus doesn't convince me that, as Meursault says towards the end of his trial, that the murder was "because of the sun." The shooting of the Arab is not even convincing as simple manslaughter. Incredibly, once the Arab is dead, he is never mentioned again. Meursault's trial is about whether or not he loved his mother, and not about his murder of the Arab. 

Really, as existentially "cool" as Meursault seemed to me the first time I read L'Etranger when I was 19, he strikes me now as something of an oddball. I am now unconvinced that he was so unmoved during his trial that he couldn't say something to save himself, that he could've been so indifferent to his own fate. While he loves his life and gets as much pleasure out of it as he can, Meursault's relationship with the world around him is provisional to the extent to which he never feels at home there. Things are expected of him that he doesn't understand and cannot supply. He is unable to find in himself the emotions expected of him on various occasions. Because he is like that, he often strikes people as strange. He is a stranger among people, with no understanding of the correct reactions, the right words, the amour propre that lubricates society. And because, as Camus said later, he refuses to lie, he is condemned.

Kamel Daoud spoke of his reasons for writing The Meursault Investigation: "My basic idea was to start with Albert Camus's The Stranger, to question the work, but to move on from there - to question my own presence in the world, my present and today's reality. It was also a matter of analyzingCamus's work, of 'rereading' it, of having it reread by an Algerian and by contemporary readers. Camus still provokes polemics in Algeria.I wanted to pay tribute to his work and his thinking, but also to provide another version of the story. The Stranger is Camus's character, but also a symbol of the philosophical and human condition. It was valid in 1942, the year the novel was published,and it's still valid today. I wanted to take another look at that strangeness. I'm not responding to Camus - I'm finding my own oath through Camus."

The plot of Daoud's novel concerns the life of Haroun, a man in his late seventies who was just seven when Moussa, his elder brother, was murdered by Meursault. Daoud cleverly interweaves the identity of Camus himself and the novel L'Etranger into Haroun's narrative. It is Haroun's deep resentment over the way that Moussa and his family were ignored by Camus, and the French colonial court throughout Meursault's trial. Haroun squandered his life in a futile quest for vengeance on Camus, whom he confuses with Meursault. But the novel is also critical of Algeria's corrupt post-independence government and of the power of Muslim religious leaders.

In her New Yorker interview with Daoud, Deborah Treisman points out that "In response to the novel - or perhaps to your journalism - an imam with a group called the Islamist Awakening Front issued a fatwa against you. Is it a threat you take seriously? Do you believe that the novel is or could be offensive to Muslims?"

"Offensive to Muslims? No. Offensive to Islamists? Yes. They are offended by our life, by difference, by women, by desire, by laughter. They are lovers of death, not of life. The threat is serious, but it is serious for everyone: you, me, the tourist, the cartoonist, the dancer, the woman, the Nigerian schoolgirl."

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