IN FRENCH LITERARY CONTESTS like American sport races, those who run a close second are sometimes the real victors — especially when they are the underdog. This was certainly the case last year when Kamel Daoud’s novel, Meursault, contre-enquête, finished second for France’s most important literary prize, the Goncourt. First issued by Barzakh, a small French-language publisher in Algeria, then reissued by the French publisher Actes Sud, the novel was both a critical and popular success, bringing Daoud a number of other awards, including the Goncourt’s prize for first novel.
These being the times in which we live, Daoud also earned a fatwa against his life. (A Salafist imam, incensed by Daoud’s criticism of Islam during an interview on French television, issued the death sentence on his Facebook page.) All of this brought him even closer to his fellow Algerian writer, Albert Camus, whose novel The Stranger serves as the foil for Daoud’s remarkable work. The parallels between the two men are striking: like Camus, Daoud began as a journalist and editorialist whose articles are relentlessly, even recklessly critical of his country’s political and religious authorities. Like Camus, Daoud’s style, while sharp and austere, also explodes in bursts of great lyricism. Like Camus, Daoud is a native Algerian who is an exile both at home and abroad.
Finally, like Camus, Daoud tries to keep distinct the worlds of literature and political engagement, all the while recognizing the ties that bind them. Both of these men recognize, as Camus declared in his Nobel Prize speech, that the artist lives midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community from which he cannot tear himself away. On the occasion of Other Press’s publication of the English edition of his book, the Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed Kamel Daoud about his work and life.
ROBERT ZARETSKY: Your book is a tour de force: powerful and provocative, moving and disturbing. But it is difficult to speak about your work without speaking about Camus. At first glance, your novel seems like a reply — a counter-investigation, to cite the original French title — of The Stranger. To invite comparison to what your narrator, Harun, calls (more than once) this “celebrated” novel carried risks, no? Why prompted you to do it?
KAMEL DAOUD: Because I’m Algerian and The Stranger’s story bears on my own. Because I am a Francophone writer and Camus is a master of the French language. Because I am confronted by an absurd world that kills in the name of the sun or Allah, and because I like to appropriate the great novels, rewrite, and make them mine. With the anonymous Arab [the one who Meursault murders], I saw a breach in this classic of 20th century literature, one that I took on as a literary, historical, and philosophical challenge.
Camus once wrote that the French colonists (the pied-noirs) and Arabs of Algeria were condemned to live together. He was wrong, of course. Given the deep ties between your novel and Camus’s, could we say that the two works are condemned to live together?
Yes! If the sea and war separate the two countries, we remain neighbors bound to one another by a common sense of grief, denial, and unease. But it was not, for me, a question of rewriting the history of our shared pasts, but instead a human history whose pretext is the pain of Algeria’s colonization, the war and denial of the Other. The two works are not condemned to live together, but rather to live together and illuminate one another.
More than 20 years pass after the publication of The Stranger before Harun discovers and reads the novel. How old were you when you first read the novel for the first time? What was you reaction to it?
I was either 20 or 21, I think. My first reaction was boredom. I liked The Rebel and Myth of Sisyphus much more than The Stranger. Like everyone else, I barely noticed the Arab. Meursault’s crime was perfect because it was told in language that was perfect. When I reread it at the age of 30, it was very different — as were the times, the past, and my own awareness.
There are Algerian intellectuals, most notably Assia Djebar, who consider Camus as a great Algerian writer. Was Camus, for you, an Algerian writer? Or, instead, was he simply a French Algerian writer?
No, he was an Algerian writer. My own “Algerianess” is not exclusive and does not exclude others: I assume everything that enriches me, including the monstrous wound of colonization. Camus is Algerian because Algeria is larger and older than French Algeria, Ottoman Algeria, Spanish or Arab Algeria.
There are striking parallels between Camus’s life and your own. Both of you started out as journalists in Algeria; both of you have challenged the country’s ideological and religious authorities; both of you are mavericks and relatively isolated at home. What do you make of this?
It’s possible, but that only proves that Camus and I were born in the same country!
With the very first line of your novel — “Mama’s still alive today” — you reverse the famous opening life of The Stranger: “Maman died today.” Yet you also take your inspiration from a number of the novel’s characters and situations, so much so that your vision is very Camusian. For example, I am thinking of the confrontation between Harun and the FLN officer. Like the judge in The Stranger, who thrusts a crucifix at Meursault while insisting on the necessity of believing in God, the officer waves an Algerian flag in front of Harun while insisting on the necessity in believing in the Algerian revolution. Camus hated such abstractions; you seem to hate them too, no?
Abstractions are fascinating: they can cast light on the past, but not on the present. They can also kill. For Meursault, there’s no difference between the crucifix and sun. The two are equally absurd. I like ideas, but I like metaphors even more — they are the body, the flesh, and sensations of writing. I prefer a life “experienced” to a life “thought.” Today, it is abstractions that kill in the name of religion or in the name of democracy.
One of your book’s themes, perhaps the greatest theme, is Harun’s demand that his brother — universally known at the “Arab” — be given a name. “It’s important to give names to the dead as much as it is to the new-born. My brother was called Musa.” And then, a few pages later, Harun tells his interlocutor: “My brother would have been famous if your author [Camus] had simply deigned to give him a first name. H’med or Kaddour or Hammou: just a name, damn it!” Could you say a bit more about naming and identity?
Ever since the Middle Ages, the white man has the habit of naming Africa and Asia’s mountains and insects, all the while denying the names of the human beings they encounter. By removing their names, they render banal murder and crimes. By claiming your own name, you are also making a claim of your humanity and thus the right to justice.
Later in the novel, Harun tells his interlocutor that his brother, Musa, was “the second most important character in the novel, but he has neither a name, a face, nor words. This story is absurd.” Two questions: First, do you think Camus, who made famous “the absurd,” would agree with Harun? And second: What are your thoughts about Camus’s last and unfinished novel, The First Man? It is a work, after all, in which he tries to do for the pied-noirs what Harun wishes to do for his brother.
I don’t know what Camus would have thought of my book. But one mustn’t read a novel like this as if it were an essay: Literature goes beyond Good and Evil. Camus was aware of colonial injustices, but literature is a dream that cannot be controlled and does not lie. It is not an allegory. An entire life was necessary to pass from The Stranger to The First Man — even more than a single life. If Camus gave Arabs both bodies and names in The First Man, it shows that the dream led him to act on the duty of naming the Arab. A novel is not a pedagogical exercise, but the revelation of meaning. It does not accommodate itself to justice, but instead to a vision of reality it can transform.
Another book by Camus haunts your novel: The Fall. Harun is an Algerian Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator in The Fall. Both novels are monologues and the narrator’s voice in both is the only voice we hear. And both narrators share deeply disturbing confessions that revolve around the question of death and guilt. You seem to have a special relationship with this novel.
To my mind, The Fall is Camus’s best novel. It is his truest and most sincere novel, the one closest to his most personal vision of the world and sense of guilt. I’ve always been fascinated by the novel and wanted, in my own way, to pay it homage. The Fall is the story of religious guilt, of the human condition in the face of cowardice and confession; it is a literary, philosophical, and religious exercise all at once. Clamence looks like us!
Even before the publication of your novel, you already had a controversial reputation in Algeria as a public intellectual and columnist for the newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran. What do you think is the role of intellectuals in today’s Algeria? What are their duties, hopes and fears?
The intellectual is the unbending witness to his era, one that leads to liberty or surrender. He’s the voice that carries and proclaims, but also reminds. In the face of the rising totalitarianisms of our new century, it is a question of witnessing on behalf of what is human, on behalf of humanity, but especially on behalf of liberty — its value and its necessity. As I have said before, a society attached to just one book is intolerant, while those that embrace many books are free and tolerant. My struggle is for all books: to write them and read them, to cultivate their potential and enjoy their freedom.
In an interview you gave to the newspaper Libération, you described Algeria as a land “squeezed between the sky and earth.” This also resembles your situation: You must face two powerful forces, the State and Islam, state censorship and religious fatwas. Yet you remain in Oran. Do you sometimes consider leaving Algeria and settling in France, where life would be easier and less dangerous?
I don’t think of France, in particular, but do think about my children. Exile will save them but kill me. Staying in Algeria will save my soul but will endanger my body. This is an overwhelming choice to make, and an earlier generation was already forced to make it. A friend of mine, the French writer Jérôme Ferrari, wrote about this dilemma in his most recent novel The Principle. The story is about the moral crisis experienced by a nuclear scientist in Nazi Germany. For now, I don’t have an answer. I’m afraid, but I’m also horrified by the prospect of surrendering.
Last question: could you tell us about your reaction to the massacres in Paris by Islamic terrorists last January?
After two days of silence and shock that were impossible to overcome, I wrote that between a cartoonist and a killer, I’ll always defend the cartoonist. It was essential, I wrote, to save the world from those who wish to bring the world to an end. I defended freedom and claimed the right to be insolent.