OCTOBER 16, 2018
KAMEL DAOUD IS the author of The Meursault Investigation, first published in France in 2014 and here in the United States a year later, leading to international critical acclaim, including the Prix Goncourt and glowing profiles and reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times. The novel, a response to Albert Camus’s The Stranger, in which antihero Meursault shoots an anonymous Arab on a beach, is told from the perspective of the younger brother of Meursault’s murder victim: for the first time the Arab on the beach has a name, a family, and a story. The second half of the story portrays the social and political crisis of contemporary Algeria, with its ongoing shifts in power and major ruptures during periods of governmental and regional control by Islamists. Translator Elisabeth Zerofsky aptly notes, “As Orhan Pamuk did for Istanbul, Aleksandar Hemon did for Sarajevo, so this writer can introduce Americans intimately to a place that remains […] entirely unknown to them.” The Meursault Investigation can be read as a kind of cri de coeur: Algerian Lives Matter.
It’s due to the success of his fiction debut that we now have Daoud’s seething collection of columns, Chroniques, written between 2010 and 2016. The title goes untranslated from the French to the English version, because the word “chronique” can be translated as “column,” but also because it suggests “chronicle” and “chronology.” These essays were written before, through, and after the Arab Spring, during which time Algeria watched dictators come and go with little change to its own political machinations. Later pieces address what it means to be French and Algerian in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, and confront the fatwa that Salafist imam Haladache placed on Daoud’s head via Facebook, for “apostasy.”
While many of the columns were written for the Algerian newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran, and in response to a specific moment or event — such as the deposition of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, or the first photos to appear online of the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (herein one of Daoud’s sharp titles: “Want to Become a Rolex Caliph?”) — others read more like the flash nonfiction we find in literary journals. See the opening column, “Decolonize the Body, Language, and the Sea,” dated July 17, 2010, in which Daoud writes of a multilayered history that gets flattened onto a postcolonial French horizon:
The columnist recalls his schoolbooks as one remembers an illness […] [There’s] nothing [in there] about what there is in me that’s Roman, Amazigh, Ottoman, Spanish, or French and Arab […] Why do I have to experience my history as a skin disease, or as a kind of prehistoric culpability, when it is an immense, magnificent tree, more than enough to provide me with an address?
It’s interesting also to note Daoud’s canny narrative awareness of the world’s limited understanding of contemporary Algeria. Many know it was a former French colony. Some know there was a revolution some time after World War II, which ended French colonization — and some others are aware that in 2003 the Pentagon screened the film The Battle of Algiers (in part for its depiction of French government torture of Algerians during the Algerian War) as a kind of CliffsNotes for how the United States might approach Iraq. We might have heard something about Islamic extremism and Algeria as a site of development for jihadi groups. But what about the rest? The people, food, music, and architecture? Landscape, schools, work? Of quotidian Algeria, much of the world knows next to nothing. Daoud’s early 2010 columns are laced with references to everyday life: the juxtaposition of mosques alongside churches and synagogues; fast food; and the harragas (people who flee Algeria on rafts and boats across the Mediterranean) are woven into his meditations.
But as we move through the second half of 2010 — the six months leading up to the advent of the Arab Spring — his columns take a global turn, and the tone becomes even more urgent. There are further meditations upon the central issue in The Meursault Investigation: Algerian social identity as an existential crisis. On September 3, in a consideration of the violence that occurred in Algeria during that year’s Ramadan celebrations, Daoud reflects on the subjectivity of truth: “[F]undamentalism is an affliction of truth, and truth is an affliction of scientific exactitude […] there are plenty of people who pray, but practically none who follow the rule against smoking, even at the newspapers.” On October 3, in “Why I’m Going to be President of My Country,” he writes, “To have a house, a tree, a good salary, a little respect in government offices, and the right to speak on television you need not just a residence but a country […] I will be president because I want to have a house.” Two weeks later, in “A Manifesto, Or When the Mouth Spits on Its Own Tongue,” Daoud movingly addresses the legal limits placed upon the use of Algerian (as opposed to classical) Arabic by the Islamist government, as well as the routine assassinations of its poets and journalists in the 1990s:
A people without a right to its own language […] is not mute but ill […] when a people can’t name things it can’t reinvent them […] when a people treats its own language as a dialect, it treats itself like a secondary character in a story that it cedes to someone else […] You kill a nationality when you give it subtitles.
The final column from 2010 is dated December 16, one day before Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi publicly self-immolated, the signal event of the Arab Spring. As I turned the page to the table of contents for 2011, which begins with a January 15 column entitled “I Dream of Being Tunisian,” I had the same feeling that I do when I binge watch certain television dramas. These essays weren’t written to be read one after another. They were published in response to dramatic events and changes in circumstance. Therefore, the collection is perhaps best kept on a desk or a nightstand, to be picked up periodically and read in small doses, rather than one after the other on an L train in Chicago, in the time and space from stop to stop to stop. Daoud is a brilliant, indeed dazzling, thinker: his sharp turns in thought and language, as well as his subject matter, gave me motion sickness, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Take it as a cautionary label: like a powerful drug, this work is best read in moderation, away from heavy machinery.
Although the columns are clearly written with specific, and different, audiences in mind, the presumption throughout is that the reader is male, straight, on the young side, and unmarried. There is no attempt to make language gender neutral. For instance, in “Idle Variations on the Myth of Sysyphus,” Daoud writes, “Man is man, and the boulder is his universe: he is condemned to meaninglessness for as long as possible in a world without sense.” But this sort of assumption is not necessarily a shortcoming. Rather, it should be read as part of the social context from which the author arises. In fact, Daoud argues again and again for the importance of women’s rights and equality: still, his primary readership continues to hold that “he” is the clearest pronoun for all of humanity. This shows rather than tells something about everyday Algeria, too.
It’s dispiriting to read some of these essays having to do with their sense of futility, and pessimism for any real, substantive change — in large part because the governmental and political machinations Daoud describes feel more familiar to me than they used to. While the United States is in a radically different social and political place from Algeria, with each passing day we seem to move closer to something that resembles a dictatorship — as I began to read Chroniques, Trump told the national convention at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” If Algeria seems opaque to us, it’s in part because a lot of its government machinations are opaque — and now it’s happening in the United States as well. Perhaps we hesitate to recognize what we share because it might lead us to admit things we don’t want to admit — much less know.
However, Daoud has the mind of a philosopher, the pacing of a journalist, and the literary chops of a novelist. While this work will be likely shelved alongside global, translated works, Chroniques could be read as a bedfellow to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: sharp, smart, and searingly felt, demonstrating breathtaking understanding of both the world of letters and life experience. Daoud’s essays are literally death-defying, often painful, and always deeply thoughtful. With the knowledge of a country used, abandoned, torn between national dictatorial powers and local histories and traditions, he ushers us into Algeria at the dawn of new regional menace and global uncertainty.