Books

Kamel Daoud and Albert Camus, an Unlikely Filiation Born Out of Algeria

As Zabor, or The Psalms – the second novel from the acclaimed author of The Meursault Investigation – hits American bookstores, our columnist reflects on Algerian writer Kamel Daoud and his greatest inspiration: Albert Camus.
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Kamel Daoud. © Francesco Gattoni/LUZ

In 1942, Gallimard published a slim novel that initially attracted scant attention. The author was an obscure French journalist born in Algeria. He grew up in abject poverty with a father killed in World War I, a mentally disturbed mother, and a younger brother. His iron-willed grandmother provided the family with whatever stability it had. The young man was a good student, but perhaps a better soccer player – he initially contemplated a career as a professional athlete but tuberculosis put an end to that. He was in Switzerland recovering from his illness when World War II broke out. He moved to France where he entered the Resistance and eventually became the editor of a clandestine newspaper, Combat. Albert Camus was 29 when he published The Stranger. After a slow start, this novel would become an international bestseller, and in postwar Paris turned him into an intellectual trendsetter.

What made The Stranger so remarkable was its main character, Meursault, a laconic French-Algerian who for most of the novel displays no affect. He appears unmoved by having killed an Arab, makes no effort to explain himself and is just vaguely curious at his own trial. Only hours before his execution does Meursault realize the absurdity of what he did, the absurdity of a society that condemns him, and finally the absurdity of life itself.

In 2013, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud published The Meursault Investigation, which proved an immediate success and won several prizes. This is an examination of Meursault’s comportment from an Arab perspective. Such an orientation is not without its dangers, particularly in an era of political correctness – for the proponents of contemporary cancel culture, The Stranger is a potential gold mine. Meursault, like Camus, was a pied-noir (a “black foot,” a pejorative term used by many in mainland France to describe French families who had immigrated to Algeria in the 19th century and were imagined to run around shoeless). Such people were often to some degree racist, and Meursault certainly is. All the other characters in Camus’ novel have proper names, but the Arabs, as a group or individually, are always just Arabs. More telling, Meursault often appears not to notice them; although the vast majority in Algeria, for many French, Arabs did not really exist. Thus, the man who ostensibly decides whether Meursault should go to trial wants to save him since he only killed an Arab, and jurors find him guilty essentially because he seemed indifferent at his mother’s wake.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Meursault Investigation is that while Daoud recognizes Meursault and his society’s racism, as well as the myriad examples of anti-Arab behavior throughout Camus’ novel, he does so in passing, as if to suggest that these faults are self-evident in the 21st century, and the author aspires to be something other than an apostle of the obvious.

Daoud’s main character, Harum, is the brother of Musa, the Arab Meursault shot. The novel reprises and then reverses so many iconic scenes in The Stranger. Camus’s book begins, “Today mother died, or maybe it was yesterday,” while Daoud’s first sentence is “Mama’s still alive today.” One might expect that Harum would be replacing Meursault as the new, enlightened narrator. This is not completely the case. Harum is modeled on a character from Camus, but not from The Stranger. In Camus’ last completed novel, The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence sits in a bar in Amsterdam he considers the antechamber of Hell. Harum’s bar is in Oran, but with the same downward spiral.

Both men tell their elliptical tales to a fascinated but puzzled audience of one. Clamence was a powerful lawyer in Paris, famed for his defense of the downtrodden, and very pleased with himself in the process. One day, he discovers that vanity, rather than altruism, runs his life. He flees France and winds up in Holland. Whereas Meursault presents his story in a clear, straightforward manner, Clamence’s narrative is distorted and seemingly contradictory, as is Harum’s. Meursault was a man of certitudes; Clamence and Harum are questors, individuals involved in a search they know to be unending.

For Harum, two major issues exist. The political one involving the true political independence and development of the Arab world. This can be achieved, albeit perhaps not in his lifetime. The other is metaphysical, involving the meaning of life and the purpose of human existence. Although greatly shaken by Musa’s death, Harum senses he is more drawn to the latter question. At times he compares himself to his brother, his mother and of course, Meursault, yet the person he most resembles is the insecure political analyst and self-doubting philosopher, Camus himself.

In 2013, Daoud published in France his second novel, Zabor, or The Psalms. At first, it seems utterly different from The Meursault Investigation. Set in a world at once contemporary and mythical, the story unfolds in a tiny village. Algeria has won its independence, but all that has really changed are the names and ethnicity of the exploiters. Zabor is the child of a wealthy butcher who rejected his mother under pressure from his second wife. His mother dies soon after his birth and his father sends him to live away from the family with his magnificently choleric and loving maiden aunt, Hadjer, and his reticent, senile grandfather.

Zabor’s physical attributes are not appealing; he is small with a voice like a goat’s, and is prone to crying fits and fainting. He isn’t even circumcised. He does, however, have one bizarre gift. He can keep people alive by writing stories about them in one of his numerous notebooks whose titles, such as Lord of the Rings or Robinson Crusoe, may or may not reflect something of the content. This talent protects him from the suspicious villagers, many of whom fear he is in league with the devil.

Years pass and eventually he is summoned by his twelve vindictive half-brothers to save his dying father. Be it due to his hatred of his parent or some limitation to his powers, he fails in this endeavor, but paradoxically emerges from the experience more confident in his ability to use words to do good.

Although Zabor, or The Psalms abounds in references to Western literature, its true inspiration is One Thousand and One Nights, which tells the story of a bored and angry ruler who vows to spend every night with a virgin and then kill her in the morning. His plan is thwarted by the wily Scheherazade who tells him part of a story every night, but then defers the ending until the next evening. Then, when Scheherazade completes one tale, she immediately launches into another. This arrangement continues for one thousand and one nights, after which Scheherazade is spared.

Scheherazade can never be sure her story will please and Zabor does not claim to cure. They both prolong life by giving pleasure. Daoud’s alternative title, The Psalms, suggests this. “Psalm” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “praise,” and this is what both storytellers provide: praise of the joy of life itself where even tragedy can be made pleasurable through a moving narration. Yet not everyone responds to stories, and this is another possible reason for Zabor’s father’s demise. Nonetheless, in this novel Daoud concentrates on literature’s healing qualities, its potential to delight and instruct, but also, at times, just to distract.

Toward the climax of The Meursault Investigation, Harum seems excited, but somewhat deranged. Zabor appears slightly mad from the outset, yet toward the end, ecstatic. Both are pursuing near impossible dreams. Harum seeks meaning and coherence in human existence, and Zabor aspires to write a book which will reconcile people with life’s difficulties. Such grandiose ambitions certainly take their toll, but to adapt the last sentence in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, we should imagine Harum and Zabor happy.

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Zabor, or The Psalms by Kamel Daoud, translated from French by Emma Ramadan, Other Press, 2021. 384 pages, 17.99 dollars.

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