We like to think of books having conversations with one another across the centuries as they rub covers on our geographically arranged shelves: Leonard Michaels nodding south to Flannery O’Connor, Tahar Ben Jelloun waving across the Mediterranean toward Maurice Blanchot, Clarice Lispector reaching out to Alejo Carpentier.
Shortly before he received the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel Waiting, Ha Jin told us that writing allows him to engage in a dialogue with the masters. While it’s not uncommon for a writer to feel Tolstoy or Chekhov (and a few non-Russians, too) hovering over the shoulder, the idea got us thinking about the various ways books speak to one another. Think of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea or J. M. Coetzee’s Foe and how those novels deepen the complexities of Jane Eyre and Robinson Crusoe. Another of our favorites, Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, retells The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of the housemaid, giving a full and nuanced voice and vision to a character Stevenson mentions only in passing.
Kamel Daoud’s debut novel, The Meursault Investigation (translated from the French by John Cullen), arrived this year to English-language readers on the heels of great critical acclaim, including the Prix des cinq continents de la francophonie, the Prix François Mauriac and the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. The novel subverts Camus’s The Stranger (or The Outsider), turning its focus on the nameless Algerian Meursault murders on that beach in Algiers. Its narrator, the much younger brother of the murdered man, tells his story to a writer over a series of encounters. The structure itself recalls another of Camus’s novels, The Fall, a book to which one of our recent favorites, Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, pays homage.
Early in The Meursault Investigation, Daoud writes: “Will you believe another version of the facts, a version previously unknown?”
Daoud proceeds to give a voice and history to the forgotten characters who populate Meursault’s world. He repeatedly references the events of The Stranger, rounding the story that has made Meursault a household name among generations of literary readers, many if not most of whom fail to register the life of the murdered Arab. Daoud reworks this story so that it serves as not only a companion to The Stranger but an alternate version of literary history, this time with the colonized writing back.
Here Daoud’s narrator speaks of coming to terms with the French, their language and his brother’s death:
It’s simple: The story we’re talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left. That is, starting when the Arab’s body was still alive, going down the narrow streets that led to his demise, giving him a name, right up until the bullet hit him. So one reason for learning this language was to tell this story for my brother, the friend of the sun. Seems unlikely to you? You’re wrong. I had to find the response nobody wanted to give me when I needed it. You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you; and from then on, it falls into the habit of grasping things in your place, it takes over your mouth like a lover’s voracious kiss.
The Meursault Investigation gives us the thrill of looking at something we believe we know down to the smallest detail and turning it at an angle that reveals a previously unexplored world.
We could say much of the same about Far From Men, David Oelhoffen’s 2014 film (starring Viggo Mortensen) based on Camus’s chilling short story “The Guest.” And while we’re at it, another unforgettable film set in Algeria: Tony Gatlif’s 2004 Exils, which tracks a young Frenchman of pied-noir ancestry and his Algerian girlfriend who has never set foot in her homeland. We follow their hitchhiking odyssey from Paris to Algeria, via Spain and Morocco, as they search for their heritage.
Daoud’s novel and these films open several windows into the real lives of Algeria. We’re eager to find more.
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