Open Mind Is Like A Stranger
It is felt that somehow it’s not difficult to perceive an old colonial mindset lying under the modern French literature and culture.
“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” This opening line from the novel ‘L’Etranger’ (or ‘The Stranger’, published in 1942) by Albert Camus helps readers realise the essence of the story. Readers begin to wonder about Meursault – the main character of the novel – and whether he really is a ‘stranger’.
After the illusion fades, we start considering ourselves as ‘strangers’. Basically, the separation of a man from the life is called ‘absurdity’ or the ‘feeling of meaninglessness’. Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud reconstructed the same story in his debut novel ‘Meursault, contre-enquête’ (or The Meursault Investigation, published in 2013). Interestingly, Kamel begins his story with a line that is exactly the opposite of Camus’ opening line, but still carries a deep connotation. “Mama’s still alive today” – as opposed to Camus’ “Maman died today” – signals the attitude of this audacious project right from page one. (The Guardian, June 24, 2015)
In the novel by Camus, Meursault suddenly murders a character – known as ‘the Arab’ – near the Algerian sea shore, with the motto behind the murder being a woman-related jealousy. Through this novel, Camus tries to explain the ‘Theory of Absurdity’. Camus’ Meursault is unhealthy…..thus he does not have any liability or agenda in his life. Then, why should he try to kill someone? Who pulled the trigger of his pistol? And if someone is killed, then the catalysts present there, such as the Sea or the Sun (or even God), are responsible for it. As such catalysts do not exist in Meursault’s life, we can consider it as an accident. That’s why Meursault, in his trial, says that “the murder was a meaningless gesture caused by sunstroke or God’s absence”.
From the Western cultural point of view, this is the essence of ‘The Stranger’. Like his other stories, Camus’ ‘The Stranger’ is based on a colonial background. Camus’ birthplace Algeria was a French colony from 1830 to 1962. Later, the colonial experience gave birth to the ‘post-colonial culture’. Theoreticians, like Edward Said, are of the opinion that Camus’ novel portrays the melancholy of colonial masters after they lost their colonies. They advise readers to read the novel from the perspective of colonial (experience) history.
Kamel explains in his novel how a ‘criminal’ (Meursault) becomes a famous person even after killing a man and proving himself the victim of a philosophical crisis. He further argues that the actual victim makes the real sacrifice because of his ‘uncertain identity’ (the Arab). Yes, Meursault kills the man twice…… first, his body and then, his soul (or identity).
Was the victim an Arab? May be! He was from Algeria or Tunisia or Morocco or a member of the ‘Berber’ community. May be, he used to speak in ‘Berber’ language or in indigenous Arabic….But, why does Meursault hide the Arab’s identity? Kamel says that the local victim didn’t know the language of his killer (colonial master). So, the incident should be rewritten in a different (victim’s) script and manner, i.e. from right to left, believes Kamel. The nameless victim, too, had a family, mother and a brother, Harun (the narrator in The Meursault Investigation). Harun, who has lived in the shadow of his elder brother’s memory since childhood, refuses to let him remain anonymous. He not only gives his brother a name – Musa, but also describes the events that ultimately led to his murder on a beach. That’s why Harun has learnt the ‘language’ of Musa’s killer. “Therefore, I’m going to do what was done in this country after Independence: I’m going to take the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language.” (The Meursault Investigation)
The assassination took place 12 years before the Algerian War of Independence (Nov 1, 1954-Mar 19, 1962). As a result, Musa did not get the status of a ‘martyr’ in his ‘own’ country. When Harun takes revenge of his brother’s murder after a long wait by killing an innocent French national in 1962, his country has already won freedom. ‘Unfortunately’, the police of ‘free’ Algeria ‘harass’ him because of his involvement in the murder. In the last five pages, Kamel’s novel takes an unexpected turn. The centre of criticism shifts from colonialism to one’s own society, to one’s own country….. And this ‘sudden’ turn makes the novel different from other homogeneous post-colonial narratives.
When Musa was killed, Harun was just seven. Now, he is an old man. “One day the imam tried to talk to me about God, telling me I was old and should at least pray like the others, but I went up to him and made an attempt to explain that I had so little time left, I didn’t want to waste it on God.” (The Meursault Investigation) And in response to a question of a priest (chaplain) about God, Meursault said that he was not interested in God at all. (The Stranger) In the first part of Kamel’s novel, it seems that the two stories are contradictory. However, they come to the same point in the second part and we discover Meursault in Harun.
Both Harun and Meursault criticise the religion and state. Both have the sense of ‘creative revolt’ in their consciousness, but they don’t think about revolution. Their thought processes are individualistic, and not collective. They don’t act with premeditated planning, but according to the situation (or spontaneously). Both of them have a self-centred and open mind, which encourages them to raise questions and to protest against social injustice.
Kamel Daoud was born on June 17, 1970 in Mesra, Algeria. He is the first ‘enlightened’ member of his family. He has always raised his voice against authoritarianism and fundamentalism in his country. This daredevil journalist has numerous friends and enemies. While working as a journalist, he planned to write the novel that was published first in Algeria and then in France. The Meursault Investigation won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman (Goncourt Prize for a First Novel), the prix François Mauriac and also the Prix des cinq continents de la francophonie.
However, liberal left-democratic thinkers in Algeria are of the opinion that Kamel has sold himself to the West. They believe Kamel’s war against fundamentalism fuels the ‘Islamophobia’ in the West. On one hand, the West considers him as a serious threat and on the other, fundamentalists describe him as an Israeli agent.
Basically, Kamel Daoud is a cultural resident of both the East and the West. However, he still remains a ‘stranger’ to both the worlds.
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