first published in 2013, is a novel by the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. The
first thing that the reader notices after reading the title of this novel is
the name ‘Meursault’, the antihero created by Albert Camus in his book
(1942). This coincidence is not innocent at all since Daoud’s
novel is in direct dialogue with
In Camus’ novel,
Meursault kills a nameless Arab. This is the starting point of
which follows the story of Harun, Musa’s brother, the Arab
who was killed by Meursault. This classic was always catalogued as a novel
about the human condition and absurdism until Daoud would challenge that
assumption. This author treated Meursault’s crime as a real event and created a
response from the perspective of his brother (
As Kulkarni (1997)
has indicated, some critics such as Conor Cruise O’Brien and Said argue that
Camus unconsciously shared the assumptions of colonialism and that in his book,
we can see a recollection of French colonialism. However, this has been
severely criticised since Camus actively rejected these ideas. Moreover,
Shattuck (2016) argues that Camus’ novel is a double parable about contemporary
events that were taking place in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Meursault
corresponds to the figure of the passive citizen unaltered by these injustices,
and this idea could have moved Daoud to write this book.
has much to do with Daoud’s novel being
considered an act of responding or ‘writing back’. This refers to postcolonial
authors that respond to canonical texts in the European tradition (Karan Ally,
2018). By reconfiguring or reimagining narratives of colonial, or Western
texts, it reasserts the voice of the colonized and portrays the version of the
history from their perspective (
, 2016). Daoud
is giving an identity to Camus’ Arab, and as he signals, he is paying tribute
to Camus’ work, while also providing another version of the story (
understand this idea, it is important to consider Algeria’s historical context.
France occupied Algeria in 1830 and the colonisation was extended until 1962,
after the end of the Algerian War of Independence that took place between 1954
and 1962 (Mir, 2019). Camus’ novel takes place during the colonisation
meanwhile Daoud’s sets immediately after the War of Independence, although is
narrated several years later.
In this essay, we
will analyse the ideas of doubles and oppositions that appear in Daoud’s novel
with respect to Camus’. As we will discover, there are many parallelisms in this
book that will help us to understand Harun’s life and his resemblance with
ideas of ‘double’ and ‘opposite’ are present from the beginning of the novel.
The own Harun indicates that this has much to do with the way it is narrated:
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 (Daoud, 2015: 7).
Harun says that the story is narrated from right to
left, which is a reference of Arabic script in opposition to languages such as
French, which is written from left to right. Moreover, this could also mean
that the story of Meursault and the Arab is written chronologically backwards,
in the same way that the story of French colonization is written from an
Algerian perspective (Karan Ally, 2018).
The first similarities that the reader can notice
are present in the title and at the beginning of the novel. Musa sounds like
Meursault, and this phonetics resonance is responsible for linking the two
, 2016). Moreover, the original
English would be counter-investigation, reflecting the idea of opposites.
Furthermore, the beginnings of both novels are inversed. While
with ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know’’ (Camus, 1958: 3),
Daoud’s novel begins with: ‘Mama’s still alive today’ (Daoud, 2015: 1). As we
can appreciate, Daoud is mirroring the prose and structure of Camus’ novel.
More similarities can be found in where the novel is
set. Harun retells his story in a bar in Oran, which is directly linked with
(1956) by Camus. In this novel, the narrator relates his story to an
unnamed person in a bar. Moreover, Harun lived in a village called
, which was formerly known as Marengo, where
Meursault’s mother died (Mahon, 2015). Lastly, there is another reference to
(1947): ‘’I love Oran at night, despite the
proliferation of rats’’ (Daoud, 2015: 49). Both stories take place in Oran and
the rats were responsible for transmitting the plague in Camus’ book.
2015, Daoud gave a lecture at Yale University, where he explained, among other
things, the role of doubles and oppositions in the novel. It deals with issues
related to the ‘Robinsonade’, a term that derives from
novel by Daniel Defoe. This is related to our behaviour towards ‘the other’.
Daoud indicates that we can approach the other in different ways: we can kill
and bury him, as Abel and his brother; we can try to convert him, as Robinson
Crusoe did with Friday; or we can kill and erased him, as Meursault did with
There are many references to Defoe’s novel in the
text. In the following paragraph, we can appreciate a double critic. Harun is
criticising not only that his brother’s name was not even mentioned in
, but also the attitude of Crusoe towards Friday.
calling a person ‘the Arab’, Meursault is participating in that colonial
discourse that distances and dehumanizes the colonial reality. Camus mentions
25 times the word ‘Arab’, a multiplication of anonymity that reduces him to an
ethnic signifier (
brother’s name was Musa. He had a name. But he’ll remain ‘’the Arab’’ forever,
the last on the list, excluded from the inventory that Crusoe or yours made.
Strange, isn’t it? For centuries, the settler increases his fortune, giving
names to whatever, he appropriates and taking them away from whatever makes him
feel uncomfortable. If he calls my brother ‘’the Arab’’, it’s so he can kill
him the way one kill time (Daoud, 2015: 13).
Following this same idea, we can find more
intertextual references to Defoe’s novel. Harun says that the author ‘’could
have called him Two P.M., like that other writer who called his black man
Friday’’ and that Meursault is a ‘’Robinson Crusoe who thinks that he can
change his destiny by killing his Friday’’ (Daoud, 2015: 3-4). This statement
indicates that Musa was reduced to his role as Arab and victim and nothing
the victim was referred to
only as ‘the Arab’ and not naming him deprives him of his identity. Meanwhile
(Europeans born in
colonial Algeria) have names, the Arabs are reduced to their ethnicity: ‘’The
only shadowy is cast by the Arabs’’ (Daoud, 2015: 2). As Kulkarni (1997)
suggests, this implies that the reader does not feel that Meursault has killed
a man, he has killed
an Arab, as if it was a being unrelated to our
world. Moreover, Harun also shares this idea: ‘’they watched us ––us Arabs–– in
silence, as if we were nothing but stones or dead trees’’ (Daoud, 2015: 11).
The dualism between these two novels can also be
found in the characters. Meursault has as a neighbour a man called
who mistreats his dog (Camus, 1958: 15).
Meanwhile, Harun has as a neighbour a fireman that beats his wife (Daoud, 2015:
suspects that his
Arab girlfriend is cheating on him and that is the cause of the conflict.
However, Harun states that ‘’there were just two siblings, my brother and me.
We didn’t have a sister’’ (Daoud, 2015: 7). Daoud gives a new identity to this
, who could be one of his brother’s
girlfriends. Lastly, in Camus’ book, there is an Arab that plays the flute
(Camus, 1958: 31) which also appears in Daoud’s. Through this character, once
again, we can appreciate how the Arabs are deprived of their identity in
‘’Larbi, who as I recall played the flute… Larbi
, Larbi the Arab’’ (Daoud, 2015: 62).
Another fundamental aspect of both books is the role
of the mother: both Meursault and Harun are deeply influenced by the presence
or absence of their mothers, feeling alienated from them. Meursault’s
relationship with her mother is distant: ‘’When we lived together, Mother was
always watching me, but we hardly ever talked’’ (Camus, 1958: 4). In the case
of Harun, it is the opposite. Musa’s death fractured the relationship between
Harun and his mother. Despite loving her, he could never forgive how she
treated him. ‘’She seemed to resent me for a death I basically refused to
undergo’’ (Daoud, 2015: 36). The few moments she was affectionate, Harun knew that
‘’it’s Musa she wants to find there, not me’’ (Daoud, 2015: 36), Harun’s mother
wanted him to fill the place of his older brother, and this poisoned their
relationship (Horton, 2016). For these reasons, Harun states that he
understands Meursault more when he talks about his mother than when he talks
about his brother.
Moreover, this portrait of grief can be linked to
the historical context. During French colonialism and the War for Independence,
many people died. Harun’s mother is one among the many victims that had to keep
living after the death of a loved one. Harun indicates that ‘’Mama’s still
alive today, but what’s the point? She says practically nothing’’ (Daoud, 2015:
143). In her inability to tell the story of her dead son, we can see that the pain
and violence of colonization are not resolved in a single generation.
This duality can also be found in small details. In
Meursault drinks coffee multiple times and he mentions that he is
‘’very partial to
café au lait
’’ (Camus, 1958: 6). In contrast, Harun
despises this beverage: ‘’No café au lait for me! I despise that concoction’’
(Daoud, 2015: 65). Moreover, Harun is afraid of the sea meanwhile this is one
of the few things that Meursault enjoys. Lastly, there is another duality in the
idea of religion: while Meursault hates Sundays, ‘’I remembered it was Sunday
and that put me off; I’ve never cared for Sundays’’ (Camus, 1958: 13), Harun
does not like Fridays, ‘’it’s Fridays I don’t like’’ (Daoud, 2015: 65).
Their dislike for Fridays and Sundays is linked with
God. For Muslims, Fridays are the sacred day of the week, meanwhile, for
Christians, it is on Sundays. Since both characters feel alienated from God,
they despise these sacred days. Harun once mentions that Friday is not the day
when God rested, but the day he decided to run away and never come back. After
that, he affirms that he abhors all religions. In the same way, when the priest
asks Meursault if he believes in God his answer is no. It is also interesting
to mention that Meursault was visited by a priest and Harun by an imam, another
Another link to religion is found in the characters’
names. Musa is also the name of a prophet in the Koran, known as Moses in
Christianity. Harun is related to the prophet Aaron, who is the brother of
, 2015). In the Bible and Koran, Moses
stutters and Aaron acts as his mouthpiece. In this case, Musa is dead, so his
brother tells his story for him and to alleviate his mother’s pain:
the habit of transforming the content of the articles and embellishing the
narrative of Musa’s death.… Just try to imagine the level of genius required to
take a local news item two paragraphs long and transform it into a tragedy,
describing the famous beach and the scene, grain by grain (Daoud, 2015: 120).
Regarding the killings, there is an inversion of the
act of violence. This is directly linked with the parallelism between Meursault
and Harun. When Meursault kills the Arab on the beach, it is 2 pm, so ‘’the
heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were fathering in my
eyebrows’’ (Camus, 1958: 33). On the contrary, when Harun kills the French, the
witness is not the sun, but the moon and Harun’s mother. In fact, Harun does
not shoot until the French’s face is no longer recognizable: ‘’The darkness
devoured what remained of his humanity’’ (Daoud, 2015: 85).
Moreover, the depiction of the crime is also
similar. In Daoud’s book, it is said
“I squeezed the trigger and fired twice. Two
bullets. One in the belly, and the other in the neck” (Daoud, 2015: 75),
meanwhile in Camus’ “I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger
gave…Then I fired four more times at the motionless body” (Camus, 1958: 36).
The murders are not opposing actions, but the
same action seen from opposing sides.
Another fundamental opposition between these novels
is that the Arab killed by Meursault does not have a name, but the French
killed by Harun does. His name is Joseph. Both Meursault and Harun confront the
Other. However, only Harun recognizes the consequences: ‘’
is a unit of measurement you lose when you kill” (Daoud, 2015: 90).
only line from Koran that resonates with him is ‘’if you kill a single person,
it is as if you have killed the whole of mankind’’ (Daoud, 2015: 91). This idea
can be linked with another passage from the text, where Harun explains that the
he gives everyone is Musa. He remarks that giving
a name to a dead man is as important as giving it to a new-born. Musa could be
any Arab and it is a way to represent the consequences of colonialism in
Algeria. Anyone could be murdered and then disappear without a trace.
After the murders, Meursault and Harun are detained
and processed. In Camus’ novel, Meursault is tried for murder, but this is
secondary. The victim’s humanity is marginalized, and Meursault is more judged
for not crying in her mother’s funeral than for killing. Outside the courtroom,
the Arab was an outsider because of his ethnicity; on the inside, the
proceeding’s focus on Meursault’s behaviour has the same effect (Robinson,
In the same way, when Harun is processed, he is not
primarily judged for the murder. Harun killed him a few days after independence
was declared. During the interrogation, it was obvious that Harun was being
judged for killing the French for personal reasons and not for the Revolution.
If the killing had taken place a week before, he would not have been judged.
Moreover, the victim is once again forgotten: ‘’The Frenchman had been erased
with the same meticulousness applied to the Arab on the beach’’ (Daoud, 2015:
Harun recognizes himself in his brother’s killer
since both have committed a senseless crime. In the book, Meursault is the
not Camus. When Harun read the book, he discovered
his reflection in it. ‘’I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and
what I found was my own reflection, I discovered I was the murderer’s double’’
(Daoud, 2015: 131).
last duality can be found in the ending of both novels. Meursault is condemned
to death; Harun continues with his life after leaving jail. Meursault hoped for
his execution that there was ‘’a large crowd of spectators… that they greet him
with cries of hate’’ (Camus, 1958: 65). In the same way, Harun says: ‘’I too would
wish them to be legion, my spectators, and savage in their hate’’ (Daoud, 2015:
When we think about
we need to keep in mind a mirror that reflects the
Doubles and oppositions play a fundamental role
in Daoud’s rereading and rewriting of Camus’ book. It can be appreciated in the
multiple references to Camus’ novels and other texts, such as
the Bible, and Koran. Daoud changes the point of view of this
famous murder and reconfigures the characters, the act of violence, and even
small details that could be easily unperceived.
Thanks to these
doubles and oppositions, Daoud is giving voice to Harun and, consequently, to
the Other. This book, as others from postcolonial authors responding to Western
texts, offers an opportunity to analyse violence present during the French
colonization and the postcolonial context of Algeria. Moreover, Daoud is
asserting that behind every person there is a story. The detachment produced by
the murder in
is another proof of the indifference towards
By giving a name to Camus’
Arab, Daoud is giving back not only his identity, but also his humanity.
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This week in fiction: Kamel
The New Yorker.
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