Taking on ‘The Outsider’
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
As is well known, Meursault’s victim in Albert Camus’s novel L’Etranger (The Outsider) didn’t have a name. He’s referred to throughout as “the Arab”. Now the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has given him a name, Moussa, in his first novel, Meursault, contre-enquête. The book narrowly failed to win this year’s Prix Goncourt, which has gone to Lydie Salvayre for Pas Pleurer (the TLS has a review of Daoud’s book and will also be reviewing Salvayre’s).
Daoud has essentially written a strong response to Camus’s classic text, which, according to the biographer and critic Pierre Assouline, is still imposed on all lycée students. The author’s purpose is also to give Moussa, “l’Arabe”, the identity denied him by Camus. And there are several echoes of Camus’s novel in the new book, which is of similar length. The name Moussa is clearly meant to make us think of Meursault. The notorious opening of L’Etranger – “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas” (“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure”) – has its counterpoint in Daoud’s “Aujourd’hui, M’ma est encore vivante”.
We learn that Moussa is twenty-seven when he’s killed, and that his body is never found. His much younger brother, Haroun, the narrator of Daoud’s novel, is seven years old at the time. Twenty years later, in 1962, as Algeria is moving into independence, Haroun himself murders a pied noir, who had fled into the back streets of Algiers to avoid a possible lynching at the hands of a mob. By the time he comes to tell his story, and that of Moussa and their downtrodden mother, he is in his seventies and drinking alone in a bar in Oran.
Meursault, contre-enquête is certainly a very accomplished debut, one that can stand side by side with Camus’s novel. It represents another triumph for the Arles-based publishing house Actes Sud, who are also the publishers of the very promising Jérôme Ferrari. Recently Actes Sud took out a full-page ad in Le Monde, filled with admiring quotes from reviews of their new author. Impressive stuff.