Absurdism did not start out as a literary movement whose setting was “nowhere” — though that was, in many cases, where it it ultimately settled. Camus’ revered novel The Stranger was firmly rooted (or firmly anti-rooted, really) in the author’s provenance: colonial Algeria. It was published in 1942, the same year as Camus’ early absurdist manifesto, The Myth of Sisyphus — and these two works could easily be seen as the founding documents of what would become a predominantly midcentury European literary tradition. The Stranger‘s solipsistic antihero, Meursault, lived in Algeria (but notably belonged nowhere) almost a decade before the publication of some of the most important, movement-defining works in the Theatre of the Absurd. Between the ’50s and ’60s, these works would ultimately remove the Absurd from real-world notions of “place.”
In The Meursault Investigation (Meursault, contre-enquête), published last week in the US, Algerian author/journalist Kamel Daoud brings relics of the Absurd back to its place of origin. But more importantly, it repurposes them to express that, while Camus’ philosophies were often apt, the true “Stranger” the author created, overlooked, and erased was the unnamed “Arab” who Absurdism’s most famous antihero shoots five times on a sunburnt beach. Daoud’s accusation is never expressly directed at Camus, but rather at Meursault — who, in The Meursault Invesigation‘s version of things, was both the author of the text and the perpetrator of the crime.
In The Stranger, the famous protagonist is a Pied-Noir — a man of European descent living in French colonial North Africa (a history, for Algeria, spanning over a century, from 1830 to 1969). His foreignness in the country in which he was born reflects his foreignness as a man who sees the world wholly from outside of its systems of faith and order — systems that attempt to distract people from a godless, apathetic universe.
But while Daoud often (though not completely) aligns himself with Camus in the abstract sense, there’s one key aspect he challenges: the idea that the Frenchman, a visitor among other visitors who were ruling the nation, would be The Stranger of this story, and could have embodied absurdity more than the “Arab” he eliminated. The proof is in the very fact that Meursault — he who became one of the famous, lauded narrators of the Absurd — never granted the “Arab” so much as a name. (The Cure even wrote a song based on the famous scene, titled, simply, “Killing an Arab”). The name Daoud gives the “Arab” — the victim, as Meursault would have it, of a man with a gun getting a bit too much sun — is Musa. Daoud’s story, which returns Absurdism to Algeria after many years abroad in stark fantasy worlds, is narrated by his brother, Harun, who reminisces on the murder in Algiers from a bar in Oran. (Daoud puts “Arab” in quotes because he sees it as generalized, denying the Berber roots of many Algerians.)
This revisitation is notable in part because after Camus, and post-World War II, absurdist traditions shifted to typically post-apocalyptic (or simply isolated) liminal spaces and domestic nightmares. Eugene Ionesco’s masterfully conceived The Chairs takes place on an island solely made up of a circular house, in which an elderly couple resides. Throughout the course of that play, the couple prepares for a party, and begins welcoming — one by one — a slew of guests who don’t exist (they are played by mere space, not by actors), until the room is crammed with no one, and until this overflow of no one sits tight, waiting for the meaning of life to be delivered to them. Once the male half of the couple feels that his very important “message” has been “delivered,” they jump to their deaths, into the sea just outside their window. Here, Ionesco uses the absurdity of the micro-environment of the circular home as a proxy for the absurdity of the globe. The formalities and pleasantries of the “party” for no one express the absurdist belief that meaning, faith, and the avoidance of death are delusions and diversions, which people expend their time on meticulously crafting and decorating until they seem real. The minimal staging in the Theatre of the Absurd reconsidered some of the philosophies propagated by Camus, but in essential, uncomplicated spaces.
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (whose set is an empty expanse with a lone tree) and Endgame (a post-apocalyptic room in which variously handicapped characters are arranged like pieces on a chessboard), Adamov’s Le Ping Pong (where the centerpiece is just a pinball machine), Arrabal’s Fando y Lis (where two lovers try to make their way to a mythical city), Albee’s The Sandbox (a sandbox that resembles a hospice), Pinter’s The Dumbwaiter (a windowless basement), and Genet’s The Balcony (a strange brothel that hosts elaborate performances mirroring societal power structures) are all examples of how the Absurd zeroed in on the ways society both adorns and represses itself to deny its very absurdity. As points of comparison, these works highlight the ways Camus’ The Stranger used its real-life setting to similar, abstract ends. Meursault doesn’t know the society in which he lives. He is removed from religion and all forms of human attachment that would lead people to want to deny death: he acknowledges the inevitability of death and thus finds happiness in not being ruled by its denial.
Algeria was thus important insomuch as the Pied-Noir had a predetermined status as Other — but the namelessness of the “Arab” proves that, at least as far as Western literary tradition and the hegemonic forces of the French minority in Algeria went, there was another fundamental character who was so dismissed, and so othered, that he didn’t even get a name.
The Meursault Investigation not only returns these sentiments to the scene of the crime, but investigates its aftermath, as Harun and his mother try to comprehend Musa’s erasure from the Earth and from text. In doing this, Daoud brings absurdist sentiments to postcolonial Algeria. His critique (through Musa’s brother) of Islamism in Algeria is likely why the book has seemingly landed the Prix Goncourt-nominated author a Facebook fatwa (yes, those exist), written by Abdelfatah Hamadache, the preacher of the Islamic Awakening Front — which asks that the Algerian state publicly execute the author.
Harun’s narration escalates in a similarly impassioned tirade against organized religion to Meursault’s in The Stranger. He declares himself relatively areligious (though not wholly atheistic — his sense of the Absurd isn’t quite as vehement as Meurasult’s), but his main gripes are with the fanatical Islamism that overwhelmed the country after it gained independence:
I realized very young that among all those who nattered on about my condition, whether angels, gods, devils or books, I was the only one who knew the sorrow and obligation of death, work and sickness. I alone pay the electric bill, I alone will be eaten by worms in the end. So get lost! And therefore I detest religions and submission. Who wants to run panting after a father who has never set foot on earth, has never had to know hunger or work for a living?
Pages later, Harun says:
I’ll go so far as to say that I abhor religions. All of them! Because they falsify the weight of the world.
Indeed, Harun finds himself becoming more and more like the man who nullified his sibling. The narration, from the beginning, distortedly echoes (but does not wholly reflect) The Stranger. (The Meursault Investigation begins with, “Mama’s still alive today,” while The Stranger famously begins with Meursault’s off-puttingly blunt, “Mama died today.”) This echoing is partially enabled by the fact that Harun, like Meursault, has killed, and as with Meursault, the victim was arbitrary, though his ethnicity was not. He was a Frenchman selected for the mere purpose of balancing the score.
This act leads Harun to the conclusion that such murder hasn’t made “a trite story of forgiveness of revenge,” but rather “a curse, a trap.” He says the only verse of the Koran that resonates with him is that which states: “If you kill a single person, it is as if you have killed the whole of mankind.” Here, the arbitrary murder connects him to Meursault, but the gravity with which he considers it separates him as a character from the ever-indifferent “antihero” of The Stranger. Musa goes so far as to give his victim a full name.
Between his disdain for postcolonial religious fervor and his disdain for Meursault — as the embodiment of colonialist dismissal, and of dismissal manifested both in physical and figurative murder — Harun notes the structural forces he thinks have brought absurdity to the contemporary Algerian condition. Meursault and, to an immeasurably greater extent, colonialism, culturally and literally voided so many Algerian experiences. Now religion, he claims, is once again turning people away from actual life. Here, Daoud reconsiders a massive literary tradition, in which a seminal work gained its venerated status among the literary West through its depiction of absurdity — one that was, he suggests, misplaced.
The absurdity of The Stranger — the absurdity that history would remember as such — was Meursault’s story. The murder of Musa was incidental — a self-contained moment whose repercussions (which actually come less from the murder of the “Arab” than society’s inability to fathom such an apathetic man as Meursault) lead Meursault to epiphanies about society. Repositioning Camus’ theory, Daoud goes back in time to aim his (slightly more impassioned) absurdist lens at the non-character of the “Arab” who died and the place that bore witness to the death in one of Absurdism’s seminal, fictional moments. The Absurd was right there, in The Stranger, he claims, but it was not Meursault’s experience so much as that which he denied the “Arab.” And life, Harun urges, is now an experience that continues to be denied through the imposition of religious fanaticism in postcolonial Algeria.