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Three Books in Three Days (2): Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

UnknownDay Two of Thoughtful B’s three-day book marathon brings us The Meursault Investigation by Algerian author Kamel Daoud. This is a rich and thought-provoking work that invites a second reading. Translated from the French by John Cullen, it is both a novel of ideas and a generous depiction of human complexity. It’s intended as a riff on Albert Camus’ The Stranger — the classic novel set in colonial Algeria in which a Frenchman (Meursault), apparently estranged from social mores, defies convention by failing to mourn his mother’s death. Later, for the flimsiest of reasons, he murders an Arab.

Daoud’s book gives Meursault’s victim a name — Musa — and a younger brother — Harun — who, seventy years later, still grieves both his brother’s loss and the man’s anonymity. Speaking in the first person, Harun reminds us that Musa has been written out of history, while his killer, Meursault, was made famous by one of the twentieth century’s best-known books. By bringing that unfortunate Arab to life, Daoud confronts the effects of French colonialism in Algeria. (At the same time, he nails those of us who were more intrigued by the moral questions in Camus’ novel than by the fate of its Algerian victim).

Yet Harun has other grievances, including religious extremism and it is here that we see the first hint of his resemblance to Camus’ character, the atheist Meursault. That similarity grows; it’s not a spoiler to disclose that days after the liberation of Algeria from the French, Harun murders a Frenchman — and is rebuked by the authorities for failing to kill in the context of the war of liberation. Just as Meursault felt condemned as much for his failure to grieve his mother’s death as for the murder, Harun bears criticism for poor timing rather than for taking life.

There’s a wonderful alchemy at work here. Like two images fusing into one, the two fictional characters — Harun and Meursault — gradually merge into a composite picture of human frailty. Harun comes to understand that he — and by inference, everyone — mirrors Meursault in such moments of indifferent cruelty. His honesty in the face of so much sorrow, regret and pain embraces both Camus’ moral intentions and Meursault’s truthfulness. To Camus’ rather clinical precision, Daoud adds warmth and passion to his flesh-and-blood character of Harun/Meursault.

A worthy companion to Camus’ The Stranger, this is a novel of great humanity, addressing both the inner life of a human soul and the troubled state of our world.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen, is published by Other Press (New York, 2015).

Tomorrow: An Imperfect Man by John Calabro

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Summer Reading: (3) The Man In The High Castle

No doubt you’ve had the experience of reading a highly-rated book that just didn’t work for you. That happened to me many years back when Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle ended up in my eager hands.   I read this  brilliant novel of alternate history and drew a blank. Prepared for a bizarre thriller, I was mystified by the odd intricacy of what I was reading. Yet I sensed that the problem lay in my own view of how a novel should unfold — plotting, characters, climax and resolution — rather than with the author’s elusive and complex reflections on the truth. So a few months ago, in an act of ritual renewal, I purchased an unneeded brand-new copy of the novel and set out to read it once again.

High Castle is stunning, one of those rare books that still has the power to shock us. Published fifty years ago, it describes a world in which Japan and Germany are the victors in the Second World War. The U.S. has been divided into the Pacific States of America (ruled by the more civilized Japanese) while the East Coast is dominated by Nazi Germany (“All we get in New York is heavy German bombastic Wagner…” says one character, apparently nostalgic for a good Broadway musical). Slavery has returned to the South, Germany dominates outer space, Africa no longer exists (“that huge empty ruin”) and a cold war pits the victors, Germany and Japan, against each other. Fears and horrors long put to rest will stalk your psyche once again as you read (reminding me of the prophesy of the rats’ return at the end of Albert Camus’ The Plague). Yet life has adjusted to the status quo, and what we see is the bland, workaday routine of West Coast society — enough like our own to disturb us.

The book’s title refers to a man named Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of a popular underground novel (The Grasshopper Lies Heavy) which provides a disorienting story-within-a-story — an alternate history in which the Allies win the war through a series of events that is not quite true to historical fact (all facts being rather slippery in this fictional context). This inner story belongs to the multiple-mirrors complexity that structures this book, a disturbing confusion of realities and falsehoods. The book abounds with deceptions; the antique dealer Robert Childan understands that much of what he sells to his Japanese overlords (hungry for “American culture”) is counterfeit; secret agents with false personae inhabit the story, including Frank Frink, a Jewish man disguised as a Gentile and fearing deportation and death; a judo instructor, Juliana, who becomes sexually involved with Joe, an alleged Italian war vet who’s in fact a Swiss assassin out to kill the novelist Abendsen; the latter, for his own safety, creating the deception that he lives in a fortified dwelling. Picking apart the strands of truth and falsehood is a provocative challenge for the reader.

Apart from the author’s intellectual acumen, it’s wonderful to read work written with such technical skill. Dick moves in and out of the minds of his characters with voices that range from sarcastic (“Work the sentences, if you wish, so that they will mean something,” says Mr. Tagomi to his secretary. “Or so that they mean nothing. Whichever you prefer.”) to English renditions of beginner’s Japanese  (“I hear it on many lips,” says Childan to his Japanese host regarding the underground novel, “but pressure of business prevents my own attention.”)  A delicious element of satire is never far from the surface (try not to laugh — however ruefully — at the fawning responses to the selection of a new German dictator).

Yet Dick’s alternate history functions as a kind of twisted metaphor. It is of course, untrue that the Axis powers won the Second World War, yet in fictional terms, the alternate history within the novel which describes an Allied victory is no less untrue. Truth — whatever it may be — may depend on which side of the looking-glass we stand. In a world of illusion, Dick does not allow us crisp, tight-knit conclusions. As a younger reader, I think I must have found this distressing.

High Castle is a novel of ideas with a fascinating story as the pages turn. Yet one read — or re-read — won’t do it. The book is packed with nuance and insight. If you’ve read it already, go back and read it again. And again.

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Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle won the Hugo Award in 1963. This edition was published in New York by Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in 2011.

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