One of the great pleasures of this year for me was the last volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, The Story of the Lost Child. It’s not to be read on its own, though — you’ve got to devour the other three books first. Ferrante builds her rich and textured world over time, and this last volume would not, I think, truly make sense without the others. I also highly recommend the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s response to Albert Camus’s The Stranger: entitled The Meursault Investigation, it retells the iconic story from an Algerian’s perspective, and gives us a view of contemporary Algerian life in the bargain. The Sympathizer, a terrific first novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, was another of my year’s discoveries: narrated by a Vietnamese double-agent who ends up in the United States, the book is rich, surprising, and often darkly funny. And last, but by no means least, while helping my teenage daughter to find some great books she might enjoy, I’ve had the joy of rediscovering some old favorites, including Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and — delicious, always inappropriate, and oddly perspicacious – André Gide’s The Counterfeiters.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well:
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (You Can’t Lie in Fiction: An Interview with Kevin Barry, You Must Read Kevin Barry, A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Hinge of History: Nine Books for the Post-Ferguson Era)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (The Opening Lines of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, I’ve Rarely Felt So Free: The Millions Interviews Garth Risk Hallberg, Garth at The Millions)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector (A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (A Happy Sort of Pessimism: The Millions Interviews James Hannaham)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Exclusive First Look: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July (A Box of Powerful Things: The Millions Interviews Miranda July)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (The Audacity of Prose, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam (Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction)
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson (A Blacker Shade of Pale: On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day)
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (The Book Report: Episode 30)
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (A Heightened State of Emotion: The Millions Interviews Mary Gaitskill)
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (The Crime of Life: On Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation)
Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Elena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the Minotaur, Outside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena Ferrante)
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Tricks and Lies: On Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth)
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, The Tortoise, Not the Hare: The Millions Interviews Angela Flournoy)
Over at McSweeney’s, Sarah Solomon has undertaken the Sisyphean task of bringing existentialism into the twenty-first century. In a series of brief vignettes, Solomon gives the oft-maligned Millennial generation the existentialist makeover they never asked for. Continue your study of the absolute indifference of the universe with this essay by Zach Pontz on The Meursault Investigation, a new novel by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud that imagines Albert Camus’s famous The Stranger from the perspective of the unnamed Arab antagonists.
Since publishing his debut novel, The Meursault Investigation, in his home country in 2013, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud has been accused of much, but being unambitious is not among the many charges.
That’s what happens when you take as your inspiration Albert Camus’s 1942 absurdist masterpiece, The Stranger, and craft a complex and clever piece of storytelling that operates on multiple levels, simultaneously acting as a personal confession and an indictment of present-day Algeria.
Camus, the French Nobel-Prize winner, took the literary world by storm with his debut novel in 1942. It told the story of a detached French Algerian, Meursault, who kills an Arab on a beach for no apparent reason other than sun and sweat clogging his eyes. Meursault’s later conviction is based largely on the judgment of his character, including his inability to exhibit emotion following his mother’s death — or any emotion at all, really — rather than on the fact that he committed the crime.
Daoud’s novel has had something of the same rousing effect as Camus’s — written in French, it’s sold 100,000 copies in France alone. Taking as his novel’s main conceit that The Stranger is a true story, and that Meursault is its author, The Meursault Investigation tells the story from the perspective of the brother of the Arab murdered by Meursault.
The brother, Harun, now an octogenarian, shares many similarities with Meursault, even acknowledging as much during the course of the novel, which is really one long monologue in the style of Camus’s The Fall. “I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double.” Here is what he sees: Two men driven to murder, two men haunted by their mothers, and two men who approach religion with disdain.
But the two do diverge.
For one thing, Meursault and Harun are moving in quite opposite directions.
Meursault has divorced himself from history, has, as he tells the investigator tasked with questioning him following his crime, given up analyzing himself. Assigning meaning to the world is something he has lost the energy to do.
Harun, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to impose form on a lifetime of quasi-intelligible incidents, the foremost of which is the murder of his brother and its aftermath, which has sentenced its victims — Musa, Harun, their mother — to anonymity.
“There’s not a trace of our loss or of what became of us afterward,” Harun tells his interlocutor. “The whole world eternally witnesses the same murder in the blazing sun, but no one saw anything, and no one watched us recede into the distance.”
If Meursault is the stranger, Harun’s brother is the invisible man. But the tragedy here is that Harun understands he can’t will his brother into being, that he’s forever been written out of history by Meursault, in whose book “The word ‘Arab’ appears twenty-five times but not a single name, not once.”
In this way does Daoud, a popular columnist in Algeria who has become a vocal critic of the government, set up one of his main theses: that both the French colonial system, the French Algerian population of which (known as pied-noirs) populated Algeria for a century and a half, and Algerians themselves are complicit in the country’s current state of affairs.
As Daoud sees it, the Arab continues, in a way, to be shot over and over again on that same beach, sentenced to a posthumous anonymity, but instead of Meursault being at fault, today it is by his own hand. As he explained in The New York Times, the current Algerian government uses French colonialism as a fear tactic, and has turned Algeria into a “typical” Arab country operating under the control of “a de facto dictatorship with Islamists, oil, a vast desert, a few camels and soldiers, and women who suffer.”
It is important to note that Algeria did not partake in the Arab Spring. Maybe it’s the fact that two devastating, and devastatingly long, wars wracked the country over the last 60 years — the Algerian War of Independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, and the Algerian Civil War, which lasted most of the 1990s and left tens of thousands of people dead. Whatever the case, as Daoud noted in an essay in Guernica in 2011, while Algerians are often outspoken individuals, the last time there was anything like a national will was 20 years ago.
All of this carries deeper resonance when one considers how this atmosphere has impacted Daoud, who had a fatwa placed on his head by a little known imam last year.
In an absurd twist both Camus and Daoud could admire, The New York Times reported it wasn’t even clear what the fatwa was for, whether it stemmed from “Mr. Daoud’s outspoken television appearances abroad or his novel’s character, who rebukes a neighborhood imam. Or perhaps both.”
What was clear was that a religious figure in the country thought Daoud’s words worthy of death and a threat towards him socially acceptable. And he was right; authorities were nonplussed by the incident.
Harun’s final act is certainly provocative, heretical even. It echoes The Stranger’s own denouement, in which Meursault denounces God as a waste of time, and life as meaningless. But even more than that, Daoud’s narrator, while recounting his story, is also recounting that of his homeland, one that has taken a few bullets of its own in the last half century.
As in The Stranger, where no Arab is ever addressed by name, so too do Algerians of today operate nameless in the shadow of their rulers. And just like Harun, just like Meursault, they’ve come to recognize the absurdity of their predicament and, instead of rising up, have capitulated to the crime of life.
Harun knows that his time is running out. He’s come to terms with this, inasmuch as he can. The real question is what lies in store for his country.