Camus. FLN. Carthage.

A few things spring to mind at the mention of Algeria, and I'd venture that these won't be too different for most people, especially those of us from colonies that became independent not too long ago. But where do these come from and what do they tell us about the country?

Take Camus. There is no denying that he is French-Algerian and wrote some of the most influential books of the last century. But Albert Camus's Algeria is not likely to be too different from say, Kipling's India. (The conspiracy theorist in me notes that these two men were the two youngest recipients of the Literature Nobel.)

Take FLN. Who can forget the enduring works of Frantz Fanon and the legacy of Algeria's nationalist movement outside its home? Well, almost everyone. It is thanks to the Italian film The Battle of Algiers and its outstanding score that the image of Jean Martin marching through Algiers remains second only to Che T-shirts in terms of pop culture popularity.

As for Carthage, even our ancient sources are Greek and Roman. The Carthaginians, who from their city state near current-day Tunis ruled most of the Algerian coast, were one of few peoples that the Romans had no intention of extending their legendary inclusiveness towards. They relished razing Carthaginian cities to the ground.

In this context where the story of the country has almost always been told by outsiders, it is not surprising that the story of Meursault's Arab victim, the one he kills in Camus's L'Etranger (The Outsider / The Stranger) for no good reason whatsoever, needs to be told, and needs to be told by a native voice. Kamel Daoud is the man for the job.

His debut novel, The Meursault Investigation, translated from its original French by John Cullen, is not only the story of the nameless Arab in Camus’s novel but is also an impassioned take on what it means to be a secular Algerian in our times. The book garnered superlative reviews and won several international awards, promptly after which, a local cleric in Algeria called for Daoud's public execution.

More recently, Daoud has been in the midst of a storm following two provocative op-eds in Le Monde and the New York Times and as a result, now occupies a spot in the spectrum somewhere between Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the eyes of (mostly) Western liberals – but that's a story for another time.

What Camus wrote

Daoud's narrator in the novel, an old man called Harun, often recaps the story of the the book he is attempting to re-tell. So let’s recap the story of L'Etranger as we know it. Meursault, a young French- Algerian, shoots an Arab man on a beach in French Algiers in 1942. This is sometime after his mother's funeral. He is incarcerated, and is sentenced to death after the prosecutor successfully makes the case that he is a soulless monster. As he awaits his execution, Meursault nearly assaults a chaplain, explaining to him god is a waste of time, and then ruminates on the meaningless of existence and the absurdity of it all.

The Meursault Investigation is the story of this nameless Arab. Harun claims it was his brother Musa, though it is not clear whether one can believe him. The setting is a bar in contemporary Oran, where the narrator professes to tell his story to a young student who has managed to track him down. But what exactly is the story he wants to re-tell? Here, in Harun's words, one of his many recaps:

“A man who knows how to write kills an Arab who, on the day he dies, doesn't even have a name, as if he'd hung it on a nail somewhere before stepping onto the stage. Then the man begins to explain that his act was the fault of a god who doesn't exist and he did it because of what he'd just realised in the sun and because the sea salt obliged him to shut his eyes. All of a sudden, the murder is a deed committed with absolute impunity and wasn't a crime anyway because there is no name between noon and two o'clock, between him and Zujj, between Meursault and Musa. And for seventy years now, everyone has joined in to disappear the victim's body and turn the place where the murder was committed into an intangible museum.”

As is evident from this recap, the story Harun is trying to re-tell is not the story within L'Etranger; he is instead re-telling the story of the book itself. Throughout the novel, Daoud doesn't make a distinction between the author and the hero. They are merged into one character, referred to as the hero-writer. Harun's repetitive and tangential narration always circles back to the beach in Algiers where Musa was killed by a man who later became a hero because he could write about it so precisely and beautifully. In that sense, the book is more a Meursault-Camus investigation.

In Harun's version of the truth, Musa leaves home one day saying he will be back early, but he does not return, and the corpse is never found. Harun and his mother, broken-hearted, leave Algiers not long after for the village of Hadjout, the same village where Meursault's mother used to be confined in an institution before her death. Harun has never lived in Algiers since leaving it after Musa's death but the geography is irrelevant in this story. He says:

“Don't do any geographical searching – that's the point I am trying to make.

You'll get a better grasp of my version of the facts if you accept that this story is like an origin myth: Cain comes here to build cities and roads, to domesticate people and soil and plants. Zujj is the poor relative, loafing in the sunshine, his whole attitude so lazy it's evident he owns nothing, not even a flock of sheep, that could arouse envy or motivate murder. In a certain way, your Cain killed my brother for...nothing! Not even for his livestock”.

Another outsider emerges

Mother and son are haunted by Musa's death until one day in 1962, in the tumultuous days leading up to independence, Harun, silently egged on by his mother, kills a Frenchman for no particular reason. They bury him under the lemon tree. Harun is careful to point out that he fired only two shots to Meursault's five, and unlike Meursault, he actually names the Frenchman.

Harun is soon arrested in a scene not dissimilar to the one where Meursault is arrested in L'Etranger, and this serves as a turning point in his confessional. After page after page of rebuking the hero-writer for not naming the Arab, this is the point at which Harun starts identifying himself more with Meursault than with his victim.

Meursault was convicted not for murdering Musa, but for not crying at his mother's funeral; Harun is arrested not for the murder of a Frenchman, but for not joining the insurgents during the freedom struggle. He is interrogated not because he killed the man, but because he didn’t kill him on the right day or at the right time – ie before independence, along with the nationalists. Both Meursault and Harun are different from the rest; they refuse to “play the game”, and hence ostracised.

Unlike Meursault, Harun is set free to live out his life and ruminate on the course his country took after the French left in 1962. This section of the book is the most provocative as it moves beyond Musa's death, and the full force of Harun's polemic now falls on his own countrymen, and the fundamentalism he sees them espouse. Harun talks of Meriem, a young teacher who walks into his home one day with a copy of the hero's book and with whom he falls hopelessly in love with.

Harun, according to his own admission, is an unreliable narrator and whether Meriem is real or not is left to the reader to decipher. What she certainly is, however, is just what contemporary Algeria, in Harun / Daoud's mind, does not value or tolerate – a free young woman with short hair out on her own in the country on her own terms, with a copy of L'Etranger.

In the final section, Daoud takes a number of lines from the original, especially from Meursault's confrontation with the chaplain, and uses them to make similar points about the non-existence of god, the problems of being different, and the intransigence of priests. But in this case, in our times, there is nothing absurd about any of it.

Daoud has seemingly effortlessly written a narrative that is at once a rebuke and a tribute to Camus; not just in form but also in what it has to say about the world he lives in and, dare I say, the world we live in.

Veena Muthuraman’s short story collection, A Place of No Importance, has been published by Juggernaut Books. She lives in Edinburgh and is working on her first novel.