Though largely ignored in British literary circles this first novel by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud has created a sensation in France, won prizes, is a best seller, been translated into 17 languages and the film of it is to be released in 2017. The conceit is the brother of the Arab killed in Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Outsider) narrates his story. It’s therefore set in Algeria between 1942 and the present day. The conceit is powerful but for certain reasons it does not translate itself into a wholly satisfying novel.
You can have unreliable narrators but Harun is a self-confessed rambling one. The novel does not develop chronologically. Events happen, characters enter his story out of time sequence. The narrator seems to be telling his story to you the reader in a bar and adopts an over-familiar similar style in so doing which I found irritating. Finally it’s either badly translated or not written that well as the prose is often clunky.
It’s most interesting when it revisits the Camus novel. I have not read this for many years and it nay haven sensible to do so. Much is made of the fact that the murdered Arab is given no name and no sympathy. The narrator here commits a murder for which he feels no remorse and just Meursault is held culpable for the tepid reaction to his mother ‘s deaths so the narrator is criticised more for failing to join the rebellion against the French.
Rather like Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, I suspect Daoud ticks the right cultural boxes and French readers are only too eager to have another and different take on one of their most esteemed novels. I learned quite a bit about Algeria which is not surprising as the author is a journalist but less than in Laila Lallami’s Secret Son on Morocco. I regard Laila Lallami highly, her latest novel The Moor’s Account covers the exploits of a Moroccan explorer Estevanico of the Americas in 1527. I heard her interviewed on the BBC’s Front Row and she had an American accent which is not surprising as she went to the University of Southern California and lives there. It’s rather sad that young African writers like her, Chimanda Agiche and Chika Unigwe leave their native Africa for the universities of the United States and reside there.
As for Daoud, it’s diffcult to see where he will go from here. There is no sequel to the Meursault Investigation and I felt he needed the peg of another novel on which to hang his. Perhaps like Charlotte Bronte and until recently Harper Lee he will be a one book wonder.