Absurdism, Albert Camus, Albert Camus’ The Outsider, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Algeria, Aspergers Syndrome, Book review., Books, Colonialism, Dialogue, Existentialism, Harun Uld el-Assas, Kamel Daoud, Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation, Literary criticism, Meursault, Nationalism, Racism
[Scene: A swelteringly hot courtroom in Algeria. Three judges, two in black and the third in scarlet, enter the courtroom and everybody promptly stands. The judge in scarlet glances around, nods, and then seats himself. Everybody promptly seats themselves in reply.]
Judge: At this time the court calls the Republic vs. the Outsider. Bring in the defendant.
[A small, damp parcel is carried into the courtroom. It is unwrapped, to reveal the guillotined head of Meursault. The head is sleek and glassy-eyed and, as soon as it is in the open air, it is seen to be frantically mouthing the word “CIGARETTE.”]
Judge: Very well. Proceed.
[A cigarette is slotted into Meursault’s mouth and lit. The head begins to doggedly puff away. Since the inhaled smoke is unable to seep out from where the head has been cut, it is immediately expelled from the mouth and ears in gigantic clouds.]
Judge: Let us hear the defendant’s opening statement.
Attorney: At the original trial, my client was subjected to a gross injustice. It seems to me, exalted members of the jury, that he was tried more for not crying at his mother’s funeral than for the unfortunate demise of Monsieur the… er… implicated party.
Prosecutor: Your honour, it is my contention that the defendant could have been fully convicted of murdering the Arab. It is just that we went with his mother for the sake of brevity. Monsieur Meursault’s guilt was as plentiful as a restaurant menu and we did not need to order every item to have enough for a meal.
Attorney: Objection, your honour! The case against my client was gratuitous in its flimsiness and it omitted numerous mitigating factors.
Prosecutor: I am amused that the defence raises the charge of flimsiness. The defendant’s “mitigating factors” are a prancing cavalcade of flimsiness. The defendant insists that he was suffering from sunstroke when the crime was committed. It is stated that he “was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull” – that he was blinded by the dazzling sunlight and the sweat pouring down his forehead – that he had soared like Icarus in his dread proximity to the sun. At the same time, he managed to kill the Arab punctually, with a single bullet. It was virtually a military execution.
Attorney: This was nothing other than extraordinarily good – I mean bad – luck.
Prosecutor: Monsieur Meursault was presented to this court as a civilian office worker, as a naïf and a beach bum. His actions nonetheless speak of a significant knowledge of weaponry – even of military training.
Attorney: This is an excessively speculative subtext. As the story lies on the page, I would posit that there is no other way that the incident on the beach could have been realistically concluded. Remember that we are considering the most iconic scene within existentialist literature, a composition of outstanding beauty and perfection. Picture my client striding through the blinding light, towards his destiny, with his pistol outstretched… and just imagine if he had missed. The whole effect would have been ruined!
Prosecutor: If the defence is maintaining that this murder was great art, they have surely conceded that it was also a murder. The guillotine was therefore the correct remedy.
Attorney: My client does not dispute the necessity of the guillotining and he is in every respect satisfied with the service. This appeal is instead querying the insolence of our society. We maintain that society was ultimately unfit to put on trial a being as splendid as my client.
Judge: In that case, since there is a consensus that the guillotining was justified [the head looks a little piqued], let us move on to consider your client’s splendour.
Prosecutor: The original verdict found Monsieur Meursault to be a monster and a freak. Today, the same finding can be reaffirmed in modern, compassionate, scientifically credible language. I wish to call my first witness, Professor Sam Shuster.
[There enters a professor of dermatology from the University of Newcastle. He takes the stand.]
Prosecutor: I gather that you have hazarded a clinical diagnosis of the defendant?
Shuster: Well, to quote my own paper, his “thoughts, words, and actions… were found to show impairment of social relationships, communication and interaction, with other traits diagnostic of the Asperger’s subgroup of the autism spectrum disorder. It was then found that [Albert] Camus had based Meursault on his close friend Galindo, and a search was therefore made for evidence of Galindo’s character; this revealed him to be an intelligent but odd person, who exhibited the characteristic impairment of social and personal behaviour of Asperger’s syndrome.”
Prosecutor: Perhaps this explains the precision killing? It is just the sort of characteristic that one would expect from a sufferer of Asperger’s, like their quick-fire maths skills.
Attorney: Camus’ friend Emmanuel Roblès wrote an essay in 1992 that aimed to show “how much Camus has given Meursault of his own substance.” His assumption was clearly that 90 per cent of Meursault was Camus. So why, Professor Shuster, do you hone in instead on Galindo?
Shuster: As my study notes, Galindo’s “physicality could become aggressive, and an incident on a beach, involving some Arab men, and a knife and gun, became an essential element of L’étranger. Galindo’s mixture of intelligence with behavioural oddities, emotional coldness, poor social communication, with lack of social grace, inability to converse and mix socially fits well with the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, as does his aggressivity.”
Judge: I dare say that you mean aggression.
Attorney: It appears that you have decided from the beginning that my client is suffering from Asperger’s and you have consequently chalked up every discrepancy in his behaviour to this condition. For example, you attach significance to that mental game in which he successively visualises every item in his bedroom, even though anybody who was left alone in a prison cell for days would doubtless end up conducting similar exercises. You linger over those scenes when he generates mild social awkwardness, and skip those, such as in his interactions with Salamano and Raymond, when he does not set off any alarms. You say nothing about his wry observations of a woman who resembles a “queer little robot” and who he otherwise regards as one would a sufferer of Asperger’s.
Shuster: Admittedly, my paper does not cover this.
Prosecutor: Does he not join forces with this lady? He eats alongside her, in one noticeable displacement, on an evening when he is meant to be dining with his girlfriend Marie…
Attorney: Furthermore, Professor Shuster, your study is undermined by one’s inevitable feeling that its conclusions could have been reached only today. Your study all too clearly reflects the prejudices of the current historical moment or even of just what is presently in intellectual fashion. When people wanted to be free in the 1960s, my client was widely admired as a freedom-fighter. Now that we live in a period when the importance of human agency is disputed – when individual freedoms are being constantly questioned and qualified – my client’s behaviour is viewed as being determined by something other than his own volition. And are you not weirdly disconnected from Camus’ aesthetic? Whatever autistic people are – whether they are victims or free agents – they are not stylish! My client is a glamorous poster boy for human freedom. There is always a cigarette in his mouth – what could be more stylish? He likes to cavort on the beach with his bombshell girlfriend – what could be more stylish? My client is the lone ranger – the rebel without a cause – the only one who does not, in Camus’ own words, “play the game.”
Prosecutor: Today, practically every idiot in the media and the arts is the Outsider. Hardly anybody will play the game, which is why we live in a selfish, atomised society with no cohesion. If you wish for the scales to fall from your eyes, look not at your client’s ostensible stylishness but at the incongruity that occurs when he is withdrawn in the aftermath of the Arab’s killing. It surely points to a weakness in his character’s design that we cannot imagine what he would do or how he would behave at this point in the story. I cannot imagine him trying to administer first aid to the Arab or phoning for an ambulance.
Attorney: Well, I for my part cannot imagine him mutilating the Arab’s body or gnawing on his flesh.
Prosecutor: A fatal weight is being placed on the character here. If we could witness the Outsider in the vicinity of the body, we would recognise how dysfunctional his behaviour actually is. So he is strategically removed. It is in this moment that we can detect the sleight of hand that conceals a damaged man and superimposes your glamorous rebel over him.
Shuster: I am conscious that I am a disenchanter. As I say in my submission, “L’étranger is not the novel it once seemed, now that we know it was powered by Meursault’s behavioral disorder…” Yet doesn’t my discovery come with aspects so exciting that they potentially compensate for knocking some of the previous style off Camus’ novel? I argue that, “whilst… Camus cannot take priority for the discovery of Asperger’s syndrome, perhaps we should give him credit as the syndrome’s covert co-creator.”
Attorney: The Outsider is a feat of literature, not of clinical diagnosis! The idea that any great literary character is modelled upon a single real-life person is a recognisable hallmark of cod literary criticism. This fails to understand or refuses to acknowledge what an author in fact is, instead explaining away all of their imaginative power as a mere, tawdry copying from life. I suspect that the majority of readers would be shocked to learn that my client is in any respect a portrait. I had myself assumed that he was some kind of speculative psychological experiment. I had assumed that Camus had playfully subtracted various behaviours from a standard human ego to see what would happen. There has never been a psychology like my client’s in all of human history. He is like the first photograph of a sunny Martian morning – everything is familiar and yet eerily unreal and futuristic.
Prosecutor: But we are unable to break through the photograph and breathe in the Martian atmosphere. We have such a struggle to process Monsieur Meursault for what he obviously is – an autistic man – because we are inclined to paper over what is missing with useable materials that are donated from ourselves.
Attorney: You speak with such distaste that it is as though we are anthropomorphising a cat or a dog. Do we not also rejoice to spy something of ourselves within such a thrilling character? Meursault is like a purification of ourselves, a distillation of our normal fusspot personalities into something rich and potent. He is the part of us who sleepwalks – the no-nonsense, animalistic…
Judge: This is a suitable juncture to dispense with Professor Shuster and call the prosecution’s second witness.
Prosecutor: I call Harun Uld el-Assas.
Prosecutor: You make the claim, sir, that your brother, Musa, is the Arab who was killed by Monsieur Meursault?
[The guillotined head wears an unreadable expression.]
Harun: Ha ha! Oh, what a joke! After a nation’s lifetime of invisibility, after years of not being even the Other or the Stranger but just his spectre, I am at last summoned to this court as, well, as what, gentlemen? A footnote? A living, walking footnote to your trial transcript? Oh my friends, I am not bitter, oh no. I have learned to smile through the…
Judge: Order! The witness will desist from rambling. Answers will be concise and to the point.
Prosecutor: Objection, your honour. The Meursault Investigation is the climax of all available postcolonial wit. Its prose is fresh and…
Harun: The word “rambling” does recur somewhat in my narrative.
Attorney: I find this witness to be annoyingly zany. This is the same sparkling-native postcolonial narration that litters Salman Rushdie’s fiction. The witness is sad, bombastic, fruity, and endlessly chatty. Isn’t it maddening, his irrepressible prose? Like a bazaar stall that is overflowing with tat.
Prosecutor [looking at his notes]: Hmph, isn’t this narrative meant to be structured on the voice of Jean-Baptiste Clamence in Camus’s 1956 novel The Fall? And is there not this amazing, unprecedented sense of a once solemn book being forced to unexpectedly get to its feet and dance with an energetic young partner? One had assumed that L’étranger was an isolated masterpiece. Suddenly, it is clarified as a mere half or, if we are being Hegelian, a thesis. Of course, the name of Musa had been there all the time, contained anagrammatically within that of Meursault’s.
Attorney: This conveys how The Meursault Investigation is essentially the rescrambled rump of The Outsider. Camus had authored a brilliant satire on colonialism, in which my client wreaks violence on the colonised peoples but he is put on trial only for separately offending the colonisers. Daoud merely makes crudely explicit what is artfully implied. Indeed, it is only possible to read Daoud’s book directly after reading Camus’s. It is not so much a sequel as a secessionary subtext! This is exactly the same as ruining a book by transforming it into a lacklustre film, with its characters being given the wrong faces and impertinent liberties being taken with the original story.
Prosecutor: You miss the beauty of the secessionary implications. This book can never be truly independent, mirroring the tragedy of the post-colonial society that has produced it.
Attorney: Although The Meursault Investigation is not technically an allegory it has all the infuriating fakeness of one. You are constantly connecting the dots in the witness’s narrative with those in my client’s: a sort of geometry in which realism becomes increasingly untenable. It is hardly realistic that anybody would work themselves up into such a state that their life becomes a laborious, multifaceted replica of those of some literary characters. Why does not Daoud stop at an essay?
Prosecutor: L’étranger can be completed only by using fiction, just as a ruinous, unstable building cannot be redressed with a mere drawing. You state that The Meursault Investigation is already fully contained within L’étranger and that Daoud is guilty of killing a joke by explaining it. Camus nevertheless takes way too much of a liberty with his joke. He has authored a magnum opus of Algerian literature in which the only heart-of-hearts Algerian character is left pointedly nameless. People can be hardly expected to put up with this! It is more naïve than the behaviour of Meursault himself!
Attorney: Humourlessness is ultimately what the reader of The Meursault Investigation is repaid in for their labour. Absurdism, rather than being the universal achievement of modernity, is now shrunk to a mere local pettiness, an intellectual adjunct of colonial propaganda. It is given junk status, in other words.
Prosecutor: We are compensated with some dazzling ironies and game playing. This marvellous wizardry brings up some beautifully enjoyable lines. For example, when Harun says… Well, since you are here, what do you say about Meursault?
Harun: That “about the murderer we knew nothing. He was el-roumi, the foreigner, the stranger. People in the neighbourhood showed my mother his picture in the newspaper, but for us he was the spitting image of all the colonists who’d grown fat on so many stolen harvests.”
Attorney: This is trite and reductive. It devalues my client’s pioneering individualism by drearily maintaining that he was always a part of the society that he was rebelling against, whether he likes it or not. Even if he was guillotined by the same society for insubordination!
Prosecutor: He has murdered a man! The kind of civilisation where it would be possible to walk away from such an action would be a horrific dystopia. And, ridiculously, Meursault’s implied perfect society involves mixing supposedly raw truths with his cheap, rebel-without-a-cause Hollywood posturing. Back in the real world, if there was no Arab and no killing then we would be in exquisite discomfort when trying to read The Outsider. If we held no knowledge of Algeria we would assume that this book was set in a white, French-speaking country and that the Arabs were an inconsequential ethnic minority. We are given the impression that your client’s society is entirely normal and that it lives as naturally as the birds do and that there is no question mark over its long-term viability. Imagine an innovative, avant-garde novel from 1960s South Africa that made no reference to apartheid or showed no awareness of its inevitable apocalypse!
Attorney: The Arabs, and indeed the blacks under apartheid, are so deprived because they cannot achieve the freedom in which one can kill a stranger on a beach. Their tragedy is that they are marooned on a lower-level, where all of their disobedience is rendered entirely rational, a response that is anticipated by society and incorporated into it.
Prosecutor: The defendant does not kill a stranger. He kills an Arab on a beach that Arabs were forbidden from accessing. And if the man on the beach had been white…
Harun: There you go again. Force of habit, I know, but you just need to reach a little further into the darkness for that slippery, elusive…
Prosecutor: This witness’ entire world is tantamount to Meursault’s unconscious. Everyone who Harun knows is squatting down there, in rows, in the bottom of the back of Meursault’s mind.
Harun: Once, when I was lying in my courtyard, “I remember seeing yet more stars in the sky, and I knew I was trapped in a bigger dream, a more gigantic denial, that of another being who always kept his eyes closed and didn’t want to see anything, like me.”
Attorney: Who exactly, though, is the dreamer? We might be shocked by the sheer relief that can be gained from re-reading The Meursault Investigation literally. Monsieur Uld el-Assas, I put it to you that you are a paranoid obsessive.
Harun: Ah, I fear that we are wandering into speculation…
Attorney: You never retrieve Musa’s body. The confirmation that Musa is the same man as Meursault’s unnamed victim is always excruciatingly postponed and this is your narrative’s sticking-point. From here, it is a short step to theorising that Musa had never existed in the first place. I can picture you stumbling upon my client one day and modelling yourself on his glamorous behaviour. In being an Arab, however, your over-identification with my client was countermanded by the impossibility of you ever being as cool and as crisp as he is. Hence your neurotic implosion. Musa represents the Arab selfhood that has to be amputated from your ego in order for you to be like my client and even then you cannot stomach the fratricide. Your mother shares in this folie à deux, in that she can never count a Meursault as her son. Alternatively, your brother could be a real person who has fled Algeria for a better life in Europe. In grappling with Musa’s rejection of your culture – a culture that you are forced to remain in – you create the consoling fantasy that he was murdered by Europe rather than being freed by it.
Harun: There is not a dot of evidence for this in the text.
Prosecutor: Indeed, you had previously complained about the lack of realism in The Meursault Investigation. Now, its geometric brittleness is being balanced out by realistic discrepancies.
Judge: If I may here offer a little direction to the jury, I would ask them to reflect on whether Camus and the defendant are truly synonymous. I would ask the jury how they can reconcile two of Camus’s most infamous statements. The first is the otherworldly “Maman died today” of his character; the second is his own worrisome “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Is The Outsider roomy enough to encompass a wholesale repudiation of its own hero’s anti-social, anti-political irresponsibility? Does this book demonstrate that you cannot ultimately stand apart from society, like a man alone and dry on a beach, aside from all surging activity, because a stray wave will end up snatching you in? Does this book not condemn both the hypocrisy of the society that had guillotined Meursault and the passivity that makes him consent to his guillotining?
[The jury are all writing notes.]
Is the defendant just an interesting one-off? An isolated martyr who we can never realistically emulate?
[The jury write faster and thicker.]
I would also ask the jury to reflect on whether Monsieur Uld el-Assas and Monsieur Meursault are in fact fellow, landless exiles. Meursault is a pied noir, with no place in Algeria or France; Harun is not an Islamist, not the voice of the Arab street, and he guzzles alcohol. Are not both throwbacks – some ghostly essence of a quainter sensibility? Had an Islamist narrated The Meursault Investigation, would he have just wilted and shrivelled up before the glamorous freedom of Meursault? Now, let us hear the third and final witness.
Prosecutor: I call Monsieur Salamano. [A dejected little pensioner shuffles up to the stand.] Monsieur, I put it to you that you are the kingpin of this whole story. You failed to woo Meursault’s mother and become a symbolic father figure to him, instead contenting yourself with the company of a mangy dog. It is you who is the absentee patriarch in the whole of this absurdist world!
[There is suddenly an animated barking from the back of the courtroom.]
Salamano: Eh, is that my dog?
[A ratty little dog runs darting up to the guillotined head, it grabs it by the hair, and then bolts out of the courtroom.]
Judge: Order! Order, in the court!
Prosecutor: The defendant is escaping!
Attorney: No, he has been kidnapped!
[There is general confusion and dismay.]