KAMEL DAOUD IS the author of The Meursault survey, first published in France in 2014 and here in the United States a year later, earning it acclaimed international reviews including the Prix Goncourt and rave reviews and reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times. The novel, a response to that of Albert Camus The foreigner, in which the antihero Meursault shoots an anonymous Arab on a beach, is told from the point of view of the younger brother of the murder victim of Meursault: for the first time, the Arab on the beach has a name, a family and a story. The second half of the story portrays the social and political crisis of contemporary Algeria, with its ongoing power changes and major ruptures during periods of government and regional control by the Islamists. Translator Elisabeth Zerofsky rightly notes: “As Orhan Pamuk did for Istanbul, Aleksandar Hemon did for Sarajevo, so this writer can intimately present to Americans a place that remains. […] totally unknown to them. The Meursault survey can be read as a kind of heart cry: Algerian lives matter.
It is thanks to the success of his fiction debut that we now have Daoud’s seething collection of columns, Chronicles, written between 2010 and 2016. The title is not translated from the French version to the English version, because the word “chronicle” can be translated as “column”, but also because it suggests “chronology” and “chronology “. These essays were written before, during and after the Arab Spring, during which Algeria saw dictators come and go with little change in its own political machinations. Subsequent articles discuss what it means to be French and Algerian following the Paris attacks in 2015, and confront the fatwa that Salafist Imam Haladache placed on Daoud’s head via Facebook, for “apostasy”.
While many columns have been written for the Algerian newspaper The Daily of Oran, and in response to a specific time or event – such as the deposition of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, or the first photos posted online of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (here one of the cutting-edge headlines of Daoud: “Want to to Become a Rolex Caliph?”) – others read more like the flash non-fiction we find in literary journals. See the opening column, “Decolonizing the Body, Language and the Sea”, dated July 17, 2010, in which Daoud writes a multi-level story that flattens out against a postcolonial French horizon:
The columnist remembers his notebooks as one remembers an illness […] [There’s] nothing [in there] on what is in me which is Roman, Amazigh, Ottoman, Spanish or French and Arabic […] Why must I experience my story as a skin disease, or as a kind of prehistoric guilt, when it is a huge, magnificent tree, more than enough to give me an address?
It is also interesting to note Daoud’s astute narrative awareness of the limited understanding of the world of contemporary Algeria. Many know that it was a former French colony. Some know there was a revolution some time after WWII, which ended French colonization – and others know that in 2003 the Pentagon screened the film. The battle of Algiers (partly for its description of the French government’s torture of Algerians during the Algerian War) as a sort of CliffsNotes on how the United States might approach Iraq. We may have heard of Islamic extremism and of Algeria as a site for the development of jihadist groups. But what about the rest? The people, the food, the music and the architecture? Landscape, schools, work? Much of the world knows next to nothing about everyday Algeria. Daoud’s columns at the start of 2010 are interwoven with references to everyday life: the juxtaposition of mosques alongside churches and synagogues; Fast food; and the harragas (people fleeing Algeria on rafts and boats across the Mediterranean) are woven into his meditations.
But as we move into the second half of 2010 – the six months before the onset of the Arab Spring – its chronicles take on a global turn, and the tone becomes even more urgent. There are other meditations on the central question in The Meursault survey: Algerian social identity as an existential crisis. On September 3, in a reflection on the violence that occurred in Algeria during the Ramadan celebrations of that year, Daoud reflected on the subjectivity of the truth: “[F]undamentalism is an affliction of truth, and truth is an affliction of scientific correctness […] there are a lot of people who pray, but hardly any who follow the rule against smoking, even in the newspapers. On October 3, in “Why I am going to be president of my country”, he wrote: “To have a house, a tree, a good salary, a little respect in government offices and the right to speak on television, you need not only a residence but a country […] I will be president because I want to have a house. Two weeks later, in “A manifesto, or when the mouth spits on its own tongue”, Daoud addresses with emotion the legal limits imposed on the use of Algerian Arabic (as opposed to classical Arabic) by the government Islamist, as well as routine assassinations. of its poets and journalists in the 1990s:
A people without the right to its own language […] is not dumb but sick […] when a people can’t name things, they can’t reinvent them […] when a people treats their own language as a dialect, they treat themselves as a secondary character in a story that they cede to someone else […] You kill a nationality when you give it subtitles.
The last column for 2010 is dated December 16, a day before Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi publicly immolated himself, the defining event of the Arab Spring. Turning the page of the 2011 table of contents, which begins with a January 15 column entitled “I dream of being Tunisian”, I had the same feeling as when I watch a series of television series. These essays were not written to be read one after the other. They were published in response to dramatic events and changing circumstances. Therefore, the collection is perhaps best kept on a desk or bedside table, to be picked up periodically and read in small doses, rather than one after another on an L train in Chicago, in time and time. the space from one stop to another. . Daoud is a brilliant, if not dazzling, thinker: his sharp turns in thought and language, as well as his subject, have given me motion sickness, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Take it as a warning label: like a potent drug, this book is best read in moderation, away from heavy machinery.
Although the columns are clearly written with specific and different audiences in mind, the presumption throughout the process is that the reader is male, heterosexual, young, and single. There is no attempt to make the language gender neutral. For example, in “Idle Variations on the Myth of Sysyphus”, Daoud writes: “Man is man, and the rock is his universe: he is condemned to absurdity as long as possible in a world without meaning” . But this kind of assumption is not necessarily a loophole. Rather, it should be read as part of the social context from which the author comes. In fact, Daoud argues over and over again for the importance of women’s rights and equality: yet her core readership continues to argue that “he” is the clearest pronoun for all of humanity. Rather, it shows that tells something about everyday Algeria, too.
It is disheartening to read some of these essays related to their sense of futility and pessimism for any real and substantial change – in large part because the governmental and political machinations described by Daoud seem more familiar to me than before. While the United States finds itself in a drastically different social and political situation from Algeria, each passing day seems to bring us closer to something akin to a dictatorship – as I have started to read. ChroniclesTrump told the Foreign War Veterans National Convention, “What you see and what you read is not what happens. If Algeria seems opaque to us, it is partly because many of its governmental machinations are opaque – and now this is also happening in the United States. Maybe we hesitate to acknowledge what we share because it might cause us to admit things we don’t want to admit – let alone know.
However, Daoud has the wit of a philosopher, the pace of a journalist, and the literary chops of a novelist. While this work is likely sidelined alongside translated global works, Chronicles could be read as Maggie Nelson’s bedmate The Argonauts and that of Sarah Manguso Continuity: sharp, intelligent and strikingly felt, demonstrating a stunning understanding of both the world of letters and the experience of life. Daoud’s essays literally defy death, are often painful, and always deeply thoughtful. With the knowledge of a worn-out, abandoned country, torn between national dictatorial powers and local histories and traditions, he brings us into Algeria at the dawn of a new regional threat and global uncertainty.
Jennifer Solheim is a writer, critic, literary translator and teacher.