In his debut novel, Meursault, Counter-Investigation, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud reimagines Albert Camus’s The Stranger, telling the story of the brother of the nameless Arab killed in the iconic novel. The book, already a bestseller in France, has won numerous awards, including the Prix Francois Mauriac of the Académie Française. PW talked to Other Press publisher Judith Gurewich, who picked up world English rights to the novel after a heated auction at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.
What about this book made you stick through such a heated auction? And what challenges do you see in bringing an international bestseller to an American audience?
Because it is rare that a literary novel brings to the table such important, counter-intuitive and explosive ideas about postcolonialism, identity, religion, guilt and ambivalent identification with the aggressor. Daoud turns his conversation with Camus into a suspense story, whose emotional impact is as intense as its philosophical implications. I would have been devastated to lose this book. It is at once a political manifesto and a love story.
There isn't much of a challenge [in publishing the story in the U.S.]. It is too good to be true. Young people will feel the book evokes familiar themes--identity, country in turmoil, the deceptive power of religion, politics, discrimination, ambition, rage--and their parents will be happy to remember their school years and a book they have surely forgotten but would want to revisit. My hope is to bring into the conversation many African-American readers and emigrants, and get Daoud to learn English so that he can moderate the debate.
The story clearly has international appeal—it has sold in 13 countries and counting. Why do you think that is, and where do you see it fitting into the landscape of American fiction?
The negative consequences of postcolonialism are common to many Europeans countries and all of them must have Camus on their school curriculum. In the States the parallel is slightly different because Americans weren't colonizers per se, but had other evils to contend with. Precisely because it isn't quite the same it may allow a reflection that will bring home fresh insights of how Western civilization can be subverted to bring about social change. What is so brilliant about his book is Daoud's direct use of Camus's phrases and ideas and how he subverts them to show their flip sides.
Although it's early days, do you have any publicity and marketing efforts planned for the title?
Our publicity department will do its usual wonders getting the book reviewed everywhere, but I think it will be important to run two parallel themes. On the one hand, we will ask Daoud, who is an award-winning journalist, to write some articles and op-eds explaining his views on the present situation in the Magreb and maybe extend them to the Middle East as a whole. At the same time, we will use the connection to The Stranger (not so coincidentally the title of a new book on Obama ) to push the book in academic circles and also in high schools where Camus is taught. There is an interesting discussion here about a dialogue between the ex-colonized and the colonizer that is not dissimilar to our own discussion about the aftermath of the abolition of slavery, not to talk of issues of racism, discrimination, resentment etc. Don't get me started on marketing. I can't wait to launch discussions on Twitter, Facebook, etc., on these fascinating issues.
You’ve said that the reimagining is “politically charged.” In what way? Is there something especially timely about reworking Camus’s novel now?
Yes. Aside from what I have said above, I think that this book is very provocative in the sense that it really exposes the avatars of Arab identity today and also the dangers of religious fanaticism. It is hinted in the book that religion may have well replaced the authoritarian colonial rule that preceded it. Daoud is a very outspoken and courageous man.