Mirages Of The Mind – Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi (translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

You know you are in for a ride when the introduction to your book says it’s “a challenging book. It is challenging because of its length but more so due to its erudition.” Never one to shirk a challenge, and given I was looking forward to reading some Urdu fiction in translation, I dived straight in. And what a wonderfully colourful and rich world we have.
Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, born in 1923, is a highly respected businessman as well as a multi awarded writer. From General Manager at the Muslim Commercial Bank in 1950 to the President of the United Bank in 1977 onto Chairman of the Pakistan Banking Council, following his father’s footsteps (his father the Speaker of the Jaipur Legislative Assembly). In  January 1950 his family migrated to Pakistan after the Urdu language was replaced by Hindi in India, so four years after the partition of India and the creation of East (later to be known as Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (later to become simply Pakistan).
“Mirages of the Mind” opens with an explanatory, uncredited,  “introduction” where a “reading guide” is presented on the “encyclopaedic culture”, the “Poetic punning”,  “narrative digressions”, and “cultural nostalgia”. Whilst handy at assisting with the reading, these instructions are not mandatory and a reading of the book would not be diminished without the assistance,it does contain some memorable material, including a quote from Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi himself:
You cannot write humour until you love your target or subject of attack. Love is the foremost condition. In satire it’s not necessary.
Yes, this is a humour filled story, whilst containing lashings of satire, it is primarily a funny tale, one with a unique structure.
Our work is split into five sections, each containing chapters, those containing subheadings and within them quotes of world poetry (with a bent towards the Urdu poets of course). So rather than a linear plot, we have vignettes, different story tellers, flash backs, oral tales and interpretations. Yes it does sound “challenging”….
I spent a significant portion of this work thinking “Don Quixote, Don Quixote” and although the parallels are at times obvious, this is not simply the tales of a “Man of Karachi”. Let’s have Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi himself describe the plot (this appears in the “Author’s Afterword”):
‘The Mansion’ tells the story of a dilapidated, abandoned mansion and its hot-tempered owner. ‘A Schoolteacher’s Dream’ is about a depressed horse, a barber, and a secretary. ‘Two Tales of the City’ is the story of a small room and the eccentric man who lived there for seventy-five years. ‘The First Memorable Poetry Festival of Dhiraj Ganj’ presents caricatures of one teacher and the founder of an infamous country school. ‘The Car, The Man from Kabul, and The Lampless Aladdin’ is a long-winded series of anecdotal sketches about a ramshackle car, an illiterate Pathan lumber merchant, and a lying braggart of a driver. In all, the characters, whether they be central, secondary, or merely to fill out the scenes, are all by definition ‘common’, and when it comes to social status, ordinary; for this reason, they deserve extra attention and consideration. All that I’ve seen, learned, and loved about life has come through such people. It’s been my bad luck that the ‘great’ or ‘successful’ people I’ve happened to run across have been entirely second-rate, rancorous, and superficial.
Our storyteller, narrator, is two fold, our scribe, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi himself who add his notes and Basharat, who tells the oral stories, which are scribed. This can make for confusing reading, however it is the stories of the minor people which is the key here, whether from the mouth of Basharat or the quill of Yousufi the richness of these low social class players is what you are enjoying.
To start with we have Bashara Ali Farooqui’s father-in-law, Qibla, who once a feared wood merchant in Kanput, moves to Karachi and loses his “kingdom’, although reduced to living with his daughter and son-in-law in Pakistand he spends his time looking back to better times.
With digressions and meanderings a feature, the path you follow with Yousufi as your guide, is never dull. I felt slightly reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers”, however it is not only the travelling and the rich characterisation or humour that comes into play in our work, we have the biting satire of Pakistani society, even a criticism of the quality of historical Urdu prose:
Sometimes words are dressed up in angarkha gowns, sometimes in floor-length cloaks, sometimes in scholarly turbans, sometimes in dinner jackets, and sometimes in fool’s caps. Sometimes words wear anklets, and sometimes they wear fetters. And sometimes they are like trained monkeys that dance on a showman’s command.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad wrote about his birth like this: ‘I, alien to time itself, born into the wrong era, a stranger amidst my own people, raised pious folk, ruined by desire, named Ahmad, called Kalam, can from the world of non-being into the world of being in 1888 (1305 Hijra), and thus was accused of living.’
People don’t write like that anymore. People aren’t born like that anymore. Not even a C-section takes that long and causes that much suffering.
Back to Qibla, his move to Karachi came about as “Pakistan came into being” and all of Qibla’s enemy’s had moved there, he “couldn’t live without hating them” and the large scale migration had caused his income to be non-existent. He had no other option but to “cut the cord’. Of course Qibla finds the migration difficult. To adapt to change you need “tolerance, patience, gentleness, and flexibility.” Attributes that Qibla, as a tyrant, does not possess, “the fact was that these qualities weren’t considered attributes in feudal society. Strictness, wilfulness, haughtiness, harshness, and a bad temper were all thought to be the strengths – and true qualities – of a feudal character.”
Our second section follows QIbla’s son-in-law Basharat’s time  as a dreamer and a schoolteacher, a wood trader and a horse and cart owner (and all the tribulations that go with that). In this section we get to see the poverty in Karachi:
In front of the bank, a man was selling fish from a platform raised four feet off the ground. His undershirt had countless holes in it. His undershirt and lungi were covered in fish blood and guts. When his hands got dirty, he wiped them on his lungi so that the old gunk absorbed the new gunk. From time to time, when he splashed water over the fish, a swarm of flies flew up, and only then could you see how small the fish were, and which type. The filthy water and cast off fish parts flowed down a drain and collected in a canister. When he sold a big fish, he used a cleaver to hack at it, and the blood and guts flowed into this canister. When the canister filled up, he set it to the side and started using another. Standing on their hind legs, cats would dart their mouths forward to catch the discarded meat parts as the refuse slid toward the canister. Those watching were terrified that the cleaver might suddenly clip one of the cat’s heads and then – POP! When a young woman came by to buy fish, the fish-seller would make a fist and shout curses longingly at the cats. In one hour, he sold two full canisters for one anna each. A man told me that the poor would cook their rice in it to give it a fishy aroma. Three households shared one canister. Among the poor, only those that were relatively better off cold afford this luxury!
Although the narrative vividly displays a warts-and-all picture of Karachi and the lower social class inhabitants, it is also a work richly filled with nostalgia, dreaming, talking of times that were better. Our book’s title refers to nostalgia; “The river of memories flowed on, but it descended into the mirages of the mind”. Even our author gets nostalgic, one of the many footnotes:
It’s sad that we’re quickly losing track of the old and beautiful names of colours. Tomorrow who will be able to recognize them? Vermillion, nut brown, aloeswood, jujube, cotton, azure, camel, emerald, red onion, scarlet, grass, dark purple, chicory, nacre, pearl, lotus, light green, pale yellow, falso-berry purple, jumun-fruit mauve, tobacco, golden, watermelon, earthen, ochre, mung dal, mulberry, orange, grape, raisin, dove, deep purple, pistachio, peach, peacock, ebony, ambergris, henna, violet, saffron, pale purple, as well as mystical and vulgar. If we’ve buried our word-hoards in the earth, then that’s one thing. But we’ve also buried the rainbows that sprang from the womb of our land.
Khan Sahib is a wood merchant and broker, he comes to Karachi to retrieve a bad debt from Basharat, as is custom whilst in Karachi he stays at Basharat’s home and we then enter into a plethora of tales about this larger than life character. Our book is bursting with cultural gems:
Khan Sahib’s frequent visits to Karachi to recover his arrears made him fluent in seven languages. I mean, he could curse in Urdu, Persian, Gujarati, and four local languages. As far as possible, he cursed out the objects of his displeasure in their mother tongue. But if he happened to run short of swearwords, or felt like they weren’t having any impact, or if the person was really shameless, then he hammered the last nails into his coffin with some choice Pashto phrases, which cursed out several generations of his ancestors. There’s no doubt that the Koka_Shastra – curse words that are in vogue here make English curses (and those of all other languages) seem like feather pillow for a pillow fight, or the gurgling of babies burping up breast milk.
The gradual loss of Urdu language, the  cultural impact is a subject that also crops up throughout. Remember, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi himself moved to Pakistan when Hindi replaced Urdu as the official language in their area, these events, trickling through to our novel:
How could it possibly be that your beloved tongue is cut off at the root, the flag of sincere tolerance is lowered, and yet the culture left over would flourish?
Basharat often says that he will never forget how and illiterate Pathan from Peshawar made him give up his stilted style of greeting, which has been nutured in his family for four generations.
In the section “Two Tales of the City” (of course a play on Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”) we suddenly learn of Basharat’s wife’s death and he himself starts to suffer from nostalgia. There is a wonderful quote to describe this, however out “Introduction” uses such so I’ll move on.
Chad W. Post, at the Three Percent website (so named as the often quoted figure of 3% is used to explain the amount of literature in translation from all published fiction books) recently spoke of Eka Kurniawan’s novel “Beauty Is A Wound” One oft-quoted cliché is that reading can take you to places and introduce you to peoples and cultures you’d otherwise not have access to. I generally don’t care much for this sort of sentiment—feels a bit like literary tourism—but with all the hype surrounding the two Eka Kurniawan books coming out this fall, I’ve become very curious about Indonesian literature. (See full excerpt here http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=15642)
Personally I’m a little less concerned about the “take you to places” concept, in reality I’m nover going to make it to Pakistan, I’m highly unlikely to ever visit a village on the Indian/Pakistan border, therefore for a work that is so rich in local culture, local language and local characters, the “literary tourism” was very much enjoyed.
A story of immigration, of cultural identity in a new land, of living in the past. A novel that surely has to be credited with an amazing translation by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, to even contemplate the translation of Urdu into English is a monumental task in itself, but to retain the colour, the vibe and the individuality of this area, along with the vibrancy of their language for simple items such as food, wood, furniture, is a monumental achievement. Our book is littered with Persian, Urdu, and other languages, poetry, with couplets appearing in the text to clarify the scene we have just read or to round it out nicely.
Personally this is one of my highlights of 2015, yes a difficult book, but not as daunting as our introduction leads you to believe, a journey into a different world, a cultural gem and one that will surely be included in debates when the Best Translated Book Award nominees are being discussed.

Copy courtesy of New Directions.

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Beauty Is A Wound – Eka Kurniawan (translated by Annie Tucker) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

There has been quite a flurry around Indonesian literature in recent months, in August Words Without Borders http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/myth-and-history-writing-from-indonesiafeatured Indonesian writers and pointed out:
“Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world and Malay, Indonesia’s mother language, is one of the world’s top-ten spoken languages with a conservative estimate of at least 200 million speakers. (Some estimates are as high as 500 million.) But how many book-length literary titles are translated from Indonesian into foreign languages each year? Usually no more than ten. And how many Indonesian authors could even the most erudite literary critic in the United States cite by name? I would wager to say one, at most.”
In October, Indonesia will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest annual book publishing event in the world. Earlier in August I received an advance copy of Eka Kurniawan’s “Beauty Is A Wound” and then, late in the month, Kurniawan was a guest at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival in a “conversation” presentation.
Given Indonesia is one of our nearest neighbours (I’m in the South of Australia), and my exposure to their literature has totalled ZERO, I think it is probably about time I started to address this imbalance.
Kurniawan’s novel opens with Dewi Ayu coming back from the dead after being buried for twenty-one years. The first thing she thinks about is her “baby” Beauty (Dewi Ayu dies twelve days after giving birth). Beauty is a child she tried to abort a number of times, given she already had three daughters (all children are to unknown fathers) and she was nearly fifty years of age, and Beauty is the ugliest baby known, after Dewi Ayu had given birth to three stunningly beautiful girls:
However it was true that Dewi Ayu tried to kill the baby back when she realized that, whether or not she had already lived for a whole half century, she was pregnant once again. Just as with her other children, she didn’t know who the father was, but unlike the others she had absolutely no desire for the baby to survive. So she had taken five extra-strength paracetamol pills that she got from a village doctor and washed them down with half a liter of soda, which was almost enough to cause her own death but not quite, as it turned out, enough to kill that baby. She thought of another way, and called a midwife who was willing to kill the baby and take it out of her womb by inserting a small wooden stick into her belly. She experienced heavy bleeding for two days and two nights and the small piece of wood came back out in splinters, but the baby kept growing. She tried six other ways to get the better of that baby, but all were in vain, and she finally gave up and complained:
“This one is a real brawler, and she’s clearly going to beat her mother in this fight.”
We then travel back in time to Dewi Ayu’s youth, her marriage to an old mad man, being taken prisoner by the Japanese as part of their invasion of Indonesia and then being forced into prostitution.
This novel (by having Dewi Ayu coming back from the dead) managed to cover eighty or so years of Indonesian history. A work that is 470 pages in length (the Australian edition runs to nearly 500 pages) there is a lot of territory to cover. This is done by running multiple stories, all linked to Dewi Ayu in some way. We have Maman Gendeng, an indestructible criminal, who lands in Halimunda (where our story is set) in search of a legendary princess only to find that the story was 200 years old, as a result he proposes to the prostitute Dewi Ayu instead. We also have Shodancho a guerrilla revered by the community, a rival of sorts to Maman Gendeng, who becomes the leader of the military and is in love with one of Dewi Ayu’s daughters. And we have Comrade Kliwon, naturally a communist, who is a womaniser but also in love with the same daughter of Dewi Ayu.
The novel feels as though it is a collection of stand-alone stories, but the intertwining of characters and the passage of time as well as Dewi Ayu being the spine of the stories gives the novel multiple linkages.
Drawing on Indonesian folklore there are people who fly, rebirths, and ghosts a plenty, all of this with the backdrop of extreme violence, including sexual violence.  But each of the extreme situations are either balanced with humour or with the level headedness of one of the female characters.
The fact was, most people of Kalamunda were superstitious. They still believed the demons, spooks, and all kinds of supernatural beings ran wild in the cemetery, living among the spirits of the dead. And they also believed that the gravedigger lived in close communion with all of these supernatural beings. Aware of his difficult situation, Kamino had never even tried proposing to anyone. His only interactions with other people happened in the course of his business. He usually just stayed at home, a humid house made out of moldy old concrete shaded by big banyan trees. The sole entertainment in his lonely life was playing jailangkun – calling the spirits of the dead using a little effigy doll – another skill that had been passed down through the generations of his family, good for invoking the spirits to chat with them about all kinds of things.
This book is littered with little amusing anecdotes – as an example the village of Halimunda celebrates Independence Day on a different date that the rest of Indonesia, this is a result of the news travelling slowly to the village.
I’ll leave the linear (or more circular) plot quite bare for you to enjoy the novel yourself, however this work does cover sweeping epic times in Indonesian history, the invasion by the Japanese, the slaughter of thousands of communists, living under Suharto’s dictatorship, military rule and these events are all covered here. With the three husbands of the three daughters representing military, communism and criminals, the power struggles are obvious to see, as an aside the police are ineffectual.
A great introduction to Indonesian literature and the melding of humour, extreme events, folklore and reality is done with a nice balance.
During Eka Kurniawan’s appearance at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival he discussed a number of subjects, the ones I thought more relevant I’ll paraphrase here (he did answer questions in English however at times he did struggle to find the correct word).
As a university student, studying philosophy, he found he was spending more time in the library reading English translations of famous works. Upon reading Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” he suddenly decided that he wanted to be a writer. The two major influences of “Beauty Is A Wound” are “dalang” masters performing “wayang”, Indonesian shadow puppet theatre. Stories containing heroics, humour and philosophy, as well as commenting on current affairs. Learning this after reading the novel, was a revelation, a better understanding of the work instead of the line I’ve seen trotted out a few times “magic realism” a la Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.
The second influence, as revealed by Kurniawan, is Cervantes, the book’s epigraph from Don Quixote. Kurniawan revealed the idea of imagination is the guiding influence here.
Besides mentioning Cervantes, he also spoke of Milan Kundera’s reference to delivering a serious message with a tone of “lightness”, a feature that is evident throughout the novel. Instead of reeling from every horrific story you are somehow drawn to reading the next page.
The actual work itself is “three or four” novels mixed and combined into one to become our final work, and at times, as the stories seem to exist independently, this is quite obvious. Although the spine of Dewi Ayu throughout does link them in some way. Interestingly Kurniawan explained that the character of Dewi Ayu was the last character he formed. The criminal character of Maman Gendeng is the anti-hero that Kurniawan felt the most sympathy for when creating him, this, again, I could feel, although a criminal and indestructible his honesty to his word is refreshing, and even though he marries a twelve year old his loyalty and honour of this young girl is very different from the military character of Shodancho a brutal evil man.
I’m glad I delved into the world of Indonesian writing and there are a few other works now on my radar.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

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Sphinx – Anne Garréta (translated by Emma Ramadan) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

Whilst the “Introduction” (by Daniel Levin Becker) to Anne Garréta’s “Sphinx” urges the reader to “do everything in your power to stay ignorant” of the Oulipian constraint in this work, every interaction I have had, via social media, brings up the structure of this work, and therefore it would probably be hard to find a new reader who had no knowledge of the constraint. Simply having a reference to it in the “Introduction” makes it a hard constraint to ignore, however if you’d like to read this work without knowing what rules have been applied, then this is not a review for you (plus you should avoid twitter and Facebook reference, not read the back cover, not read the introduction!!).
Oulipian fiction (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Potential Literature Workshop OuLiPo) was launched by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960. It is based on the concept that writing is always constrained by something, be it simply time or language, therefore instead of attempting to avoid constraints the writing is performed with acknowledgement of their presence and they “embrace them proactively”. As I pointed out in my review of Paul Fournel’s “Dear Reader” (translated by David Bellos) earlier this year the constraints can be playful, that work contains 36 chapters, the first six all containing exactly 7,500 characters, including spaces, and each ending with the words, read, cream, publisher, mistake, self and evening. The next six chapters contain 6,500 characters (including spaces) ending with the same words, and so on down to the sixth set which consists of 2,500 characters (including spaces). Making the entire composition a “poem of 180,000 signs (including spaces)”.
Anne Garréta’s “Sphinx” was published in France in 1986, and it was not until 2000 that she received admittance into the Oulipo literary collective. This work marks the first full-length work by a female member of the Oulipo to ever be published in English. So what’s the constraint? If you don’t want to know, look away now….it is a love story that is genderless. This has seen a number of references to the work being LGBT literature, I would argue that just by not being overtly heterosexual it is also not overtly homosexual, nor bisexual, nor transsexual. This thought alone did cause a bit of a twitter frenzy over the weekend, however my point is that each reader will bring their own preconceptions, own conditioning and bias to their experience and this will become blatantly obvious to you as a reader the further into the work you go.
A timeless love story, our work begins with a nameless narrator denying theology, living a life of endless night clubbing and includes corpses floating in shit – a living hell. The journey from night club to night club featuring strippers and excessive music, the language in baroque in style, I was thinking Dante for a while, would our narrator move through purgatory and ascend to paradise?
I spent the night drifting from port to port. While waiting for Tiff, I wallowed in seedy dressing rooms which were in reality mere landings between two flights of stairs, blocked off with battered chairs and cardboard boxes surrounded by bottles of fizzled-out sparkling wine under the gray of a flaking ceiling. I observed the hellish comings and goings of strippers dashing around, dressing, undressing, touching up their makeup, fixing their outfits, and spraying perfume; I gazed at myself distractedly in a mirror imprinted with lipstick and etched with clumsy letters, The wheezing of the ceiling fan, the rumble from the nearby stage, the sight of the red velvet sofa covered in holes, burned through by cigarettes, and the feeling of exile between blue walls defiled with the imprints of dirty hands brought me all the closer to that single, splenetic feeling so difficult to define: melancholia. I relished it to the point of drunkenness. In this refuge, a haven of ennui, I could give myself up freely to a vision of bodies shiny with sweat, stranded and exposed under the blind eye of the spotlight, infected by the dampness and stuffy stench of a mob crouching in the shadows of the stage. And here I found what I had come looking for: before my eyes, a sweltering, vitrified clash of light and flesh in the swaying red darkness.
 Our narrator accidentally becomes the DJ at a nightclub the Apocryphe and then becomes friends with A***, a dark skinned dancer, from New York:
Soon we became rather close; we would call each other almost every day when we woke up and we would eat dinner together at least once a week, just the two of us, after which I would allow myself to escort A*** to the Eden. We would meet again at the Apocryphe, and would often go loiter somewhere else after closing. This strange intimacy didn’t stem from any common social or intellectual interests; it wasn’t the sign or effect of a close friendship or romantic relationship. I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the originality of A***’s views, or by a similarity in our tastes; we neither combated nor conversed. Our time together and our conversation were simply a pleasure, like the contemplation of A***’s body or A***’s dance, an aesthetic pleasure that I could attribute only to a lightness of being that never dipped into inanity. I can’t define A*** as being anything other than both frivolous and serious, residing in the subtle dimension of presence without insistence.
Of course the friendship deepens and love ensues, with travelling together, living together and the monotony of everyday existence taking over. With the clubs they work at being called “Eden” and “Apocryphe” (named after the apocryhus?) and our narrator taking on apophatic tradition studies (analysing the metaphysical), there are hidden meanings throughout. Is this work itself not approved for public consumption? Is it our writer’s secret? So may avenues you can pursue!
This work is a fine balance between the musings on the creation of an identity as well as remaining (gender) anonymous. The concept of “what am I?” is floated, “I” is nothing.
The strange sensation of always feeling as if I were at the dreadful edge of some imminent break…This sentiment is the very foundation of all that is intractable in me: a sort of inebriation, bitter from drawn-out solitude, the inevitable tendency toward a final disenchantment with all idylls. And I can’t explain why, or how. I’ve never expected much from those I love. I would have given all, conceded all, pardoned all the wandering of anyone who accorded me the space and time for my discreet tenderness. So much did I fear smothering those I cherished that I never made a fuss, which was doubtless the reason for my repeated falls and defeats. I carry my silence – this constant withdrawal into a suffering that I thought of perhaps mistakenly as immoderate and obscene – as a cross that has never promised any redemption, a calvary without deliverance, an involuntary sacrifice made in vain.
Without giving away the plot of our narrator’s and A***’s relationship and the events that follow, this work highlights our preconceived notions, our bias, the path we naturally take when there is no clearly defined path. Whilst reading you are jarred into shaking off the shackles of your bias, your own identity of “self”. A work defined as “impossible to neatly classify as essay, novel, or allegorical memoir”, the “Translator’s Note” to close the publication highlights the following:
By omitting the supposedly ever-present phenomenon of gender, Garréta both reveals and undermines sex-based oppression, demonstrating that gender difference is not an important or necessary determinant of our amorous relationships or our identities but is rather something constructed purely in the realm of the social.
A wonderful work to include as part of Women In Translation Month, a landmark of modern literature, a work which can raise numerous debates and discussions, and that alone is a worthwhile enterprise. In my humble opinion, a certain contender for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. Thanks to Deep Vellum Publishing for bringing this book to the English reading public. One you need to invest in.

The Meursault Investigation – Kamel Daoud (translated by John Cullen) – 2014 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman – Best Translated Book Award 2016

In December last year Algerian Islamist preacher Abdelfattah Hamadache Ziraoui caused a storm by demanding author Kamel Daoud be executed in public, claiming the writer is “waging war against Allah, the Koran and the sacred values of Islam.” Whilst not receiving as much attention as the fatwa decreed upon Salman Rushdie after the publication of “The Satanic Verses”, these latest statements by radical clerics has, again, brought publicity and possibly increased sales of Daoud’s “The Meursault Investigation”.

Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman (Goncourt Prize for a debut novel) in 2014, “The Meursault Investigation” opens with the line

Mama’s still alive today.

Yes it is the same Meursault Albert Camus brought to life in his 1942 novel “The Stranger” (or “The Outsider”), Daoud exploring the life of the nameless “Arab” in Camus’ book. Hence my reading of Camus as juxtaposition to Daoud’s offering. So instead of “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday: I can’t be sure.” We have “Mama’s still alive today.”

Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers”, the roumis God brought here to put us to the test, but whose days were numbered anyway: One day or another, they would leave, there was no doubt about that And so nobody responded to them, people clammed up in their presence, leaned on the wall, and waited. Your writer-murderer was wrong, my brother and his friend had no intention whatsoever of killing them, him and his pimp friend. They were just waiting for them to leave, all of them, your hero, the pimp, and the thousands and thousands of others. We all knew it, we knew it from early childhood, we didn’t even need to talk about it: We knew one day they’d eventually leave. When we happened to pass through a European neighborhood, we used to amuse ourselves by pointing at the houses and divvying them up like spoils of war. One of us would say, “This one’s mine, I touched it first!” and set off a frenzy of claims and counterclaims. We were five years old when we started doing that, can you imagine? As if our intuition was telling us what would happen when Independence came, but leaving out the weapons.


Also split into two sections our narrator Harun, rather than clinically living through his mother’s death and funeral, brings to life his own mother’s existence and lamentations as well his own personal suffering of his brother’s death, his brother being the nameless “Arab” in Camus’ work. Our narrator is spilling out his life story to a nameless note taker in a bar in the Algerian coastal city of Oran (“This is a city with its legs spread open toward the sea”) and we are a witness to this outpouring of his tale.


And I don’t suppose you’re putting up with this pretentious monologue of mine for the happy moments.

The first half of “The Meursault Investigation” explores the events in Camus’ book and gives a life to the nameless Arab (now Musa), the second half features a revenge killing of a Frenchman (who is not nameless) and the emotional baggage suffered by our narrator, the investigation, arrest and obvious release (he’s narrating our story!!!) A polar opposite of Meursault in “The Stranger”.


Let’s see, let me try to remember exactly…How did we learn of Musa’s death? I remember a kind of invisible cloud hovering over our street and angry grown-ups talking loud and gesticulating. At first, Mama told me that a gaouri had killed one of the neighbor’s sons while he was trying to defend an Arab woman and her honor. Then, during the night, anxiety got inside our house, and I think Mama gradually began to realize the truth. So did I, probably. And then, all of a sudden, I heard this long, low moan, swelling until it became immense, a huge mass of sound that destroyed our furniture and blew our walls apart and then blew up the whole neighborhood and left me all alone.

Our story here is full of contradictions, our narrator has an unreliable voice, as we get further and further into the book we begin to question the authenticity of Harun. For example we learn that the newspaper article about his brother’s death is etched into his memory, later he states that he can’t remember the details reported. Totally unlike the clinical Meursault in Camus’ work we have a narrator who is fallible, unreliable, maybe even downright dishonest. But then again how reliable is Meursault’s voice in “The Stranger”?

Not simply a book built on the success of another, this work also explores the Algerian life as told by the locals, their side of the French Occupation and events leading up to the 1954 War and 1962 self-determination referendum and independence.


I want to pass away without being pursued by a ghost. I think I can guess why people write true stories. Not to make themselves famous but to make themselves more invisible, and all the while clamouring for a piece of the world’s true core.

Unlike our absurdist anti-hero in Meursault, our anti-hero here, Harun, is more of a realist, fallilble but unreliable, but he also is isolated, it is seventy years and he’s telling the tale to a stranger with a Camus novel in a bar. He is alienated, detached, removed, he has lost a brother who the rest of the world sees as an “Arab” and there is no literary fame for him.

For people looking at an introduction to contemporary translated fiction and an entertaining story, this is a great work to start with; a book that has already received its fair share of publicity and given recent longlisted titles on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize lists one that will probably feature in the 2016 Man Booker International Prize list of 2016. If you haven’t caught up with the news the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International Prize will merge next year (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/07/man-booker-international-and-independent-foreign-fiction-prizes-merge-to-create-super-award)

After a number of “challenging” reads from the Best Translated Book Award longlist of 2015, it was refreshing to pick up a slightly “easier” and straightforward work, a book which understandably is selling well and introducing new readers to the world of translated fiction. A book I’ll remember in years to come? Unlikely, although it will always come to mind when people mention Camus.


Later in the week I’ll explore another book with a connection, and another book with isolation, alienation and detachment as a theme. Maybe next week I’ll pick up a light love story? Unlikely.