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John Cullen: A word from the translator - 'provocative, angry, funny'

English PEN asks John Cullen, translator of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation (July 2015), for his thoughts on the book.

The novel gives identity to ‘the Arab’ murdered by Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Outsider. Harun, brother of Musa (the name given to ‘the Arab’) and narrator of the book, sits in a bar giving us a first-hand account of the death of his brother and the implications it had on his life.

In my view, my brother Musa’s story needs the entire earth! Ever since that day, I’ve cultivated a wild hypothesis: Musa wasn’t killed on that famous Algiers beach! There must be another, hidden place, a setting that was disappeared. That would explain everything, all at once! Why the murderer was so relaxed after being sentenced to death and even after his execution, why my brother was never found, and why the court preferred judging a man who didn’t weep over his mother’s death to judging a man who killed an Arab.

I sometimes thought about poking around that beach at the exact hour of the crime. That is, during the summer, when the sun's so close to earth it can make you crazy or drive you to bloodshed, but that would be a futile exercise. Besides, the sea bothers me. I'm definitively afraid of the water. I don't like to go swimming - the waves swallow me up too fast.

Extract from The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (Oneworld Publications, 2015), translated from the French by John Cullen. 

Interview by Georgina Norie.


Do you think that in order to meaningfully grasp the significance of The Meursault Investigation it's essential for the reader to have read The Outsider beforehand? Did you read The Outsider prior to translating the book and if so, did translating The Meursault Investigation cause you to think differently about the book?

Well, maybe you don't need to have read The Outsider to grasp in some general way what Kamel Daoud's up to in The Meursault Investigation, but I think that the more familiar readers are with Camus's novel, the richer their experience of the later work will be.  Similarly, readers who know nothing of Jane Eyre can be fascinated by Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and Valerie Martin's unforgettable Mary Reilly can stand on its own, even for those who have never read Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I think readers who know at least something about the earlier novels will find greater satisfaction and deeper resonances in reading the later ones. And of course I reread The Outsider before I began my translation, and a good thing too, because the Camus novel informs every page. Daoud's book necessarily made me think differently about Camus's – expanded my consciousness on the subject, as it were – but did nothing to diminish my admiration for the Frenchman's steely, lucid, pitiless prose – which Daoud's narrator admires, too.

Harun reflects that he is practically the murderer's double, a reflection of Meursault. While this is true in many ways, and his character can at times appear somewhat downtrodden, he is also full of emotion and passion; the opposite of Camus's Meursault. Is this how you perceived his character in the original text? What do you think are the defining differences between Harun and Meursault?

Harun and Meursault are indeed alike in many (mostly superficial) ways. At the same time, however, as you say, Harun is essentially the opposite of Meursault. The very fact that Harun thinks of himself as “practically the murderer's double” and as a “reflection” of Meursault demonstrates the fundamental difference between the two. You won't find Meursault aspiring to be anyone's double or reflection; he's far too alienated for that.  Meursault's the colonist, Harun's the colonized; Meursault's free (until his anarchical exercise of his freedom leads him to confinement), whereas Harun has always been in some way constrained.  Harun's situation enrages him, while Meursault contemplates his with indifference. Meursault's prose is cool, but Harun's is hot.

The backdrop of The Meursault Investigation is the fight for Algeria's independence from France and, as is well known, the accepted version of history is often written by the colonisers. The book privileges Harun's voice, as he narrates the story of his brother's murder - his story, his history - to a Western literature student. Is this book Daoud's way of giving voice to the history of Algerian liberation from the perspective of those left behind by the colonial narrative?

I don't see The Meursault Investigation as the author's way of giving voice to the Algerian struggle for independence or countering the colonial narrative. I know one can rummage around in the novel and come up with support for such interpretations, but for me it's chiefly about two things: first, Daoud's grappling with The Outsider, his coming to literary, philosophical, political, and psychological terms with it, and second, his character Harun's failed struggle to free himself from the familial, societal, and political constraints he was born into. His crusade – perhaps not the best word choice – to do justice to his murdered brother, to give him a name and an identity, has more to do with the honor of his family than with Algerian Liberation, the Cause for which Harun declined to fight. Nor does he have any illusions about what has resulted from the triumph of the Cause. He's eighty years old, the oppressor's shackles were cast off long ago, but his country hasn't exactly emerged from its dark prison into the bright light of freedom. Like his model Camus, Daoud's writing is not so much about a specific time and place as about the human condition.

Do you think translated literature plays an important role in retelling histories from around the world from non-Western perspectives?

I certainly think it can play such a role, but its importance rather depends on how many readers it has. I'm sure the percentage of translated literature that offers non-Western perspectives is pretty small, and so is the number of people who read it. But I believe that state of affairs is changing, thanks to the admirable efforts of an ever-growing number of translators who take on the more exotic tongues.

Describe the book in 3 words.

Provocative, angry, funny.


About the translator

John Cullen is the translator of numerous books from Spanish, French, German, and Italian, including Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report and Yasmina Reza’s Happy Are the Happy.

Read about The Meursault Investigation and its author on the World Bookshelf.

While you're there you can vote for your favourite World Bookshelf book for a chance to win the latest PEN-supported titles.

Posted by Georgina Norie, Tuesday 28th July, 2015

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