Kamel Daoud’s Latest Novel Shows the Power of True Art Over Warmed-Over Cultural Debate

An Algerian novelist’s stunning achievement transcends the overcooked journalistic controversy he was embroiled in

Kamel Daoud’s Latest Novel Shows the Power of True Art Over Warmed-Over Cultural Debate
Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud / Joel Saget / AFP via Getty Images

One of the best and most original contemporary novels I’ve read this year is also one of the least talked about: “Zabor, or The Psalms,” by the Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud. It received a few dutiful notices here and there but nothing like the critical attention heaped on Daoud’s acclaimed debut, “The Meursault Investigation,” winner of the Goncourt first novel prize and the Prix François-Mauriac. A boldly postcolonial retelling of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,” it sold more than 100,000 copies on its original publication in France in 2013, turning its author into a literary sensation virtually overnight.

So why the silence surrounding “Zabor”? I suspect, perhaps a little cynically, that it has something to do with Daoud’s embroilment in what subsequently became known as the Affaire Daoud: a widespread condemnation of two newspaper columns he wrote in early 2016. The first, “Cologne, the Scene of Fantasies,” published in Le Monde on Jan. 31 of that year, was a response to the sexual assaults that occurred on New Year’s Eve in the German city of Cologne, many of them alleged to have been committed by men of North African and Middle Eastern origin. In his article, Daoud attacked the two major clichés provoked by the assaults: the racist, right-wing delusion that immigrants are rapists-in-waiting and the naïve, progressive belief that no potential conflict exists between liberal European sexuality and conservative Islamic culture.

The second column, “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World,” appeared as an editorial in The New York Times on Feb. 12, detailing what Daoud has called “the war on women” in his native country: “During the summer in Algeria, brigades of Salafists and local youths worked up by the speeches of radical imams and Islamist TV preachers go out to monitor female bodies, especially those of women bathers at the beach. The police hound couples, even married ones, in public spaces. Gardens are off-limits to strolling lovers. Benches are sawed in half to prevent people from sitting close together.”

The rightness or wrongness of Daoud’s views doesn’t really concern me here, nor am I qualified to speak of the nuances of Islam in Algeria — or anywhere else, for that matter. What does strike me about the affair is its whiff of stifling familiarity, the predictable application of double standards and the verbal contortions Daoud’s critics repeatedly resorted to.

A month after the Times piece was published, a letter signed by a lump of French and American intellectuals appeared in Le Monde, accusing Daoud of indulging in “Islamophobic clichés.” Then, shortly after, Daoud’s friend Adam Shatz entered the fray, likewise denouncing the Algerian writer’s opinions. Shatz, though he criticized the Le Monde letter for its “Stalinist” tactics, still made a point of distancing himself from Daoud’s views, which he found “irresponsible” and “unworthy of him.” In a rhetorical sleight of hand that has become all too familiar, both Shatz and the Le Monde signatories chastised Daoud for expressing opinions that might be exploited by right-wing intellectuals or (worse) racists and bigots.

Maybe it wasn’t prudent of Daoud to write the things he did. Maybe he was wrong. But if he was, so what? Surely an Algerian-born writer and journalist, who in his youth held orthodox Islamic beliefs (he is an ex-Islamist) and who still lives and works in Algeria, should be permitted to write openly and candidly about his former religion and his native country — without being lectured by bien-pensant intellectuals in Brooklyn or Paris? Too often, the message to Black or brown writers, especially those from Muslim countries, appears to be something like this: “Remember that you do not speak merely for yourself but for all Muslims, wherever they may be. We will judge your views not on their merits but on the degree to which they align with the views of conservatives, reactionaries and other right-wingers. If there is any convergence, no matter how tenuous, we will condemn you.” It goes without saying that no white novelist is ever held to such an absurd standard.

The affair culminated with Daoud’s dramatic announcement that he was turning his back on journalism. “Today the writer from the lands of Allah finds himself the target of unbearable media solicitations,” he wrote in an open letter to Adam Shatz. “I can’t do much about that, but I can remove myself from it; I had believed I could do so with wisdom, but I can also do it with silence, as I choose to do henceforth.”

Surely the irony that Daoud should be subjected to the kind of vilification Albert Camus once suffered was not lost on the author of “The Meursault Investigation.” Faced with the accusation that he was insufficiently outspoken on the Algerian question (mostly from writers who had bowed obsequiously before Stalinism), Camus chose a wounded silence whose tone can be felt in Daoud’s letter: “I will leave journalism shortly. I am going to go listen to trees or to hearts. Read. Recover my confidence and my tranquility. Explore. Not give up, but go beyond the trends and the media games. I have resolved to pry deeper rather than perform.”

The fact that it was the condemnation of Western intellectuals that silenced Daoud and not the Fatwa issued against him by an Islamist cleric in 2015, should give those intellectuals pause.

The circumstances of his retreat from journalism notwithstanding .. Daoud’s decision is one for which readers ought to be grateful.

The circumstances of his retreat from journalism notwithstanding (it was, in any case, only temporary), Daoud’s decision is one for which readers ought to be grateful. “Zabor, or The Psalms,” first published in French in 2017, is an exuberant work of imagination, profuse with literary references and religious allusions, as well as page after page of shimmering prose, beautifully rendered by Emma Ramadan. But “Zabor” is also a fierce quarrel — with death, religion and patriarchy — and a lyrical defense of fiction’s secular powers. Asked by a journalist why he had abandoned his orthodox faith, Daoud once said that he “liked doubt,” which is precisely what marks him as a greater novelist than journalist.

The narrator of “Zabor” is a young man in the Algerian village of Aboukir who possesses a most unusual gift: He has the ability to stave off the deaths of others through his writing. “It’s not about magic in the ancient sense of the term, but the discovery of a law, a sort of revived correspondence,” he explains. “Writing was invented to stabilize memory. That’s the premise of my gift: we don’t want to forget because we don’t want to die or see others around us die. Writing came into the world so universally because it was a powerful way to counter death.”

Unmarried and uncircumcised, not to mention a virgin, the 29-year-old Ishmael, renamed Zabor by his aunt, spends his days sleeping and his nights healing. In thousands upon thousands of notebooks, he meticulously, taxonomically, records the details of his village and its inhabitants, dutifully visits the bedsides of the dying and invents stories to prolong their lives. His gift has consumed his life. “Strictly speaking, I should never again look up from the page, but stay here, hunched and hard at work, focused on my profound motivations,” he tells us.

As the novel opens, Zabor has been reluctantly summoned by his stepmother and myriad half-brothers (one of whom he is falsely accused of having pushed down a well) to save his father, the butcher Hadj Brahim, who lies dying. For Zabor, this summoning inaugurates an existential crisis, for Hadj Brahim disowned Zabor’s mother after she gave birth, abandoning his wife and newborn son to start a new family with another woman. When his mother died soon after, the semi-orphaned Zabor was left in the care of his Aunt Hadjer, an erotic and temperamental woman whose rejection by countless suitors made her as much of an outcast as her nephew, who was mocked in school for his lanky frame and shrill voice, prone to screaming fits and panic attacks, and for a time even suspected of being possessed by the devil.

As a teenager, Zabor watches his grandfather slowly degenerate, losing his mind and ability to speak. As he alternates between silence and emitting a flood of words, his slow death is like “the madness of a dictionary fighting against erasure.” Soon after, Zabor comes across a copy of the first volume of “The Thousand and One Nights,” a revelatory experience that provides him with the first inkling of his gift. Horrified by the idea that Scheherazade was able to spare only her own life, he imagines an alternative version “where the power of the narrative, written or merely recounted, could keep people alive, but also solder the stones of the palace, the surrounding city, the houses cultivated by this reign, the country and its creases.”

And so, one day, Zabor realizes that his entire life has been oriented toward this gift and responsibility, this potential to prolong the life of his village and his people. In order to do so he fills notebook after notebook with detailed stories about everyone and everything, notebooks he names after famous novels: “Lord of the Rings,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Tropic of Capricorn,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and so on.

But in the case of his father a task Zabor has performed countless times before becomes grounds for an ethical dilemma. Why save the father who abandoned him? Who is ashamed and embarrassed by his son’s very existence? Why prolong a life that has been spent slitting the throats of sheep, thousands of sheep, the sight of whose blood Zabor abhors? “My gift is to preserve life, his was to sow doubt within me,” he thinks. (Behind his deliberations, one cannot fail to hear the plangent call of the son in his silence: “Father, father, why have you abandoned me?”)

Narrated mostly from Hadj Brahim’s deathbed or through frequent flashbacks, “Zabor” has the poetic force of a soliloquy, and in some ways the novel’s plot feels secondary to its reflections on the act and importance of writing. Every other page is enlivened by passages such as this:

Why do we write and read books? To amuse ourselves, responds the crowd, uncritically. Wrong: the need is more ancient, more vital. Because there is death, there is an end, and thus a beginning that it is up to us to restore in ourselves, a first and final explanation. To write or recount is the only way to turn back time, counter it, restore it, control it. There’s a link between conjugation and metaphysics, I’m sure of it.

Because his writing challenges the centrality of Islam, the literal word of God himself, Zabor is regarded with suspicion and hostility by the religious authorities. In his youth, his first attempts at writing are imaginative flights away from the narrow-minded world that surrounds him, from what Daoud elsewhere has called “the immediate taboos of the body”: he imagines the women’s bodies that are everywhere concealed and hidden from him. In one gloriously defiant passage, Zabor even reproaches Saint Augustine: “I hate the way he moans and betrays his body. He’s the Judas of our flesh.”

In its heresy and sensuality, “Zabor” is a celebration of fiction’s secular freedom, its potent ambiguity. Is Zabor as gifted as he believes? Or is he in the grips of some megalomaniacal delusion? Perhaps the distinction doesn’t matter. All fiction writing is a kind of madness, a playful insanity. “When I forget, death remembers,” Zabor says. Faced with the silence of the universe, to write with precision, to remember and recollect, futile though it is, may well be Zabor’s — and our — only recourse.

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