26 November 2015
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
He was the brother of “the Arab” killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus’s classic novel. Seventy years after that event, Harun, who has lived since childhood in the shadow of his sibling’s memory, refuses to let him remain anonymous: he gives his brother a story and a name—Musa—and describes the events that led to Musa’s casual murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach.
In a bar in Oran, night after night, he ruminates on his solitude, on his broken heart, on his anger with men desperate for a god, and on his disarray when faced with a country that has so disappointed him. A stranger among his own people, he wants to be granted, finally, the right to die.
The Stranger is of course central to Daoud’s story, in which he both endorses and criticizes one of the most famous novels in the world. A worthy complement to its great predecessor, The Meursault Investigation is not only a profound meditation on Arab identity and the disastrous effects of colonialism in Algeria, but also a stunning work of literature in its own right, told in a unique and affecting voice.
Recasting established classics through novels using secondary characters' points-of-view or different cultural lenses - Things Fall Apart after Heart of Darkness, Longbourn after Pride and Prejudice, On Beauty after Howard's End - has created an interesting genre of literature full of books with important and interesting commentary on classism and colonialism/post-colonialism. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud joins in the conversation by taking as its starting point the unnamed Arab who becomes Meursault's victim in Camus's The Stranger.
Daoud imagined an extended family for "the Arab" and, most importantly, a name - Musa. Musa's suriving younger brother, Harun, discourses nightly - and often drunkenly - to an unnamed investigative journalist (and the reader) about how his brother has been forgotten, how his life changed irrevocably, and how the country of Algeria itself has changed since the afternoon of Musa's murder. He wants recognition for Musa, acknowledgement that the French colonizers and literati of Algeria favored acclaim for the murderous Meursault despite his guilt and ignored the poor Alergian man who died. Harun doles out his tale bit by bit.
The Meursault Investigation is a meandering, stream-of-consciousness novel. It wasn't what I expected - I had expected something more like a shifted-perspective novel that overlapped more with The Stranger. There is a bit of that, but Harun is a child of about ten when Musa dies and so can't give the reader much in the way of information about his brother's life. The majority of the plot seems to present Harun as a mirror to Meursault, driven to disaffected murder by the presence of his very-much-alive mother, and aksi comment on the impact of the opposing French colonialization and Algerian independence through Harun who is caught between them. I think the style of the book loses a little something in the translation - it felt stilted and formal at times.
Despite wanting to like The Meursault Investigation more than I did, this was an interesting book. I haven't read The Stranger since high school, so I may have missed some of Daoud's specific points, but as long as one knows the gist of the plot of The Stranger they should be just fine reading The Meursault Investigation. The plots aren't that dependent on details from one to the other.
Bump: If the time period and setting of the book intrigues you, I can recommend Assia Djebar's Children of the New World, a novel set amid the tumult of the revolution and independence movement in Algeria, and the film The Battle of Algiers.
Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.