“Mama’s still alive today” (Chapter I*). So begins Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, the long-needed Arab version of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger. Narrated by the brother of the man Meursault killed in L’Étranger, Harun, The Meursault Investigation is an inversion of Camus’ novella and a post-colonial re-examination.
Seventy years after Harun’s brother, originally unnamed in L’Étranger, their mother is still alive. Both are still haunted by the loss of Musa on that sun-dazzled beach. The Meursault Investigation is a wandering tale told by Harun to an unnamed student in one of the last bars in Oran. Harun takes us back to that day in the summer of 1942. Musa’s family were not informed until late in the day. The newspapers—and the famous book—never named Musa and information was thin on the ground. Harun exclaims at one point, “Good God, how can you kill someone and then take even his own death away from him?” (Chapter I). Even after Algeria gained independence in the early 1960s, Harun and his mother never found out what really happened that day. Worse, Musa’s body was never found.
Meursault’s crime destroyed Musa’s family. Harun was treated as a poor stand-in for his older brother by a vengeful, toxic mother. The family lived in poverty for twenty years after Musa was killed. Even now, Harun reveals himself to be a twisted, angry, old man who despises women and laments his own politically and maternally approved crimes. Daoud’s novel paints L’Étranger as a supremely selfish work.
In The Meursault Investigation, Harun eventually reads L’Étranger (always referred to as the book). He tells his interviewer, “I read it twenty years after it came out, and it overwhelved me with its sublime lying and its magical accord with my life” (Chapter IV). Perhaps it was inevitable that Harun would also become a killer. He says, “I’d known for years that when I killed somebody, I wouldn’t have to be saved, judged, or questioned by anyone” (Chapter VIII). Harun’s act of murder, when it does happen, is viewed by everyone as justifiable revenge—even though Harun’s victim was a Frenchman in the wrong place at the wrong time and had nothing to do with Musa’s murder. The “magical accord,” at times, is frighteningly similar between Harun and Meursault.
As I read, I scribbled (digitally) all over my copy of The Meursault Investigation, marking all the parallels and inversions. On the one hand, this book can be read as a direct response to L’Étranger; it can also be read as a work of fiction. It’s hard for the book to do both. If it’s fiction, there are too many coincidences for plausibility. As meta-text, the book does lose some of the re-humanization Daoud is attempting to bring to Musa and his family. In spite of its issues, however, I think this book has been a long time coming. Musa, “the Arab,” was a nameless, faceless character in L’Étranger. It was fitting that I read it in the midst of the protests and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
L’Étranger is often viewed more as a philosophical work than one of fiction. The Meursault Investigation reminds readers that the Frenchman’s crime was to take the life of another human, who may have had people who loved him and depended on him. L’Étranger is Meursault’s story; The Meursault Investigation is about the people who were left behind after a murder.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 June 2015.
* Quotes are from an advanced reader copy of the 2014 edition by Other Press, translated by John Cullen from the French.