The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud


Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran; he has written a book mirroring or perhaps responding to Albert Camus's The Stranger which I read in 2012. He begins with the sentence, "Mama's still alive today." while the narrator Meursault of Camus's book tells us right away that his mother had died. 

Perhaps a brief refresher of The Stranger is in order here. Meursault is a Frenchman living in Algeria; we first encounter him as he has arrived at the place of his mother's death where he shows disrespect by drinking cafe au lait, smoking, and dozing as he sits by the coffin. A few days later he shoots a man he doesn't know ("the Arab") on the beach almost by chance. He pauses after the first shot, then fires four more bullets into the inert body. A trial and conviction follow that he feels unconnected to. He becomes animated only when he is castigated by a priest for his cold heart and lack of belief in God. The disrespect he displayed at the time of his mother's death is a factor in his conviction.

Harun, the narrator of this book, is the younger brother of "the Arab" killed by Meursault whose name we learn was Musa. Harun and Musa's mother never find his body and never stop mourning his loss and the lack of respect signaled by the fact he was never named. He tells the story to an unnamed young man he calls "Mr. Investigator" as they drink wine together in the evenings.

I almost never wept for him, I just stopped looking at the sky the way I used to. Moreover, in later years, I didn't even fight in the War of Liberation. I knew it was won in advance, from the moment when a member of my family was killed because someone felt lethargic from too much sun. As soon as I learned to read and write, everything became clear to me: I had my mother, while Meursault had lost his. He killed, but I knew it was really a way of committing suicide. Now it's true that I reached those conclusions before the scenery got shifted and the roles reversed. Before I realized how alike we were, he and I, imprisoned in the same cell, shut up out of sight in a place where bodies were nothing but costumes.

Harun learned the language so he could speak for his brother, though he acknowledges the murderer's story is too well written for him to get any ideas about imitating him. Instead he will use the story to tell his own, just as those living in Algeria after Independence used the stones from the colonists' houses to build their own. The despair and emptiness of his life, an angry exchange with an imam, his murder of a Frenchman are other echoes of Camus's work, the stones he used to build his own house. Harun finds the country built from the ruins of colonial times equally unsatisfying.

What a powerful book.

Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation, Other Press, 2015, 143 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries. 

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