“The Meursault Investigation” by Kamel Daoud is a retelling of the 1942 French novel by Albert Camus. Camus’ book, “The Stranger,” tells the story of Meursault, a man who resigns himself to a desensitized life with little care in the world. The book begins with the death of Meursault’s mother, and his indifference to her passing.
His apathy continues throughout the story, even when one day, while wandering on the beach he shoots and kills an Arab man for which he is eventually tried and found guilty. Camus never elaborates on the identity of the murdered man other than calling him an Arab. In Kamel Daoud’s retelling, he unfolds the story of the victim, giving him a name and a face and historical context, which is interwoven with the trials and tribulations of living under French colonial rule in Algeria and finally independence.
The opening line of Daoud’s book, “Mama’s still alive today,” is a direct antithesis to Camus’ opening, “Mother died today.” Unlike Camus’ book, Daoud’s story is told from the perspective of Meursault’s victim’s brother, Harun, in the coastal city of Oran, Algeria. In a bar, Harun sits with a man and recounts his life and that of his older brother, Musa, whom he describes as “a brief Arab, technically ephemeral, who lived for two hours and has died incessantly for seventy years, long after his funeral.”
Harun remembers Musa as a “tall” man whose “body was thin and knotty from hunger and the strength anger gives,” and the life, that he and his mother lead after Musa’s death. Recalling Musa’s last morning, when he said he’d be home early, Harun and his mother are eventually told by neighbors that Musa has been killed by a foreigner, El Roumi, when he does not return. Unable to read French newspapers to know if it is true, Harun’s mother leaves the house to search for Musa, but is unable to find any information at the police station. They cannot tell her the name of the victim or locate his body. Musa ceases to exist, as he did in “The Stranger,” and Harun and his mother are left to mourn a ghost.
“He was Musa to us, his family, his neighbors, but it was enough for him to venture a few meters into the French part of the city, a single glance from one of them was enough, to make him lose everything, starting with his name…”
Daoud’s novel is a heart-wrenching story of loss and of identity. Harun’s brother, Musa, thought of, with the wide stroke of a brush, as just an Arab and nothing more, is elaborated upon to mean more than just a word. “Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes,” Harun says. Unlike Camus’ wide strokes of generalness, Daoud focuses on unique characters with personalities. He explains in detail how Harun and his mother must live their lives without Musa, which is close to impossible. And in turn, Harun becomes the only focus of his mother’s attention, as she watches his every move, keeping him close, and he feels as if he must become Musa to appease her.
The story offers a narrative that is filled with charms, places and history. Harun speaks of Algiers, a city that he is still afraid of, of Algerian society and its men and women. He gives insights, such as how the women in his neighborhood were “sisters” and that the men had to defend them, “after losing their land, their wells, and their livestock, women were all our guys had left.” He speaks of a life that is driven by a murder but one that ultimately finds its own path in the murderer’s shadow. “I learned to read, not because I wanted to talk like the others but because I wanted to find a murderer…”
The story, from Harun’s perspective, is vivid and real. Where “The Stranger” was cold, “The Meursault Investigation” is not. Every word emotes a feeling that is not only insightful, it gives one a feeling of incompletion and helplessness as often history does.
After Musa’s death, Harun and his mother leave Algiers and move to Hadjout where his mother works as a housekeeper in a French family’s house and he as a chore boy. He becomes the only man to watch over his mother in a land on the brink of independence. One night, he kills a Frenchmen after he hears a noise outside. Thinking it is someone coming to kill them, he shoots the man. Harun recalls that the next day his mother sang as if she was celebrating Musa’s return.
Daoud speaks of identity and language, of occupation and independence, of life and death, giving each word its own weight, putting to the forefront an answer to the question, can life be of value if it is lost in a way one does not understand and reported in a language one cannot read?
“The reason why your hero tells the story of my brother’s murder so well is that he’d reached a new territory, a language that was unknown and grew more powerful in his embrace, the words like pitilessly carved stones, a language as naked as Euclidian geometry,” Daoud writes.
First written in French in 2013, Kamel Daoud’s novel is one that has received acclaim and one that tells a complete story. It is one that explores human emotion and circumstances. Every line Daoud writes for Harun is one filled with not just words and meanings, but history and insight, often repeating the idea that no life is without value. To know the other side of the story is not only important, it is necessary.
— Manal Shakir is the author of “Magic Within,” published by Harper Collins India, and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.