The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
Translated from the French by John Cullen
Publisher: Other Press
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
Even if you’ve never read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, you probably have an opinion about it. It’s one of the great works of the Western canon, the one that was many people’s first introduction to existentialism. Perhaps you even know its famous opening line:
Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.
(translation by Matthew Ward)
In The Meursault Investigation, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud has taken on the sacred cow that is The Stranger, exploring the life of its murder victim, an unnamed Arab. By giving this man a name and a life, Daoud demands that we look imperialism in the eye and see it for what it is, see its lingering effects in the life of one rather ordinary Algerian man. This book is a good story and it is also metaphor, as was Camus’.
The narrator is Harun, younger brother of the man Meursault killed. Harun is an old man by the time of Daoud’s novel, and he tells his story to an unnamed stranger in a bar. They drink cheap wine in a bar in Oran as Harun tells his family’s tale and finally gives the victim his name: Musa.
You can turn that story in all directions, it doesn’t hold up. It’s the story of a crime, but the Arab isn’t even killed in it – well, he is killed, but barely, delicately, with the fingertips, as it were. He’s the second most important character in the book, but he has no name, no face, no words. Does that make any sense to you, educated man that you are?
Daoud brings Musa to life, and makes visible a family tragedy, ripple effects of two crimes: the murder of a man and the refusal to give him a name. Without a name or a body, Musa’s mother is never able to secure a pension. Bitter and impoverished, she searches everywhere for her son, then later for the man who killed him. Harun eventually studies French in order to read to his mother two brief newspaper clippings about the murder that she carries every day close to her heart.
In both novels, punishment is not about the crime, but about societal norms. Meursault is convicted not of murdering an unnamed Arab but of being indifferent to his mother’s death. When Harun finally metes out his own mother’s rough justice, he is not exonerated but he is set free because Algeria has just won its independence from France in a brutal war.
At points, The Meursault Investigation tightly parallels The Stranger in structure, plot, and language. Daoud, it seems, is testing us: Do we read the same events differently if the person telling them is named Harun and not Meursault? How do we imagine a pretty, independent young woman named Meriem compares to a pretty, independent young woman named Marie? Is standing up to the pieties of an imam the same as standing up to those of a priest?
But Harun is not an Algerian version of Meursault. Where Meursault is ambivalent, Harun is angry. Where Meaursault is passive and blindly honest, Harun is self-aware and working hard to prove his case. Meursault’s mother may be dead from her very first appearance, but Harun’s is eternally alive, eternally searching for her son Musa.
Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.