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"MeursauIt" is the name of the narrator and main character in Albert Camus' novel, The Stranger. It would be very difficult to appreciate Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation without a cursory understanding The Stranger, one of the great novels of the twentieth century. I praise it for its economy of language, the cadence of its prose, the consistency of setting and message, the truth it contains and because it's short (I understand the last of these criteria to be a mere personal bias.) The story line of The Stranger is simple.
Meursault is a French/Algerian living prior to Algeria's independence, which occurred in the early 1960s. His mother has died and while he attends to her funeral, he shows little response. The next day he meets a former girlfriend, Marie, they see a movie and have sex. He meets Raymond, an underworld figure who "lives off women" and beats his "Moorish" girlfriend. Raymond is curious about what Meursault thinks of this, but Meursault had nothing in particular to say about it. Marie asks if Meursault wanted to marry her and he answered that it was okay with him if she wanted to. Raymond invites him to a beach house near Algiers. Meursault takes a walk on the beach and has with him a gun he had taken from Raymond. He comes upon an Arab who had early fought with Raymond. They face each other, the sun beats down, the Arab holds up his knife for Meursault to see, the burning sun makes Meursault approach closer until, "… the trigger gave…", six times in all. The authorities expect Meursault to claim self-defense but he cannot and will not provide any explanation for why the Arab was shot. He is put on trial. His past indifferences are presented as evidence that he is a monster. He is convicted. A priest, with the certitude of revelation, encourages him to confess. In his only show of passion, Meursault shouts down the priest and lays open his heart to the "benign indifference of the universe." Meursault is often understood as a hero of honesty.
The narrator and main character of the The Meursault Investigation is Harun, the younger brother of "the Arab" whom Meursault murdered. He is old now, independence from France has been achieved, and he sits in a bar relating to "my young friend" the story of his and his mother's ordeal following the murder and following his reading of The Stranger, which he calls, The Other, "I know that book by heart, I can recite it to you like the Koran." Of its author, "He writes so well that his words are like precious stones." Intentionally or not, this frame recapitulates the one Camus uses in his novel, The Fall, where the narrator spends his days telling his story in a bar, The Mexico City, situated in Amsterdam.
First, it is necessary for Harun to announce his brother's name, Musa. The Other had given him only a category, the Arab. He was nobody and, on top of that, his body was lost, presumably to the sea. Even his designation, the Arab, was wrong. Harun explains; as with all native Algerians Musa identified not as an Arab but as a Muslim, "Arab-ness … exists only in the white man's eyes." As Harun relates his story, his own character grows more and more similar to Meursault's. He is an outsider, he dresses in the old, pre-independence style, he has no friends, is not devout. His one-time girlfriend, Meriem says to him, "I am Darker than you," exactly what Marie says to Meursault. About his mother, "Yes, Mama's still alive today, and that fact leaves me completely indifferent." And, he murders a man, not under a blazing sun but beneath a "luminous moon" in ambiguous circumstances, an inexplicable event.
There are twists in the story that are unexpected and clever, and the language is often quite descriptive. He knows that his girlfriend has more life and intelligence than he, "It pained my heart to be only her shadow and not her reflection." "As for me, I don't like anything that rises to heaven, I only like things affected by gravity … I abhor religions." His mother lives, "… in her dark little house, her little body huddled up in there like a last piece of hand luggage." Harun describes Meursault, ". . . your hero the murderer — bored, solitary, examining his own tracks, spinning his wheels, trying to make sense of the world by trampling the bodies of Arabs," a thought that brings fourth images of Iraq, Syria, etc.
The book has its flaws. The pacing of the narrative is choppy. There is little to push the reader forward. Its organization is a mystery. Its audience is restricted to readers of the earlier Camus novel. Yet it contains some wise unravelling of colonial hierarchies and an unromantic eye on the aftermath of independence. And the psychology of Harun's mother is perceptive, her frantic searches following Musa's murder and the place in that process in which Harun finds himself. I cannot recommend this novel, except to those as taken by The Stranger as I have been.
© 2017 John Mullen
John Mullen is the author, most recently, of the novel The Woman Who Hated Philosophers, Swallow Tail Press, 2017.