The Meursault Investigation

By Kamel Daoud

Other Press | 2015 | 143 pages | $14.95

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Kamel Daoud

Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has given a gift to the literary world with his retelling of Albert Camus’s 1942 classic, The Stranger, in The Meursault Investigation—told from the point of view of the brother of the Arab killed in the original book.

From the moment Daoud’s debut novel begins, the reader knows this is not a carbon copy of Camus’s landmark volume but a disturbing reflection of Arab culture and politics, with a stinging indictment of colonialism.

As Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation flashback to Harun’s memories of their childhood together while sitting in a bar in Oran in 1962, recalling the oppressing dominance of the colonists, warping the existence of the French, as well as those whom they crushed under foot. The Arabs, the dead man’s brother says, have not fared well upon their independence, noting that “the country’s littered with words that don’t belong anymore.”

He also wonders what kind of man was the killer of Musa, the boy he knew as a child.  

Daoud’s prose penetrates the tortured soul of a grieving sibling, as he tries to make sense of Meursault’s motives when he took the life of his brother, much as a family member would try to rationalize the garbled meaning of any slaying: “Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by ‘the Arabs,’ blurred, incongruous objects left over from ‘days gone by,’ like ghosts, with no language except the sound of a flute.”

The bitterness of the tears over the death of Musa, his brother, is not enough; it all goes back to the expatriates lording it over Arabs, controlling their days and breaths. As our narrator expertly puts it, Meursault, the murderer, represents all foreigners, all those piloting the madness of colonialism, saying: “I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves.”

Glad to have someone’s ear, Harun tells his story in fits and starts, recounting a dream of his fallen brother arising from the Land of the Dead, the disappearance of his father, the tension stemming from Musa’s grudge against their mother for supposedly driving him away.

His brother rarely acknowledged Harun, looking upon him “as a piece of furniture requiring nourishment.” So why is Harun obsessed with his passing? After the murder, Musa’s body is never found. Harun’s conscience is seared because his mother partially blamed him, although he could not alter the tragic event.

Harun recalls the “weird funeral,” after his brother was declared dead following the traditional waiting period of 40 days. His mother was emotionally devastated, ordering him to wear her dead son’s oversized clothes, punishing him psychologically for her loss.

Whereas the Meursault slaying occurs in 1942, Harun finally cracks under his mother’s unquenched need for vengeance and his pressure-cooker guilt. He kills a French settler, so he will ceased to be constantly harassed for not doing anything to get revenge. The truth of this senseless killing frees him, but condemns him to become something less than human.

At this period of this revised look at Camus’s fiction, I thought of two quotes from the famous Africanist thinker Frantz Fanon about the powerless of people in a system that neglects and abuses them. One of them, from Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth: “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.” And the other, from his classic Black Skin, White Masks, notes: “What matters is not to know the world but to change it.”

In the Arab world, religious extremism is the catalyst for change. Daoud’s Harun looks at the upheaval and mayhem created in the wars of independence and doesn’t recognize the aftermath. He wonders if the Arabs have exchanged one cruel master for another. He is confused with the new religious zeal and its blind obedience to dogma.

As Harun says of the turbulent, post-colonist environment, “the truth is that independence only pushed people on both sides to switch roles.”

Who is this Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, who authored the controversial book?  Readers are familiar with his insightful yet scathing columns in Le Quotidien d’ Oran, a French language newspaper, taking on all opposing views in his homeland. He loves Algeria and his people, yet there are those in the Islamic clergy and military who don’t love him. His writing often rails against strict Islamic rule and tyrannical police states.

When this book was first published in 2013 in Algeria, the knives came out, and he became infamous.

In Europe, the book sold to a wide audience. In France, it sold more than 100,000 copies. His book fell short of winning the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. Daoud’s appearance on French television provoked some imams in his homeland, and they issued a fatwa, saying he should be tried for insulting Islam and executed.

Daoud didn’t cower in front of the religious extremists; although he knew more than 70 writers had been killed by Islamic zealots during the civil war of the 1990s. Instead, he became more visible, seemingly to flaunt the boldness of his journalism, refusing to submit to the demands of the military or Islamic extremism.

Daoud’s work joins those who are unafraid to risk all in the Arab world: the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, Nawal El Saadawi, Abdelrahman Munif, Khaled Hosseini, Habib Selmi, Miral al-Tahawy, , Yusef Idris, Mahmoud Saeed, Laila Lalami, and Elias Khoury.

As for Daoud’s literary entry, it’s a beacon of Arab enlightenment and intellectualism, bold and original. First, read Camus’s existentialist work, The Stranger, with its notions of life’s uncertainty, cause and effect, action and consequences, irrationality and meaningless. Then turn to Daoud’s mind-numbing, blistering rewrite from the Arab view and be blown away.

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