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Posted on 3 Nov 2015 in Fiction |

KAMEL DAOUD The Meursault Investigation. Reviewed by Adrian Phoon

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meursaultinvestigationThis counterpoint to Albert Camus’s classic The Stranger might just be a classic in itself.

The murder that takes centre-stage in Kamel Daoud’s debut novel, The Meursault Investigation, actually took place in an earlier novel: Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942). In Camus’s novel, the main character, Meursault, famously kills a nameless Arab man on a deserted beach near Algiers. Now, thanks to Daoud, we have a name for the victim: Musa. More than that, we have a startling new voice to relate the tragedies that befell Musa’s family and Algeria in the ensuing decades.

It’s a daring author, not least because he’s a first-time novelist, who decides to take on Camus. Daoud is a journalist who takes aim at both the French colonists who occupied Algeria for 130 years and the inheritors of independence who now enforce strict religious rule there. He achieves this by examining Camus’s legacy as a colonial apologist. It was Camus who reportedly remarked:

At this moment bombs are being planted in the trams in Algiers. My mother could be on one of those trams. If that is justice, I prefer my mother.

In The Meursault Investigation, we see how victims become aggressors, and how families incapacitated by violence can perpetrate ongoing injustice.

The narrator is Musa’s brother, who sits in an Oran bar recounting his life story to an investigator. In a deliberate echo of Musa’s anonymity in The Stranger, our narrator withholds his name (Harun) for almost two-thirds of the novel. Other echoes of Camus’s novel abound. It begins with ‘Mama’s still alive today’ – a play on the opening line of The Stranger: ‘Mother died today.’ In Daoud’s conceit, Meursault was the narrator of The Stranger to whom Harun now positions himself as a counter-narrator, seeking to correct the historical record and replacing Camus’s succinct, emotionally spare prose with a voice that’s lively, lyrical and seething:

Oh, what a joke! Do you understand now! Do you understand why I laughed the first time I read your hero’s book? There I was, expecting to find the last words between those covers, the description of his breathing, his face, his answers to his murderer; instead I read only two lines about an Arab. The word ‘Arab’ appears twenty-five times, but not a single name, not once.

In The Stranger, Meursault’s motives for his ‘majestically nonchalant’ crime are hazy at best. Maybe the murder stemmed from an altercation involving the man’s sister and Meursault’s friend. Or maybe the sun just got in Meursault’s eyes. But Harun, who was seven at the time of Musa’s death, is at pains to tell us that they had no sister. And he connects Musa’s namelessness in Camus’s book to a broader colonial indifference towards the colonised.

Musa’s and Harun’s mother, already ‘not so much a dead man’s wife as the wife of death itself’, becomes a harbinger of vengeance after her son’s murder. Since Musa’s name never appeared in the records or reports that covered his murder, his family was never able to reclaim his body. Instead, they staged his funeral with an ‘empty grave and a prayer for the departed’. His mother fills her life with daydreams of revenge; she has ‘a thousand and one stories’ to tell, and in all of them Musa inevitably returns as a ‘spirit come back from the dead to redress injustice’.

In their mother’s eyes, Harun has never been able to live up to his dead brother, despite her spurring him on to achieve a perverse form of justice in 1962, when he cold-bloodedly murders a French settler. Harun is arrested, not ‘for having committed a murder, but for not having done so at the right time’. A ceasefire had been announced, with Algeria on the verge of independence. An officer of the Army of National Liberation criticises Harun for not committing the murder in the name of the rebellion: ‘You should have killed him with us, during the war, not last week!’

By committing a murder himself, Harun, despite all his reproaching of his brother’s murderer, becomes Meursault’s double. Daoud picks up on a central theme of The Stranger – the absurdity of human indifference to human suffering – and expands upon it. An eye for an eye, a Frenchman’s death for a nameless Arab man’s death: a senseless murder, coupled with the petty complications that dictate whether the murderer is deemed criminal or not, all this enmeshes Harun in the same way it previously caught Meursault.

In The Stranger, during the trial, a prosecutor fastens onto Meursault’s failure to cry at his own mother’s funeral. This fact, more than the act of murder itself, seals Meursault’s fate, consigning him to execution. In Daoud’s novel, the narrator sheds no tears over the cycle of violence in which he has been both a victim and a participant, but this is more indicative of his moral and physical exhaustion than his lack of empathy. He is not executed for his crimes but instead forced to live through his country’s post-independence fall into further decline. Harun is a godless critic of both French and independent rule, in which, as Daoud’s controversial vision would have it, life is a form of suffering in itself. ‘I had so little time left, I didn’t want to waste it on God,’ Harun explains upon confronting an imam. Yet all around he sees signs of the waste created by the religious fundamentalists who have run the country into the ground.

The Meursault Investigation is a richly conceived companion piece to The Stranger. It offers a confident riposte to Camus that also pays homage to him, propelled by a voice that’s as furious and memorable as the characters of William Faulkner’s or Toni Morrison’s stories. Harun’s subversive anger sustains this novel, in equal parts poetry and obloquy. Daoud makes use of Camus to deliver his judgment of Algerian post-independence politics. But just as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea revised the backstories of characters in Jane Eyre from a post-colonial feminist perspective, so Daoud also finds illuminating cultural-political contexts in which to understand Camus. He does it all so deftly, with such a fine touch, that his excoriating ideological project also assumes the dimensions of a major literary achievement. With John Cullen’s elegant English translation, The Meursault Investigation might just become a classic in its own right.

Kamel Daoud The Meursault Investigation Bloomsbury 2015 PB 224pp $19.99

Adrian Phoon is a Sydney writer. He’s appeared in SameSame, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, New Matilda and a lot of karaoke bars. He tweets @highonprose.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.