FICTION

Book review: The Meursault Investigation - Camus' Arab has a name

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm

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Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation turns Albert Camus' novel The Stranger inside out in a provocative but occasionally irritating way.

Like the late Nobel laureate Camus, Daoud is an important voice in the world of Algerian writing, but an independent one who annoys hardliners and the orthodox.

In The Stranger, Meursault, a young French Algerian, shoots and kills an Arab man on the beach. The dead man is never named.

Harun, the narrator of The Meursault Investigation, claims the dead man was Musa, his older brother. To Harun, Meursault's biggest crime isn't the murder per se, but the way Meursault's story depersonalises his brother: "A man who knows how to write kills an Arab who, on the day he dies, doesn't even have a name, as if he'd hung it on a nail somewhere before stepping onto the stage."

Musa's body was never found. He seemed to have vanished from the annals of the world itself, leaving his mother unable to receive death benefits. In an attempt to prove his brother's existence, Harun investigates Meursault's crime, finding reasons to question everything.

The Meursault Investigation is suffused with the spirit of Camus. It incorporates and reworks bits of The Stranger and is set in Oran, the site of Camus' second novel, The Plague. Harun even referenced the inspiration for The Stranger: "Just try to imagine the level of genius required to take a local news item … and transform it into tragedy, describing the scene and the famous beach, grain by grain."

Especially in the opening chapters, Daoud's novel closely resembles Camus' The Fall: an older man tells his confessional to an unknown listener in a bar.

Like Clamence, the judge-penitent of The Fall, the elderly Harun can be an irritating monologuist, weaving digression and rhetorical flourishes in and around his obsession.

Yet Harun reveals himself to be nearly as estranged as Meursault, an apostate who drinks, shunned and mocked by his religious neighbours in an Islamic country.

Harun, too, has killed. In this case, a Frenchman, "because I had to counterbalance the absurdity of our situation".

Just as Meursault is convicted and sentenced to die less for the actual murder and more for his callous behaviour afterward, Harun is called to account not for shooting the Frenchman itself, but for when he shot him: after Algerian independence, rather than before.

Daoud's novel may have unexpected resonance for American readers in a time of increased public focus on the deaths of black men in encounters with police.

Whatever the specific facts of each incident, the marches and protests that followed have collectively echoed Harun's cry: "My brother was a human being. Remember his name."

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (translated by John Cullen) Other Press

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