Book review: The Meursault Investigation - Camus' comeuppance
Kamel Daoud has written a homage to Albert Camus, whose Meursault killed 'The Arab' in his book The Outsider, that, while appearing exasperated, is in part a tribute to the French writer
The most notorious literary killing of the 20th century takes place on a deserted beach near Algiers, at two o'clock in the afternoon. The murderer in Albert Camus' first novel, the 1942 classic The Outsider, is white, French and anomic. Questioned about his motives by policemen, lawyers and a priest, he can't really explain why he did it. Maybe, he says, it was the heat.
We're told nothing about the man Meursault killed - "the Arab". When the book was published, this absence was judged to be part of the "absurd" existence proffered by its author as philosophical truth. More recently, Camus has been criticised for his inability to see violence through a non-white, non-colonial prism. Not just Meursault, but Camus, too, it is suggested, didn't need sunstroke not to see an Arab. Does Camus in some sense represent the warped consciousness of white French Algeria?
Kamel Daoud is a well-known oppositional journalist who lives in Algiers under the threat of a fatwa, and this is his first, wholly astonishing novel. He has created the ultimate Camus mixtape.
The Meursault Investigation is a homage to Camus written in a spirit of thwarted exasperation and badly suppressed admiration. Its author would rather not see Camus as a representative of white racism, but the case for the prosecution has to be met.
Daoud's protagonist, Haroun, is the ageing younger brother of Musa, Camus's murdered Arab. He sits in a run-down bar in Oran, getting drunk and talking to anyone who will listen. Haroun tells us confidently that Camus's book is a lie. And of course Meursault wouldn't have been guillotined in 1940s Algeria for killing an Arab. The implication is that the pied noir Camus wasn't equipped to understand such things.
There are no illusions to be found in this wonderfully embittered, beautiful book. It is of course too late to experience nostalgia for French rule, which was vile anyway; also too late to expect anything from the clapped-out, venal inheritors of independence who run Algeria, or the bigots who aim to replace them. Everywhere you look in the present there are stinking slums, ruined public gardens and architecturally misshapen concrete mosques. The beach on which the killing took place is paved over.
Instead of mimicking Camus' clipped, classical French, Daoud writes in a looser and more coloured post-colonial French-Algerian argot. But his ending is pure Camus: all we can do, the old man says, is "hold on to the truth that possesses us".
That will never be enough, and yet, as Camus never failed to tell us, it somehow needs to be.
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (Other Press)