Book review: Kamel Daoud's "The Meursault Investigation"

To kill an Arab

In his impressive novel "The Meursault Investigation", Algerian author Kamel Daoud reopens the case of one of the most famous murders in literary history. His book lends a voice to the Arab murder victim in Albert Camus' "The Stranger" and is also an angry reckoning with contemporary Algeria. By Stefan Buchen

The casualness with which "Arabs" (a term that should perhaps also be broadened to include the word "Muslims") are killed, has recently been the object of frequent criticism. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, airstrikes on Gaza, more than 200,000 victims in the Syrian war, wedding parties wiped out in drone attacks in Yemen and  refugees left to drown in their hundreds in the Mediterranean: these are contemporary contexts in which the lives of "Arabs" appear to be worth less than those of others.

Critics say the loss of these lives is blithely and nonchalantly accepted, because they do not count for much in relation to the security interests and the supposedly legitimate hegemonic claims of the West. The victims remain anonymous. The names of those liquidated by missiles or drowned in the Mediterranean are never mentioned in the media.

The anonymous Arab murder victim has a famous literary prototype. He was created more than 70 years ago by the French writer and Nobel laureate Albert Camus. The murder in question happened on a bright summer afternoon on a Mediterranean beach close to Algiers. The first person narrator, Meursault, kills "an Arab" by shooting him five times with his pistol. "The Stranger" ("L'Étranger") – the title of this modern classic – focuses on the perpetrator, not the victim.

Camus describes the event from the perpetrator's perspective. Much attention has since been devoted to this character by literary critics and generations of European secondary school children alike. Why is office clerk Meursault alien to the world, and why is the world alien to him? If one cannot accept the "dazzling sunlight" as grounds for the murder, what is the significance of him killing another person for no apparent reason? How does this crime stand in relation to the protagonist's detached response to the death of his mother? While exegesis of the novel focuses on the "absurdity" of the act and the question as to whether the perpetrator is guilty purely as a result of this act or whether Camus has perhaps used the "Meursault" character to show that man assumes guilt by his sheer existence alone, the murder victim himself never comes into it. Apart from the fact that he was "an Arab", we learn precious little about him.

Albert Camus (photo: STF/AFP/Getty Images)
"The Stranger" by Nobel laureate Albert Camus (pictured here), which was published 70 years ago, provided the template for Daoud's novel "The Meursault Investigation". Response to the novel in Algeria has been muted, while in France, it has been well received, even being shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Goncourt Prize 2014

Investigation of a "literary crime"

The Algerian author Kamel Daoud has now pulled this skeleton out of the closet of world literature. "Meursault, contre-enquête" ("The Meursault Investigation") is the title of the novel that reopens the murder case. "This really bothers me," says Haroun, the first-person narrator, who adds that after (Algerian) independence, no one made any effort to find out the name of the victim or his address.

Haroun identifies himself as the younger brother of the murdered man, whose name was Moussa. The Biblical allusion is clear: Haroun, the eloquent brother of tongue-tied Moussa, who was denied the opportunity to communicate with his public. Haroun complains that his brother had no opportunity to say a word on the matter.

Haroun had to work hard to acquire his rhetorical skills. His mother is illiterate. She kept a few newspaper reports on the trial against Meursault. It is down to Haroun to decipher them. With revulsion he realises that the judges ascertained Meursault's criminal nature mostly because he reacted with indifference to the death of his mother, rather than the fact that he had killed a person. "I didn't want to accept the absurdity of his death," says Haroun, explaining why he is delving into the past.

Just like Camus' novel, Daoud's response is not a crime novel. Instead, the Algerian author investigates the "literary crime" committed by the great French writer. Meursault was a member of the community of French settlers in subjugated Algeria. This colonial reality is lost in the work of Camus, himself a child of "French Algeria". Camus names and treats the locations in his novel, "Algiers" and "Marengo", as though they were in France, which was indeed the case when viewed from a French perspective in the 1940s.

"The group of Arabs" to which the murder victim belongs is introduced by Camus in barren, sparse sentences. They lean against a wall; "a murmuring" can be heard coming from their direction. One of the Arabs is the brother of a woman with whom Meursault's friend, a pimp, had an affair. Camus does not describe this woman as an "Arab", but as a "mauresque" ("Moor").

Whatever Camus might have intended by using this chiefly romantic term, Daoud's first-person narrator throws this description sharply, bitterly and ironically back at Camus. Algeria's coastline, he says, is like a prostitute who has spread her legs to allow the colonial rulers easy access to the port. And Daoud gives the aimless loitering of "the Arabs" by the wall a more profound meaning. They had been "waiting" for "the strangers", including the "murderous writer", to finally go. They knew that this day would come.

Camus and colonialism

Cover of the French edition of "L'Étranger" by Albert Camus (source: Gallimard)
"The Stranger" by Albert Camus is considered a classic of modern French literature. In it, Camus describes the seemingly random murder of "an Arab", focusing on the life of the French perpetrator in colonial Algeria and not on the victim

Daoud follows in the anti-colonial footsteps of Edward Said. Twenty years ago, in his book "Culture and Imperialism", the great literary critic accused Camus of belittling, suppressing and thereby legitimising the reality of the colonial era in his novels.

He "missed" his murdered brother, reports Haroun. He calls his monologue "a restitution". This means both the "reinstatement" of the identity of the corpse and the recovery of the suppressed colonial context in which the events took place.

Haroun relates how he exacted "revenge" in July 1962. In Hadjout (the Arabic name for the town of "Marengo"), he randomly killed a Frenchman, "a fat man in a checked shirt" called "Joseph". His mother incited him to do it and even accompanied him, he reports. It was his bad luck that he committed the crime just a few days after the declaration of independence. This meant that the authorities had to treat it not as a heroic act of resistance, but as a regular crime. Nevertheless, he says, he was treated leniently by Algeria's new justice system.

In contrast to Meursault, however, he is plagued by "a bad conscience" because of the murder. He cannot simply justify it as an "absurd act". Nor does he need a trial to assure himself of his guilt. He knows he is guilty. And this serves as the final counterpoint to Camus in Daoud's story.

Gradual loss of identity

Cover of Kamel Daoud's novel "The Meursault Investigation" (source: Oneworld Publications)
In his book "The Meursault Investigation", which was released in the UK on 2 June 2015, Daoud takes a closer look at a literary crime committed in colonial-era Algeria. In it, Daoud attempts to restore the identity of the nameless victim killed by Meursault in Camus' world-famous novel

In the second half of his monologue, Haroun grapples more intensively with "the new rulers of this nation", and tears them to pieces. In terse, insistent words he describes a run-down, inhospitable country where society is dominated by religious fanaticism. Haroun complains that people are countering their fear of the absurd with their (religious) fervour. He observes a gradual loss of identity within society, which he cannot offset with his personal "act of restitution". He notes with resignation that with every day that goes by, people dress themselves less and less tastefully.

This level makes Daoud's counter-novel a multifaceted and profound book. This is because while he is still settling a score with Camus, he is secretly and tentatively fraternising with him. The new rulers of the nation may have quickly forgiven Haroun for his act of revenge, but they still reproach him for his "strangeness", his "otherness" ("étrangeté"). Just as Meursault was bored on Sundays, so Haroun is bored on Fridays. He gradually opens up about his fraught relationship with his mother: "I was not her son but her object." Haroun juxtaposes the disturbing indifference in Meursault's relationship with his mother, with an equally disturbing obsessiveness in the mother-son relationship.

The fraternisation with Camus, the "murderous writer", becomes clear at the end of the monologue. Haroun describes his encounter with an imam, who tries to show him the way to find solace in God. In what are to some extent literal allusions, this description is reminiscent of Meursault's encounter with a prison chaplain while on death row. Just as Meursault brusquely rejects the priest, Haroun gives the imam short shrift. In the end Haroun, the stranger in his own, politically independent nation, extends his hand to Meursault, the stranger in modern human existence.

Daoud, whose works primarily as a journalist, has succeeded in carrying out a courageous and impressive experiment with this novel. In the form of a thrilling literary objection, it reflects on the impact of French colonialism in North Africa. In view of current political reality in the Near and Middle East, the subject matter is of great relevance. And quite apart from anything else, Kamel Daoud encourages us to re-read the work of Camus.

Response to the novel has been reserved in Algeria. In France, however, the book has been received enthusiastically and showered with awards.

Stefan Buchen

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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