The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

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Translated by John Cullen

Reviewed by Victoria

In a bar in Oran, Algeria, a lone man sits drinking. He draws his companion – the reader – into his strange and disturbing tale. Many years ago his brother, Musa, was killed by a Frenchman on the beach, and because no one knew this Arab victim’s name, because his body was washed away by the tide and never found, it was a long time before his family was informed. Imagine the narrator’s horror, then, when this very killing becomes the subject of a famous literary novel, his anonymous brother’s murder memorialised forever as an insultingly insignificant and meaningless event. Part revenge, part ghost story, part parallel narrative, the narrator is now going to tell us his version of the story.

If, like me, you are a fan of the works of Albert Camus, your head will be reeling by now with all the echoes and references. Evidently, the novel is a rewriting of The Stranger, Camus’s existential classic from 1942, this time pivoting around the life of the unknown Arab shot by Meursault because – he says – the heat and light on the beach trigger a violent but impersonal reaction. But Oran in Algeria is also the setting for Camus’s novel The Plague, and the narrator addressing a ‘you’ as he sits in the bar telling his life story is also the setting for Camus’s The Fall. Throughout this short but dense novel the nods and winks towards Camus’s works turn up with the regularity of drinks ordered from the bar. It’s a little discombobulating, not least because it underscores the strange emotions that fill the pages. This is a love/hate affair as Harun, our narrator, seems as fascinated by the Frenchman as he is revolted by him. But which Frenchman? Camus’ name is never mentioned, as if he and his character Meursault have strangely merged in a different dimension of time, one in which Musa’s brother can be killed by a fictional character whilst the real-life author’s book falls into his hands and his spirit ghostwrites this novella.

I must admit here that The Meursault Investigation was not at all what I thought it would be. I thought it was a brilliant idea to pluck out that nameless dead Arab from The Stranger and give him back his story. I thought the narrative Daoud would write would fit like a missing jigsaw piece against the original story, that it would explain all the back history of The Stranger that we never get to understand. But no, not at all. This is a very different creature. Instead we have a very digressive, very disjointed narrative from the bitter and rageful Harun. He tells the story of his mother’s relentless grief at the loss of his older brother, a grief that cancels out Harun’s existence and leaves him isolated and bewildered. He tells the story of the thwarted never-quite-made-it love affair he wishes he could have with the research student who unwittingly puts him in contact with the Frenchman’s novel that accounts for his brother’s death. And he tells the story of his own unexpected avenging of his brother’s murder on the back of the Algerian war of independence, an act that brings his life into parallel with Meursault’s, as if the two were alter egos, locked into a certain pattern of destiny.

The language, however, is a world away from Camus’s careful degré zéro, the cool, toneless discourse he employed to see if it was possible to create a way of talking that was not at the same time a rhetorical argument. Daoud isn’t having any truck with that in his narrator. No, Musa’s language is rich and vibrant, dripping with unruly emotions:

My brother was the one who got shot, not him! It was Musa, not Meursault, see? There’s something I find stunning, and it’s that nobody – not even after Independence – nobody at all ever tried to find out what the victim’s name was, or where he lived, or what family he came from, or whether he had children. Nobody. Everyone was knocked out by the perfect prose, by language capable of giving air facets like diamonds, and everyone declared their empathy with the murderer’s solitude and offered him their most learned condolences. Who knows Musa’s name today? Who knows what river carried him to the sea, which he had to cross on foot, alone, without his people, without a magic staff? Who knows whether Musa had a gun, a philosophy, or a sunstroke?

And unlike Meursault’s reluctance to be the hero of his own tale, to own his story emotionally, Harun is determinedly pushing his own issues towards the reader, appropriating the story according to his angry desires.

Maybe it was me, I’m Cain, I killed my brother! I’ve often wanted to kill Musa since he died, to get rid of his corpse, to get Mama’s affection back, to recover my body and my senses, to… In any case, it’s a strange story. It’s your hero who does the killing, and it’s me who feels guilty, and I’m the one condemned to wandering…

By the end of this novel, I felt that it was clever, but frustrating. I was often exasperated by the digressive nature of the storytelling, and wished Harun would just get on with it at points. Like many male-authored post-colonial tales in which race becomes the dominant offended minority, women come off pretty badly, the female body being used in a number of metaphors that made me raise my eyebrows, and the main female characters used as screens on which to project a number of disquieting male attitudes. But there are lots of fabulous sentences strung across the narrative, and the ingenious ways in which this story responds to The Stranger won me over in the end. I found it a really perplexing book, better in contemplation after I’d finished it, both maddening and dazzling during the reading experience. It definitely has a lot to say – but what is it saying? Read it and see if you can find out.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Kamel Daoud (trans. John Cullen), The Meursault Investigation (Oneworld: London, 2015). 978-1780748399, 160pp., paperback.

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