“The Meursault Investigation” by Kamel Daoud [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Gwen Dawson, founder of Literary License. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen (Algeria, Other Press)
This year’s longlist is very strong, but I have no problem making the claim that The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud deserves to be at the head of the list. No other book on this longlist will force you to reexamine your reading of one of the Western world’s most studied novels like Daoud’s novel will. On top of that, this novel will expose your unconscious reading bias and, if you’re like me, make you feel pretty guilty in the process. If I were an English professor, The Meursault Investigation would go on my syllabus next semester.
In this novel, Daoud takes on Albert Camus’s The Stranger (sometimes translated as The Other or The Outsider) and dares to tell the other side of the story. For those few of you who escaped having The Stranger as assigned reading in school, it is widely regarded as the classic existential (or, some say, absurdist) novel. Camus wrote it in French and first published it in 1942. To summarize, in the first half of the novel, the protagonist Meursault ends up shooting an “Arab” on a hot sunny beach out of either boredom/ennui or heatstroke (the critics disagree) and, in the second half, he languishes in his jail cell waiting for death while questioning the meaning of life. Meursault eventually concludes, “Nothing, nothing mattered . . .” The story is told in the first person in unadorned, almost acetic, prose.
Daoud comes at this same story from a different angle. His protagonist Harun is the surviving brother of Musa, the “Arab” murdered by Meursault in Camus’s novel. In Harun’s world, The Stranger is a kind of memoir by Meursault, describing his crime and its aftermath. The Meursault Investigation is Harun’s first-person response to Meursault’s narrative, albeit fifty years after the crime. For Harun, Meursault murders Musa first by calling him what he is not (Arab), second, by refusing to call him what he is (Musa), and third, by shooting him five times. All three are inexcusable, and as readers of The Stranger, most of us were complicit in the first two murders, only recognizing the five bullets as wrong.
Unlike many readers of The Stranger, Harun refuses to accept the label of “Arab” for his brother:
Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test . . .
Meursault also neglects to give Musa a name or even a body. Without a body, there’s “a weird funeral” and an “empty grave,” and, understandably, Harun is angry about this:
Just think, we’re talking about one of the most-read books in the world. My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name. H’med or Kaddour or Hammou, just a name, damn it! . . . But no, he didn’t name him, because if he had, my brother would have caused the murderer a problem with his conscience: You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name.
The brilliance of Daoud’s work here is that many of his readers will be recognizing these gaps in the classic story for the first time. When I read The Stranger in ninth grade (I think), all of the focus was on Meursault’s motivations in shooting “the Arab” and his resulting struggle to define the meaning of his life. I don’t recall thinking much about the Arab whose death animates Meursault’s famous philosophizing. This is where the guilt comes in. Why didn’t we think about the murdered man and his family when we read The Stranger? And when we didn’t, why weren’t we taught that we should?
I don’t have space here to unpack all the masterful ways in which Daoud engages with Camus’s novel except to say that the resonances are multilayered and reward close reading. One point of contrast, however, is notable. Both novels were written originally in French, but where Camus writes with spare efficiency, Daoud employs a lush, descriptive language. John Cullen’s translation of Daoud captures the warmth and sensuousness of the language as well as Harun’s conversational tone. The stark difference in linguistic style between the novels highlights the different worlds inhabited by these two protagonists, even though they walk on the same streets.
The Meursault Investigation is uncomfortably thought-provoking in the best way. It deserves to be read and studied alongside its classic companion. Even with only a passing familiarity with Camus’s The Stranger, Daoud’s novel is a rewarding read. The Meursault Investigation’s brilliance, however, becomes most obvious when read right after reading (or rereading) Camus’s classic. It is then that its complex interactions with the classic are best appreciated.