The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
Many teens read Albert Camus’s The Stranger in high school. From what they tell me, it’s a book they like. Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud has given us Albert Camus’s The Stranger from the Arab perspective. Although you can read this wonderful and compelling little novel without having read The Stranger, it’s a much deeper read if you have–and recently, if possible, because some of the scenes in The Meursault Investigation mirror those in Camus’s work.
The narrator of The Meursault Investigation is Harun. He is the brother of the long dead Musa, Their names are significant because they are the Islamic names for the biblical Moses and his brother Aaron. Musa was killed by Meursault in Algiers on a beach in 1942. Anyone who’s read The Stranger knows immediately that its protagonist is the murderer discussed in this book. But here the story is about how the murder has affected the family of the dead man–an alternate point of view.
Harun tells the tale of his brother’s death and its aftermath to a ‘double’ that he sees in a bar over many visits. We learn that Musa’s body was never recovered, that Harun is incensed that Musa remains unnamed in the news article describing the murder (as if his existence is meaningless), and that justice is never concluded as everyone forgets the incident . His mother, a widow, spends her life seeking answers and retribution. Where she decides to live and all that she hopes to do center on Musa to the point that Harun becomes only a filter through which to see Musa, to reflect on his life and, she hopes, to avenge his death. Harun’s life is destroyed by his mother’s obsession. Even when Algiers achieves independence from the French, Harun is haunted by the past, the present, and his own guilt.
Early on, it appears that The Meursault Investigation is going to be a book about colonialism and its effects on the colonized, on those whose stories have not been told. It is this, but it’s much more. Life becomes so untenable for Harun that we feel his shift to an existential philosophy of existence–his strange embrace of Camus. The read intensifies as we realize that more and more Harun’s life reflects Meursault’s–his relationship with a woman, his life and death decisions. Some of the scenes exactly mirror events in The Stranger. Finally, when Harun says of the ‘double,’ “I’m his Arab. Or maybe he’s mine,” he is completely ambiguous. Perhaps he is talking to a ghost, as he sometimes supposes–or to his own consciousness. Or maybe to Camus. The fact that it could be all of these makes The Meursault Investigation a compelling read.
High school housekeeping: If you’ve read The Stranger, grab a copy of The Meursault Investigation. It’s a short, quick read that belies the depth and intensity of the book. It’s a New York Times Top Book of 2015 and it won several literary prizes in France. If you like books about underdogs, you’ll be intrigued. If you are a deeper thinker and interested in philosophy, you’ll be doubled rewarded.