The Stranger, Albert Camus’ iconic 1942 novel of disengagement, opens with the line, “Mother died today”(1). Kamel Daoud’s debut novel, The Meursault Investigation (June 2015), just published in America, begins, “Mama’s still alive today” (1). Thus Daoud, an Algerian journalist, whose title identifies Camus’ murderous storyteller, announces in his wild, possibly mad, ambition to wrestle with the Nobel Prize winner’s short stunning novel, one of the 20th century’s most widely read. Given that The Stranger animates Camus’ philosophy of existentialism, and his beliefs about the meaninglessness of life by way of a pointless murder, Daoud’s audacity is breathtaking. I opened the book with wonder and trepidation – only to be swept away by Daoud’s passion, his hallucinogenic prose, and his exquisite rendering of one man’s furious response to the murder of his brother decades earlier; an event that sucks into its vortex the violent racist history of colonial Algeria.
Has any student anywhere not read The Stranger? Has any fiction lover somehow missed its bleak account of an opportunistic murder (on a beach in bright sunlight) and the consequent imprisonment and death by guillotine of the narrator himself, Meursault? I read it in high school and again in college, in its original French, a feat I could not now repeat if my life depended upon it. Rereading The Stranger is never a chore because Meursault is an obdurate anti-hero and the novel, despite the clarity of its prose, does not offer up its secrets easily. For me, and for generations of other artsy iconoclastic students, The Stranger shimmered deliciously with the angst many of us felt. In fact, the novel has become a kind of talisman of alienation, showing up in the hands of characters in The Sopranos, The Life of Pi, and Mad Men, and in the lyrics of a hit song by The Cure.
But not once, in any of my readings, did I understand the novel’s anguished context; was never taught it by my teachers. Knowing nothing of its context, I failed to grasp the novel’s most significant resonances: that Algeria, at the time, remained under brutal French rule. That Meursault, like his creator, was white, a Frenchman born in Algeria, and his unnamed victim was an Arab. That, at the time of the murder, the oppressed and poverty-stricken majority population was about to explode into revolution, one that would last for eight years and cost hundreds of thousands of Algerian lives.
Which brings us back to Daoud’s brilliant story, a post-colonial howl of outrage against Algerian history, and perhaps, too, against the way in which most of us have understood Camus’ novel. “Algiers in my memory is a dirty corrupt creature, a dark, treacherous man-stealer” (21), says Haroun, the narrator.
Haroun is the drunk at the bar who buys you the first drink so you’ll listen to his story, then hangs onto you, never allowing you to escape. Using this device, Daoud, by way of Haroun, repeatedly goads and chides his listener, the reader. “You’re asking me if I want to continue? Yes, of course, at last I have a chance to get this story off my chest!” (15)
On the first page Haroun takes on Camus who, like Meursault’s victim, remains unnamed. “The original guy was such a good storyteller he managed to make people forget his crime,” Haroun says, but he’s determined to make us remember and understand exactly what that crime meant. In brief, lyrically rendered sections, peppered with wit (Haroun begins drinking early in the day because his acid reflux only strikes at night) Haroun argues that the endemic racism and white privilege of colonialism are at its savage heart. But Haroun, it turns out, has his own dreadful secrets, and he shape-shifts into a kind of double of Meursault, compelling, but also paradoxical and unyielding.
Early this year, two Islamist brothers, the orphaned sons of Algerian immigrants, attacked the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people. Described as a jihadist assault, it had roots at least a century deep and shined a terrible light on the festering wound of French-Algerian relations. This is the muck that Daoud dances in The Meursault Investigation, which is just 143 pages long (compared to The Stranger’s 125 pages), and beautifully translated by John Cullen. It offers, on every page, the riveting voice of a new novelist, and the compression of poetry, at times exhausting but always exhilarating.
Reviewed by Julia MacDonnell
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