“The Meursault Investigation: A Novel” by Kamel Daoud, translated by John Cullen (Other Press, 160 pages, $14.95, paperback)
It is one of the best-read novels of the 20th century, depicting the philosophy of the absurd that swept post-war Europe and shaped the heart of French existentialism, perhaps the most influential school of thought of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Nearly every liberal arts student has had the book on one of his or her syllabi. Once read, it is rarely forgotten; indeed, few novels have withstood the test of time so well.
Some 70 years after its publication, its crystalline prose still shines as brightly as the Algerian sun that drove its protagonist, Meursault, to commit his decisive, gratuitous act: senselessly shooting a nameless Arab on the beach.
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The book, of course, is “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, still read by thousands around the world, still translated into ever more contemporary versions of English, still gripping the soul of those grappling with the questions of the meaning of life, of fate and destiny, of the existence of God.
A modern classic of philosophical fiction, it has never gone out of style. And it has never spurred a sequel. Until now.
In the hands of Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, “The Stranger” has become the springboard for another novel that serves as both homage and rebuke to Camus’ masterpiece. The primary conceit of “The Meursault Investigation” is that the murder of the Arab on the beach actually took place. And that it was Meursault, not Camus, who wrote the account of the crime for which he was condemned.
It is a brilliant, infinitely rich tour de force of the imagination that never mentions Camus by name but gives Meursault’s victim not only a name – Musa – but a history, a family and a would-be future.
Musa’s story is told by his younger brother, Harun, now an old man squandering his nights in a seedy bar in Oran, talking to a French stranger about the influence of Camus’ novel, its blatant disregard of Musa’s identity, the presence of ghosts in the bottles he empties regularly at closing time and the sad absurdity of his life with his mother, the pair of them defining their sole purpose as seeking justice for Musa’s death.
What makes “The Meursault Investigation” even more compelling is that Daoud adopts the form of Camus’ other classic novel “The Fall,” in which the main character sits in an out-of-the-way bar in Amsterdam explaining his tortured existence and confessing his cowardice to a stranger who returns night after night to hear the mesmerizing tale.
Thus we have the dynamic of Camus’ two powerful books forming the core of Daoud’s singular achievement. Harun’s digressions about overly religious Algeria, his hyperanalytic bemoaning of Musa’s disgrace, his pathetic recitation of the harangued life he shares with Mama – all these lend the novel its driving power to examine the state of present-day Algeria, caught between “Allah and ennui,” and the influence of French-Algerians like Camus who used a foreign language to expose the country’s impoverished soul.
Harun’s diatribe is hypnotic, poetic, soaring on the wings of drink, yet pinpointing the kind of grief that can never stop until justice is served. Tribal justice, that is: a life for a life.
And so Harun tells the stranger of the murder he committed, killing a Frenchman prowling around his mother’s house. More an embarrassment that a punishable crime, the deed earns Harun a night in jail, then his freedom. Algeria’s fight for independence from France had ended only on paper, it seems.
True, Harun’s timing could have been better – before Independence Day in 1962. But another Frenchman lost? A shrug of the shoulders will suffice.
“It’s the end of the day, the stars are coming out one by one, and the night has already given the sky a positively exhilarating depth,” Harun says. “I love this regular denouement; the night calls the earth back to the sky and gives it a portion of infinity almost equal to its own. I killed at night, and ever since I’ve had night’s immensity for an accomplice.”
And under the cover of that night, he has become Meursault’s double.
Daoud’s debut novel won dozens of accolades throughout France, including being named as a finalist for the Prix Goncourt, the country’s pre-eminent literary prize. Only then did the Algerians sit up and take notice, realizing how critical Daoud had been of Islam.
As Harun recounts: “One day the imam tried to talk to me about God, telling me I was old and should at least pray like the others, but I went up to him and made an attempt to explain that I had so little time left, I didn’t want to waste it on God. He tried to change the subject by asking me why I was calling him ‘Monsieur’ and not ‘El-Sheikh.’ That got me mad, and I told him he wasn’t my guide, he wasn’t even on my side.”
This persistent criticism eventually led an Algerian imam to issue a fatwa against Daoud, calling for his death.
Just how real a threat that poses remains unclear. Daoud has continued speaking about his book and the repressive conditions of postcolonial Algeria, while the novel gains ever-widening attention throughout Europe and the United States.
Its originality of vision carries the book a long way toward mastery of its form. Whether it measures up to “The Stranger” is a question only the reader can answer. But it certainly complements Camus’ work, making it fuller and more profound.
Few writers enjoy the enduring stature of Camus. And it is highly unlikely that Daoud will join him. But “The Meursault Investigation” stirs our imagination, showing that literary classics are never finished. They are like jewels, each facet burnished anew by the blinding, burning noonday sun.
Arlice Davenport is books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or email@example.com.