The late professor Robert C. Solomon once remarked that Albert Camus’ The Stranger was a sort of cultural barometer. One generation of students would find Camus’s Meursault a hero, a rebel who refused to play society’s game and follow the script (which is how Camus himself intended Meursault: as “a man who, without any heroics, accepts death for the sake of truth”). Another generation, Solomon said, would find Meursault simply despicable.
When I first read The Stranger as a high school student, I was enamored with and awed by Meursault. His alienation mirrored my own, and his refusal to lie for the sake of propriety appealed to my adolescent sense of angst. Years later, when Stuart Gilbert’s translation was supplanted by Matthew Ward’s, I read it again. Ward’s Meursault was much less sympathetic. Or perhaps I had changed; Meursault seemed criminally anti-social rather than alienated, and his selective honesty a sort of cruelty.
The Stranger is a profound and troublesome book. Now a teacher myself, I too have found the book to be a barometer, but one that reveals more about the individual student than about any particular cohort of students. In my classes, reactions to Meursault tend to be categorical and emphatic: students either love Meursault, or they hate him, which both enhances and detracts from our discussion of the book, because Meursault is such a strange character that Camus’ metaphysical views about the Absurd, his phenomenological narration, his implicit social criticism—all of these are overshadowed by Meursault.
When I ask my students about “the Arab” I am almost invariably met with blank stares.
In Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, the Arab stares back, sad and bitter.
Not the dead Arab left on the beach, of course, but Harun, the dead man’s brother. Harun has also read The Stranger, read it repeatedly, intimately, because it tells the story of his brother’s death. “The original guy was such a good story teller, he managed to make people forget his crime, whereas the other one was a poor illiterate created by God only, it seems, to take a bullet and return to dust—an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name.”
Daoud’s extended monologue is both a reply and an homage to Camus’ The Stranger, but it’s more than simply an engagement with Camus, who is clearly a literary hero and a nemesis for Daoud. In style and tone, the novella is closer to Camus’ The Fall, while the plot is a funhouse mirror of The Stranger reflecting back the original in twisted and illuminating ways.
Like Meursault, Harun shot and killed a man, a French colonial he tells us was named Joseph. There was a woman in Harun’s life, too. Not a Marie, but a Meriem. And Harun’s meeting with an imam is every bit as volatile and vituperative as Meursault’s was with the priest. Yet there’s nothing gimmicky about what Daoud has done here. To understand The Meursault Investigation one must have read The Stranger. Yet, having read The Stranger, one appreciates what Daoud has brought to the text and what a fine writer he is himself.
Interestingly, Daoud’s narrator never mentions Camus by name, nor does he use the term pied noir to refer to French colonials, but the legacy of colonialism haunts the narrator as much as his brother’s ghost. The author-murderer Meursault, “he was el-roumi the foreigner, the stranger.”
“When the murderer leaves prison, he writes a book that becomes famous, in which he recounts how he stood up to God, a priest, and the absurd. You can turn that story in all directions, it doesn’t hold up. It’s the story of a crime, but the Arab isn’t even killed in it—well, he is killed, but barely, delicately, with the fingertips, as it were. He’s the second most important character in the book, but he has no name, no face, no words. Does that make any sense to you, educated man that you are? The story’s absurd! It’s a blatant lie.”
The post-colonial discourse in the book is subtle and nuanced. Even in the narrator’s passing comments we recognize its complexity. For example, while Harun initially learns the colonizer’s language in order to understand Meursault’s book and gather clues about his brother’s murderer, doing so is actually liberating as the colonizer’s tongue ironically becomes a conduit to Harun’s own existential awakening. “Books and your hero’s language gradually enabled me to name things differently and to organize the world with my own words.”
What he becomes is a freethinker.
Meursault hated Sundays, but for Harun “it’s the Friday prayer hour I detest the most… It’s not a day when God rested, it’s a day when he decided to run away and never come back. I know this from the hollow sound that persists after them men’s prayer, and from their faces pressed against the window of supplication. And from their coloring, the complexion of people who respond to fear of the absurd with zeal. As for me, I don’t like anything that rises to heaven, I only like things affected by gravity. I’ll go so far as to say I abhor religions. All of them! Because they falsify the weight of the world.”
Though Daoud chides Western readers throughout, his criticism of fellow Algerians, and more specifically his repudiation of organized religion and fundamentalism, have made him a controversial author and resulted in a fatwa being issued against him—a sad fact that would surely have sickened Camus, because, despite the animosity, there’s also a profound humanity begging to be heard in The Meursault Investigation.
“What’s the point of putting up with adversity, suffering, or even an enemy’s hatred if you can resolve everything with a few simple gunshots? The unpublished murderer develops a certain inclination to laziness. But there’s something irreparable as well: the crime forever compromises both love and the possibility of loving.” His narrator continues: “Indeed, my friend, the only verse in the Quran that resonates with me is this: ‘If you kill a single person, it is as if you have killed the whole of mankind’.”
The Meursault Investigation has already won several literary prizes, and the promotional materials note that theatrical and film versions of the book are already planned in France. John Cullen’s fluent translation will now introduce Anglo-American audiences to Daoud’s brash and sharp-witted narrator, whose colloquial English nonetheless retains its essential “Arab-ness”. Readers may very well conclude that the man who truly, without any heroics, accepts the threat of death for the sake of truth is neither Meursault nor Harun, but Daoud.
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