The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
Review by Feroz Rather
Albert Camus is a modern prophet of humanism. He was born in 1913 in Mondovi, Algeria, into the French settler community. For eight months he lived with his father who, when the World War First broke out, was called up. Lucien was wounded in the Battle of Marne and died in the October of 1914. Left behind in poverty, to his deaf, illiterate mother, Catherine, a bright Camus managed to do well at school and establish himself as a journalist and writer. When in 1954 the War for Liberation against the French raged violent, Camus was devastated. But because of his insistence on the humanist ideals to locate the essence of being beyond and outside history, because of his political ambivalence and fissured loyalties, he denied the possibility of an independent Algerian Muslim nation. “She cannot, because she could never agree to throw one million, two hundred thousand Frenchmen into the sea,” he wrote in an essay.  In the novel—the oblique narrative hiding away in the deeper shores of human consciousness—with a hero, sun-dazzled and drunk, and clad in a cloak of his own amorality, such “a metonymy for cowardice” becomes both dangerous and morally fraudulent.  What staggers one is not only the apathy of Meursault as he “shatters the balance of the day” by killing a human and firing “four shots more into the inert body,” but the way he—across the bloodied colonial divide—renders the other with a blanket designation: the Arab. In this moment, Meursault’s metaphysics with its stark Schopenhauerian strain implodes and humanism—a philosophy prophesying universal beneficence—reaches its utmost limit.
Some seventy years, Kamel Daoud confronts the world about the injustice of the crime. The Meursault Investigation is told by the murdered Arab’s brother, who like the writer himself lives in the city of Oran. An old man, Harun is a reckless drunk with the biting tongue of a blasphemer. He sits in a bar and through his fulminations, creates the swerving backstory in its agonizing and telling detail. Apparently, Harun’s mission is to restore his brother the dignity of a name. Musa, he tells us, has a family and a country. Musa, he clarifies, has no sister, least of all a slutty one that Camus’s pimp Raymond abused. Musa is not “a [fucking] poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of a taking a bullet and returning to dust.”  But there is more to Harun: it’s his philosophical proclivity, his skepticism and disgust for the certitudes of a bloated, religious world-vision, his unabashed and grating humor that make him memorable.
In Hisham Mattar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance the Libyan-British writer draws from a real-life incident—that of his father’s disappearance—and works it into a fictional love-triangle, where a child is left with a beautiful step-mother to bereave his father’s disappearance in exile. Such a dynamic broaches a comparison with The Meursault Investigation, where a fictional murder assumes the dazzling weight and force of reality. Like Hisham’s narrator, Harun’s father and Musa—the older brother who supplied the father-figure in father’s absence—is missing. Harun’s mother’s insists to be an eternal mourner of Musa to the extent that Harun’s own existence seems odd and obliterated. He is reduced to a receptacle of his mother’s grieving utterances, and someone who’d eventually avenge Musa’s death. This brings about a subtle, incestuous tension to drive forward a story otherwise lusting for revenge.
Harun indeed does murder a Frenchman. But the way he is treated by the authorities of an independent Algerian nation, his absurdity matches the absurdity of Meursault. Inside the prison, the jailer slaps him not because of killing a human but for his absence from the War for Liberation. This is Daoud’s way of interrogating nationalism as an ideology that gives individuals the moral conviction to slaughter: the French before the Algerians and the Algerians after the French.
The Meursault Investigation is stylistically similar to Camus’s The Fall, in that it’s a monologue and addresses its readers directly and the scope of the narrative is broadened through frequent digressions and philosophical reflection. Mocking religion, for instance, Harun in the beginning passingly says to the addressee: “Drink up—in a few years, after the end of the world, the only bar still open will be in Paradise.” There are times when one forgets that it is not an individual voice but Algeria itself that is talking. Thus, The Meursault Investigation is in the league of novels like Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist in which the Ottoman Turk and the American-educated Pakistani speak respectively on behalf of their countries, engaging their Western counterparts in a blistering civilizational dialogue.
- Messud, Claire. “Camus and Algeria: The Moral Question.” The New York Review of Books. November 7, 2013.
- See Alice Kaplan’s introduction to Algerian Chronicles. Harvard University Press. 2013.
- Daoud, Kemal. The Meursault Investigation. New York. Other Press. 2015.
Feroz Rather is a doctoral student of Creative Writing at Florida State University. The Night of Broken Glass–his novel-in-stories about the war in Kashmir, is forthcoming from Harper Collins.