Three Books in Three Days (2): Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

UnknownDay Two of Thoughtful B’s three-day book marathon brings us The Meursault Investigation by Algerian author Kamel Daoud. This is a rich and thought-provoking work that invites a second reading. Translated from the French by John Cullen, it is both a novel of ideas and a generous depiction of human complexity. It’s intended as a riff on Albert Camus’ The Stranger — the classic novel set in colonial Algeria in which a Frenchman (Meursault), apparently estranged from social mores, defies convention by failing to mourn his mother’s death. Later, for the flimsiest of reasons, he murders an Arab.

Daoud’s book gives Meursault’s victim a name — Musa — and a younger brother — Harun — who, seventy years later, still grieves both his brother’s loss and the man’s anonymity. Speaking in the first person, Harun reminds us that Musa has been written out of history, while his killer, Meursault, was made famous by one of the twentieth century’s best-known books. By bringing that unfortunate Arab to life, Daoud confronts the effects of French colonialism in Algeria. (At the same time, he nails those of us who were more intrigued by the moral questions in Camus’ novel than by the fate of its Algerian victim).

Yet Harun has other grievances, including religious extremism and it is here that we see the first hint of his resemblance to Camus’ character, the atheist Meursault. That similarity grows; it’s not a spoiler to disclose that days after the liberation of Algeria from the French, Harun murders a Frenchman — and is rebuked by the authorities for failing to kill in the context of the war of liberation. Just as Meursault felt condemned as much for his failure to grieve his mother’s death as for the murder, Harun bears criticism for poor timing rather than for taking life.

There’s a wonderful alchemy at work here. Like two images fusing into one, the two fictional characters — Harun and Meursault — gradually merge into a composite picture of human frailty. Harun comes to understand that he — and by inference, everyone — mirrors Meursault in such moments of indifferent cruelty. His honesty in the face of so much sorrow, regret and pain embraces both Camus’ moral intentions and Meursault’s truthfulness. To Camus’ rather clinical precision, Daoud adds warmth and passion to his flesh-and-blood character of Harun/Meursault.

A worthy companion to Camus’ The Stranger, this is a novel of great humanity, addressing both the inner life of a human soul and the troubled state of our world.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen, is published by Other Press (New York, 2015).

Tomorrow: An Imperfect Man by John Calabro


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