In Algeria, Nobel Prize winner and Algerian-born Albert Camus casts a long shadow over the country’s contemporary fiction landscape. But his reputation there is complex. Few of his well-developed characters are North African, though it is a common setting in his works. Camus also remained ambivalent about Algerian independence until his death, a year before France’s referendum on Algerian self-determination.
Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, translated from the French by John Cullen, explicitly tackles this ambiguous relationship. Camus is never mentioned in the novel; but the book is narrated by an elderly Algerian named Harun whose brother, decades earlier, was shot by a Frenchman on a beach in Algiers. The Frenchman is none other than Meursault, the protagonist of Camus’s renowned philosophical novel The Stranger. Harun summarizes Camus’s book somewhat differently: “A man who knows how to write kills an Arab who, on the day he dies, doesn’t even have a name, as if he’d hung it on a nail somewhere before stepping onto the stage.”
And further: “The original guy was such a good storyteller, he managed to make people forget his crime, whereas the other one was a poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust…”
This kind of pulsing, heady prose draws the reader into Harun’s tale immediately. It’s a tale told in order to give the anonymous victim in Camus’s text a name—Musa—and a story of his own: a tale told to an anonymous Frenchman apparently writing a thesis on Camus who has tracked Harun down to a bar in Oran. (The stranger in the bar to whom the protagonist tells his tale serves as the frame for another of Camus’s novels, The Fall. In that novel the stranger is the reader, while in Daoud’s the Frenchman may well stand in for the Western audience of Camus’s works.). There he muses on that fateful day and on his mother’s, and his own, subsequent obsession with discovering what happened. Initially equipped with only two lines in a newspaper relating the shooting, Harun learns little more from Camus’s famous book, which he considers a factual account of Meursault’s murder. In one of Daoud’s beguiling literary tricks, his and his mother’s search for answers is doomed both because the story itself is fiction—why else was Musa’s body never found?—and because it exemplifies the invisibility of Algerians beneath a constant Western presence.
Like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which revisits the story of Bertha Mason, the Jamaican “madwoman in the attic” in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, The Meursault Investigation relies heavily on Camus’s novel for plot points, structure, and even tone. The novel begins with “Mama’s still alive today” rather than the famous first line of The Stranger: “Mother died today.” (Although that translation is problematic, the translator chose to echo it just as Daoud’s original “Aujourd’hui, M’ma est encore vivante” echoes Camus’s “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte.”) Both Meursault and Harun seek solace in a woman, respectively Marie and Meriem, each of whom fades away in time for them to continue their search for self-knowledge.
Harun, in fact, comes to resemble his antagonist Meursault more and more. The very day that the Algerian war of independence ends, Harun shoots and kills a Frenchman—a roumi, a stranger or foreigner (like the French étranger) wandering about Harun’s and his mother’s home—ostensibly as retribution for his brother’s murder. Though he is released, an imam later tries to convince him to turn his soul to God, just as a priest approaches Meursault in his prison cell in The Stranger; both defiantly refuse. And while Meursault is ultimately condemned not for shooting the “Arab” but for not showing enough grief at his mother’s funeral (or refusing to play the game, as Camus would later say), Harun is targeted because he shot the Frenchman not in the chaos of war but only a few hours after the war had ended.
As he increasingly resembles his enemy, Harun fails to conform entirely to a postcolonialist hero set against a Western enemy. But while The Meursault Investigation certainly critiques Western attitudes toward the foreign other, including those implicitly present in The Stranger, the strength of the novel, like Rhys’s, stems from its ability to stand on its own terms rather than as a gloss of the earlier work. Meursault questions why it’s so easily accepted that Meursault’s victim could remain a nameless “Arab” on a beach, murdered in the interest of philosophy, which so often claims to be universal.
But Daoud also counters this absurdity with another, railing against religion and Islamic society in addition to the more secular nationalist ills sweeping Algeria following independence. He parses the absurdity of the greedy, gluttonous development incessantly pursued by Algerians themselves. “They’ve been devouring everything in sight for years,” claims Harun. His mother calls this process the “endless serpent,”
“As the years have passed,” Harun says, “the beast has become less picky and even eats whatever pieces of sidewalk are available.” In his prison cell, Harun goads an officer into concluding, stumbling over his words, that Harun should have shot the Frenchman several hours before he did—before rather than after July 5—and ends up revealing not only the absurdity of the murder but the absurdity of the authorities in a newly-liberated Algeria. In giving Meursault’s victim a name, Daoud also grants him the gnarled complexities and twisted narratives that inevitably accompany agency in narrative, and in life.