“A man who’s drinking is always dreaming about a man who’ll listen,” advises Harun, the aged man sitting in a bar in Oran, Algeria, in the opening chapter of The Meursault Investigation. His companion, night after night, is a young student intent on sorting out the mystery behind the iconic text he carries in his briefcase. What unfolds over a series of encounters is the tale of the unnamed Arab murdered in the pivotal scene of L’Etranger by Albert Camus. In presenting Harun as the fictional counterpoint to Camus’ Meursault, Algerian author Kamel Daoud sets up to name and flesh out a life not only for the victim of violence on that hot beach, but for his brother and mother as well. What follows is more than an homage; it is an active dialogue from the other side of the equation – ethnically, politically and historically.
An acquaintance with L’Etranger is not only assumed but a recommended prerequisite to The Meursault Investigation. Both are novellas so reading or reviewing the former in advance is not an arduous task. I last read Camus’ classic in late 2013 with The Guardian Reading Group so I had the advantage of being able to search the online archives for my own reflections and the discussions that ensued. I still found myself dipping back into my own copy as I started out with this book but as I fell into the story it no longer seemed necessary.
Our narrator this time around is immediately a more likable character than our old friend Meursault. He is not happy, but we have a context for our sympathies. He is seven years old when his beloved older brother Musa meets his senseless fate. Their father had disappeared before he had a chance to even form a memory of him so his brother was his hero and a surrogate father figure. His senseless death, unreported save for two obscure newspaper accounts his mother clings to, cannot be proved. No body is ever found. After all, in the novel in which he is killed he is neither named nor is the fate of his body mentioned.
His mother becomes obsessed with seeking answers. In the process Harun is reduced to a shadow of himself, he feels like an effigy of his brother. He follows his mother as she searches for clues. He is blamed for surviving and denied his own identity. He becomes a ghost in his own life. While Meursault’s relationship with his mother is, from that famous opening line – “Mother died today” – cold and flat, Harun and his mother share a complicated, emotional dynamic. “Mama’s still alive today” he reminds us repeatedly, but both are wounded and reduced, survivors of the unnamed Arab in an uncertain and shifting post-colonial Algeria.
Eventually he is led to avenge his brother’s death by taking the life of a Frenchman. It is, in itself, an act rooted in the story of Cain and Abel:
“I blame my mother, I lay the blame on her. The truth is, she committed that crime. She held my arm steady while Musa held hers and so on back to Abel or his brother. I’m philosophizing? Yes, yes I am. Your hero had a good understanding of that sort of thing; whether or not to commit murder is the only proper question for a philosopher, the only one he ought to ask.”
In an echo of L’Etranger, where Meursault is condemned to death not for killing an Arab, but for failing to cry at his mother’s funeral; Harun faces imprisonment not for an act of murder, but for killing his Frenchman one day after the Declaration of Independence rather than alongside his countrymen during the battle for freedom. Close on the heels of this new found Independence, some two decades after his brother’s death, our hero finally encounters the famous text which he instantly recognizes as explaining, complementing and mirroring his own. He is at once intrigued and dismayed.
The echoes with L’Etranger resound throughout this novel. Daoud answers the absurdity of Camus with his protagonist’s own absurd predicaments. He matches Meursault’s rejection of God with Harun’s dissolution with his faith. But his hero’s hopes and disappointments are his own, solidly grounded and charged with a power that, from the Algerian perspective 70 years out from the publication of the original inspiration, demands to be heard.
This is, of course, not the first time that fiction has been answered by fiction, untold stories have been re-imagined, or silenced characters have been granted voice. The Meursault Investigation has been met with international praise, a measure of skepticism and, in the author’s home country, calls that he be tried for blasphemy. Translated from the French by John Cullen and published by Other Press, this is a deceptively simple yet deeply important work. Time will tell how it holds up in the light of such a famous counterpoint, but, for my money, it has to be seen as a continuation of a conversation that will, because it is so deeply informed by L’Etranger, serve to draw Camus’ work forward into twenty-first century discourse while setting its own very important and timely literary agenda as we move forward.
Besides, Harun with his diversions and penchant for storytelling is much better company than poor miserable old Meursault.