On the surface, the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s slim novel The Meursault Investigation is a subversive retelling of Albert Camus’s The Outsider. Where that 1942 classic is narrated by Meursault, a French Algerian who kills an unnamed Arab in a fit of alienation, Daoud gives us the perspective of the dead man’s brother; the unnamed victim is no longer a cipher in an existentialist drama, but a person who can and must be mourned. Daoud executes this enormous task nimbly, but there is far more to his book than a clever deconstruction of a canonical novel. The Meursault Investigation is also a meditation on bereavement and a lament for the growing hold of conservative Islam on post-independence Algeria.
The story unfolds as a suspenseful monologue in which the narrator, Harun, sitting in a bar in Oran, addresses an unidentified interlocutor. Harun (Aaron), we learn, is the brother of the dead Arab, upon whom Daoud bestows the name Musa (Moses). Harun’s “counter-investigation” into Meursault’s crime becomes a penetrating inquiry into loss itself, within the suffocating strictures of a family unit and across a specific expanse of fraught history.
Harun’s mother urges on his quest; because of Musa’s namelessness — Camus’s fiction has priority in the popular imagination — she has never attained the local status of the mother of a martyr, a shahid. She has no way of proving that the dead man was her son. It is a loss that recreates in miniature what Algerian society experienced at the hands of French colonialism: “The whole world eternally witnesses the same murder in the blazing sun, but no one saw anything, and no one watched us recede into the distance.” There is, he says, “not a trace of our loss”.
In the tumultuous days directly after independence, mother and son occupy a house in the countryside abandoned by departing colonials. One night, a Frenchman stumbles into the house in the dark; Harun’s mother presses him forward, and with two shots Harun commits what he describes as “not a murder but a restitution”, and helps his mother withdraw “her immense vigilance from the universe”.
Afterwards, Harun feels “a kind of worthiness, but without honor”, and, like Camus’s Meursault, awaits justice that pivots on an absurd and irrelevant point. Just as the prosecutor trying Meursault faults him for not crying at his mother’s funeral, the Algerian police are indifferent to the fact that Harun has committed murder. What they balk at is the timing — a day after independence, rather than before — and his refusal to have become a mujahid, joining the “brothers” in the resistance against the French. Both Musa and Meursault are ultimately guilty of refusing to play their societies’ respective games.
“It bothered a great many people that I was sitting there in the middle,” Harun says, and it is on this observation that the novel turns, relaying in vivid scenes the creep of religious conservatism in daily life. With the French gone, Harun recalls, Algerians took to fighting one another, and sought “something bigger as a counterweight to the abyss”; that something, unnamed but clearly Islam, is devouring them. With the presence of God becoming so “alive and heavy”, there is no space any longer for men such as Harun to live openly, unjudged. Colonialism is complicit even here. If the men of Algeria have developed an “exaggerated, grotesque sense of honor”, or ownership of their women’s sexuality, it is because after they lost “their land, their wells, and their livestock, women were all our guys had left”.
The Meursault Investigation, which this year won the Goncourt first novel prize, contains stories within stories, yet its narrative vitality never flags. The book’s most intimate thread is the relationship between Harun and his mother, a portrait of mutual repulsion and enthralment. When a woman comes to the house, there is “harem tension”, a sort of “mute struggle between an exotic perfume and an overly familiar kitchen smell”. There is a beautifully taut interlude in the novel’s last section, in which a woman named Meriem, who is writing a thesis on Camus, arrives to interview Harun and his mother. Pushed by Meriem, his French now sufficient, Harun finally reads that “wretched book” and also falls in love with her. Their time together exemplifies what has “disappeared in this country today”: the unthinking public embrace, and free, brash women who see their bodies “as a gift, not as a sin or a shame”.
Despite the gravity of its concerns, Daoud’s writing maintains a wryness that makes its moments of sharp insight even more arresting. It is a testament to Daoud’s subtle, profound talent that his story works both as a novelistic response to Camus and as a highly original story in its own right. The Meursault Investigation is perhaps the most important novel to emerge out of the Middle East in recent memory, and its concerns could not be more immediate. For Harun represents the alienation of millions of Arabs struggling to occupy that secular, middle ground in their societies, struggling to live among their neighbours in peace and write in safety.
In the novel’s searing final pages, Harun, a marginalised old man, imagines himself scaling the town minaret and blaspheming from the loudspeaker: “To cry out that I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer, and that I want to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.” That a cleric in Algeria last year called Daoud an apostate and demanded his execution only underscores the fragility of the Algeria he writes about with such passion.
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud, translated by John Cullen, Oneworld, RRP£8.99/Other Press, RRP$14.95, 160 pages
Azadeh Moaveni is author of ‘Honeymoon in Tehran’ (Random House)
Illustration by Lindsay Lombard