[I read this 2013 novel in two halves. I wrote about the first half before reading the rest.]
This short novel is, among other things, a riposte to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. That novella was published in 1942, and is perhaps the most famous fiction ever to be set in Algeria. The fact that the country was then under French colonial rule seems, to me at least, not to have been a key issue for Camus. Meursault, his French narrator, is often oppressed by the heat, a factor he cites as perhaps the main reason he pulled the trigger on the man he killed. Otherwise, whilst the story he tells is set in a country under French rule and occasionally features the indigenous ‘Arabs’, that isn’t at all what the story is about. Even the fact that the man he killed was one of these Arabs seems only of passing interest. I suppose it makes it easier for the French court to focus on Meursault’s supposed callousness rather than the fact that he killed a man. It is never made explicit, but it seems no accident that the dead man hardly figures during the trial. He is never named, his circumstances are never described, and none of his family or friends is called to act as a witness. This isn’t about him, it’s about a Frenchman, his life, and his treatment by the French justice system.
This isn’t how I wrote about The Stranger (here) when I read it in anticipation of reading Kamel Daoud’s riposte. I read it as a European writer’s exploration of a mid-20th Century European mindset, a book that regularly features in lists of the top 100 novels of all time. But in The Meursault Investigation, a main driving force is something else, the narrator’s outrage at the way it renders his own people invisible. As their land was overrun by the roumis, the white invaders, it was as though they simply disappeared. More specifically, right from the start, it’s the dead ‘Arab’ who disappears from the murderer’s famous story. Nobody even knows what he was called.
But it’s more complicated than that. Daoud isn’t only interested in the cultural appropriation of an invaded land, and the ruling power’s indifference to the indigenous people. If anything, he’s more interested in the telling of stories, how versions of events might be presented, and how truths that we take to be self-evident might have no factual basis at all. Or, at least, his narrator is. And, as if to present a wry commentary on Camus’s narrator, not only is Daoud’s reliability highly questionable, he seems to call into question, well, more or less everything. If we think he’s a character in the same universe as Meursault’s, perhaps he is. But, in that universe, who wrote the ‘famous’ account that millions have read and admired? And why on earth do they love it so much? ‘Well, the original guy was such a good storyteller, he managed to get people to forget his crime, whereas the other one was a poor illiterate God created for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust—an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name.’
This is just the beginning, only a few lines into the first page. And, very soon, we can see this isn’t going to be a straightforward critique of colonialist attitudes. From the start, the power of writing is key—it’s what has endowed one white man’s version with the status of truth. We’re being moved on from the original idea of the invisibility of indigenous cultures in colonial times to the persistence of those attitudes after the invaders have left. The murdered man is still invisible, as is the abused sister whose honour he was fighting for. We get that—so Daoud has thrown plenty of other things into the mix. For instance, the sister was never real, because the dead man only ever had a brother. And that man, if we want to believe it, is the narrator.
We don’t quite get all of this on the first page, but we nearly do. And we also get this: ‘Laugh if you want, but this is more or less my mission: I peddle offstage silence, trying to sell my story while the theatre empties out…. That’s the reason I’ve learned to speak this language, and to write it too: so I can speak in the place of a dead man, so I can finish his sentences for him.’ He goes on to explain that the invaders’ language is like the stones of their buildings, something for those left behind to use for their own purposes…
…which he does for Camus’s novella as well, re-purposing this icon of French literature by twisting it into entirely new shapes. The opening line of The Stranger, one of the most famous in fiction, is ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.’ The Meursault Investigation has ‘Mother’s still alive today.’ There’s chutzpah for you—no French reader would miss the nod to the original Meursault. (It’s like an English novelist altering Shakespeare or Dickens to invite an immediate comparison: I remember Ali Smith opening a novel with ‘It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.’) And the twists only get more convoluted. I’ve mentioned how the narrator indicates that in his universe, the murderer was the one with all the writing skill—there’s no attempt to lay the story’s fame at the door of some novelist. He certainly doesn’t name him…
…which is totally appropriate in a book in which names are either arbitrary or non-existent. His brother, having no name in the original account, gets two alternative names here. At first the narrator, noting that he’s the second dead man in the story, and that he died at two o’clock, calls him ‘Zujj in Algerian Arabic, two, the pair, him and me….’ It’s a riff on two-ness, as if the narrator—saying all this in the present day, in his old age, in the bar he goes to whenever it’s open—likes the idea and plays around with it. His own status in the family is doubtful: he was the one his mother kept looking at, regretting it was her beloved older son who was killed and not him. Or so he alleges. He’s talking to a Meursault tourist, one of those who, in this world, come to see where the events in the great book took place. Which is itself a riff on celebrity, scandal, literary research. Maybe such tourists really exist—Daoud would know, living there. Or in Oran, where the narrator lives—which, he says, is where Meursault attended his mother’s funeral. His own mother definitely did not come there to die—she must be over a hundred now. She moved them there from Algiers after the murder of her beloved son.
Beloved son. And, before his death, hero to the seven-year-old who looked up to him in the absence of their father, another of the disappeared in this version of the story. After his death Musa—to give him, as the narrator does, another workable name—also disappears. It’s another riff on the original story, making a literal reality of his disappearance from Meursault’s account. No body was ever found, so none was buried—and the mother’s powerlessness to perform any meaningful rites for her son becomes another metaphor of betrayal.
What she does do, however, is embellish his story. The narrator speaks of a thousand different tales she used to tell, giving him the stature of a hero of old. And to the young boy, he seemed like a giant even before this. Musa, as he tells us, is a name that means ‘Saved by water’, even though it seems that the body must have been carried out to sea. It makes the mother fearful for her remaining son’s safety, inculcating in him a morbid fear of beaches. The place they move to, Oran, is a long way from the sea. Meanwhile, perhaps, by giving him that name the narrator is also giving him something else. Musa sounds a little like Meursault, as though the narrator wants to take something back from the white man’s account.
Where am I going with this? Where is Daoud going with it? His narrator, indulging—as he often admits—in the ramblings of an old man, adds layer upon layer on to the bare bones of the story. Twenty or so years after his brother’s death came Independence, which is when his mother could claim a proper house to live in for the first time since their move. But Independence hasn’t helped the country—we remember his metaphor of re-using colonial materials to build a new world—and this idea chimes with his central complaint. Pre-colonial society can’t be recreated, obviously, but he is highly dissatisfied with what seems to have evolved instead. Algerian life seems to be about waiting, he says, or idleness. It’s as though it’s going nowhere.
Whatever, it’s time for another nod to The Stranger. This is the point, half-way through the novella, when Meursault shot the Arab. Now, this narrator claims to have killed a man himself. He must be on the seventh night of telling his story to the Meursault tourist, and he’s describing how the beach, the scene of the murder, has been in his dreams—asleep or awake—ever since. ‘I see this scene from far off. The man has brown skin. He’s wearing a pair of shorts a bit too long for him, and his silhouette’s rather slight. He seems to be propelled … by some blind force, as if he’s a robot….’ And he can never do anything about it, can never penetrate the screen separating him from that long-ago event. OK. But then…
‘In this scene where nothing moves, your hero doesn’t look at all like the other one, the one I killed. He was big, vaguely blond, with enormous circles under his eyes, and he always wore the same checked shirt. Who was he, this other one? You’re wondering, right? There’s always another, my friend. … And so there’s one in my story too.’ My first thought was that this other man might be Camus. Except he doesn’t fit the description in any way. So what’s going on? Is it a tit-for-tat killing? A ‘vaguely blond’ white man for an ‘Arab’? Maybe he’ll tell us in the second half.
Chapters 8-15—to the end
The narrator, Harun—I’m not sure whether he told us his name before—could plausibly be seen as an Algerian Everyman. Or maybe he’s a representative of one aspect of pre- and post-Independence experience, the invisibility of the original culture, followed by a kind of disorientation. Like the country, he never finds his way. But whilst he is as bewildered by Independence as his countrymen seem to be, he in no way aligns himself with what Algerian society expects of its citizens. He did not fight in the bloody revolution, despite ‘everybody’ of his age doing just that. And he has no time at all for the Islamism that has now become, in his view, far too powerful a force in the country.
His decision not to join the revolutionaries—or his indifference to their struggle, as they see it—is such an exact parallel of Meursault’s indifference at his mother’s funeral that he states it explicitly. And he, like Meursault, has his moment of grabbing a priest by the collar and haranguing him so aggressively that he has to be pulled away. In fact, in the second half of the novel this narrator’s experience parallels Meursault’s much more closely than we saw in the first half…
…beginning with the cold-blooded shooting of a man. We get the details of it shortly after he first mentions it at the half-way point. A white Frenchman, an acquaintance of the original owners of the house he and his mother now live in, appears outside, lost and scared. It’s the night after Independence, when the rule of law has not yet been properly established, and Harun knows that nobody will investigate the death of one more white man if he shoots him. He uses a revolver he had found in the shed where they had lived for years in the garden of the house, another leftover from colonial times that can be re-used. He fires twice at close range, and it’s horrible.
The effect on the narrator is ambiguous. For almost exactly 20 years, since the death of his brother, he’s lived in a kind of limbo. He’s in thrall to his mother, a woman he always presents as controlling and obsessive, so that until now, he has never had any other relationships—no friendships, no affairs with women, no social interactions outside of his work. She won’t ever let him get away from the memory of the murder in all its detail, and it pushes everything else aside—so that, for instance, once he has learned to read French, she keeps making him read two newspaper clippings she has of the case. At first, still a child, he hasn’t really learnt enough to read it, so he makes a lot of it up. We’re back with stories. As time goes on, he embellishes the story more and more until the original falls to pieces, both literally and metaphorically.
Coming after all this, the killing feels like a liberation: as he fires the shots, he can feel his mother behind him, forcing him to do it. For her, it’s a glorious restitution, and he feels a weight lifting from him. But another weight settles down on him—he assures us that nothing, ever, affects a human being like taking the life of another. He doesn’t say he regrets doing it, but all it seems to have achieved is relieve some of the pressure from his claustrophobic relationship with his mother. In fact, they become like Meursault and his mother, speaking less and less as time goes on. But at least he doesn’t feel like the dead brother any more…
However. Whilst his life might always have been kept on hold by the shooting of the favourite son, he can’t simply kick-start it by way of a crime that simply mirrors the one that killed him. He comes face-to-face with the ambivalence of it—and with another echo of Meursault’s plight—as soon as they have buried the body under the lemon tree. Members of the revolutionary militia arrive, still unused to their role as peace-keepers, and let him and his mother know that shots were heard coming from their direction. Harun will have to report to the local military council headquarters in the next five days. His response is, in some ways, rather Meursault-like: he is so exhausted he sleeps for twelve hours straight, then sleeps through most of the next three days.
When he does report for questioning it’s very awkward indeed. He’s treated as a suspect from the start, thrown unceremoniously in to a holding cell, then questioned by the colonel in charge. Why didn’t he fight for the revolution? What was the matter with him? And if he had to kill a Frenchman—they never seem in any doubt that he did it—why did he have to do it on the 6th July? Like the magistrate questioning Meursault, the colonel simply doesn’t get it. Why is he always the outsider? I can’t remember if he actually uses the word, but the implication is there. This man without friends, living alone with his mother who also cuts herself off from the community…. He isn’t sent to trial, but the colonel is very unhappy about his lack of feeling for his fellow Algerians.
There’s another parallel. Meursault had his girlfriend, Marie, and Harun has someone with the Arab equivalent of her name, Meriem. In most ways, that’s as far as the parallel goes. Marie just happens to be Meursault’s most recent girlfriend, and asks him first if he loves her, and then if he wants to get married. He replies with his usual lack of commitment both times. Love, he tells her, has no meaning for him—and he would marry any woman he was with who really wanted to. Harun’s experience with Meriem one summer couldn’t be more different. She has only come to find them because she is a scholar of Meursault’s version and has somehow tracked them down. But, from the beginning, he is besotted. She is the first and only woman he ever loved, he assures his listener, and only ever has superficial relationships after that. But it’s unrequited. She’s pleasant to him, likes his company, but doesn’t seem to like the full-on kiss he gives her near the end of the summer. When she stops coming they write, for a while, but that fizzles out.
It makes him cynical about love, more cynical than even Meursault himself. His ‘definition of love… is kissing someone, sharing their saliva, and going back all the way to the obscure memory of your own birth.’ He’s already told us about his approach to relationships after Meriem. ‘I’ve betrayed women methodically and saved the best of myself for the partings.’ He’s become hollowed out.
Half-way through this novel, I wondered where Daoud was going with it. Now, as in the granddaddy of all Independence novels, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, it’s the narrator and his idiosyncrasies that becomes the real driving force. From the start, this has been his story, and now he’s not going to stop until he’s wrung every last drop not only out of his own experiences, but out of a book written by a Frenchman—one which, he tells us, began to obsess him from the moment he was introduced to it. It’s Meriem who gives it to him, and he’s lost in it from then on. Before that, he had only had his mother’s version, and his own embroidered versions of the news clippings. Now he has—what? this other man’s version, in which, he admits, nobody is named, and all it has done for decades is annoy the hell out of him.
But there really is a serious point. As Harun becomes more and more connected to Meursault, Daoud is able to explore the idea that colonialism has done to this man—and, I still believe, to Algeria itself—something akin to what the 20th Century European mindset did to Meursault. It made everything meaningless. And, in case we aren’t getting it, the end of this book presents an even more striking echo of The Stranger than the opening did. I mentioned the haranguing of the priest, in fact the imam of the local mosque, who is trying to convert Harun in exactly the same way the chaplain tried to convert Meursault. By the end of the novel, Harun has had enough of Algerian Islamism, finds the culture of his supposed country as irrelevant as Meursault finds that of his own. Meursault had hoped for nothing but vilification, fantasising that at his execution (to be held in the prison, in fact, not in public) ‘there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.’
That’s what our narrator wants too. ‘I too would wish them to be legion, my spectators, and savage in their hate.’ This is the last sentence in the book. What we are to take away from it, I suppose, is how colonialism alienates the spirit, rendering human beings unfit for any kind of purpose. A few lines before, he has told us that ‘Meursault’, spoken in Arabic, is ‘El-Merssoul, the envoy, or the messenger.’ Where is he a messenger from? Not a good place, obviously. And is anything he, Harun, has said to be believed anyway, or is he ‘a compulsive liar’? What does it come down to in the end, this story? ‘The Arab’s the Arab, God’s God. No name, no initials. Blue overalls and blue sky. Two unknown persons on an endless beach. Which is truer? It’s up to you to decide.’
He’s already decided—none of it matters. He really is a Meursault for the post-colonial age.