In a "New Yorker" interview this March, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud spoke of reading the iconic 1942 classic, ”The Stranger” by Albert Camus – in which a man arbitrarily commits murder and is tried and sentenced without remorse – for the first time in his 20s.
“I have to admit that I didn’t like the novel: it is dry, hard. It inspires discomfort, not pleasure. It is fascinating but morbid,” he says. “Like everyone else, I read the story of the murder and I didn’t even think about the murdered Arab. I ignored him. [Camus’ protagonist] Meursault’s genius is to make you forget the crime. Even if you were a victim of it!”
Two decades later, Daoud reclaims that murdered Arab, erasing the anonymity of “The Stranger” with his debut novel The Meursault Investigation. Originally published in Algeria in 2013, “Meursault” made the 2014 shortlist of the enviable Prix Goncourt – France’s highest literary honor. Although Daoud missed the academy’s top nod (Lydie Salvayre’s “Pas Pleuer” won), he earned the life-threatening attention of the extremist Islamist Awakening Front whose leader issued a fatwa against Daoud via Facebook last December. For now, Daoud remains safe, and took the Goncourt podium in early May when “Meursault” received the 2015 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman (for first novel).
The English translation by the ever-laudable, multi-lingual John Cullen arrived stateside last week. With exponentially increased accessibility, more accolades and prizes are sure to follow (the death threats hopefully not so much). Although familiarity with Camus’ “Stranger” is not necessary – “I’m going to outline [that] story before I tell [this story] to you,” the narrator promises – context, of course, is always an illuminating addition to any reading.
From his first line, “Mama’s still alive today,” Daoud both pays homage to and negates Camus’ opening, “Aujourd'hui, Maman est morte,” (“Mama died today.”) The narrator is Harun, who asks his unnamed listener, to “please give me your attention.... This is no normal story.” Harun reveals the Arab in “The Stranger” was his brother; in the 70 years since his senseless death, Harun’s “more or less … mission” is to “speak in the place of a dead man.”
To do so, Harun learned French – Meursault’s language, the colonial language. “I’m going to do what was done in this country after Independence: I’m going take the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language. The murderer’s words and expressions are my unclaimed goods.”
Night after night, in a neighborhood bar, Harun parses his story with a drinking companion whose name, ironically, is asked for but never answered. The sole important name is Musa, Harun’s brother. Even Meursault is questionable: “What does ‘Meursault’ mean? Meurt seul, dies alone? Meurt sot, dies a fool? Never dies?”
While Meursault lives on, only Harun remembers Musa. So important is his lost name, Harun admits to naming this bartender and that bartender Musa, as well. “Musa, Musa, Musa … I like to repeat that name from time to time so it doesn’t disappear.”
Just 7 at the time of the murder, for Harun, Musa remains “a simple god, a god of few words.” Harun insists on giving his brother an identity, through clothes, shoes, cigarettes, friends, mannerisms, and habits. The sons of a vanished watchman, Musa “replaced my father, and I replaced my brother.”
For decades, desperate mother and leftover son are forced to become accomplices in survival, revenge, and even murder. “[L]ike a sort of ghost,” Musa, Harun, their mother are trapped between a nameless tragedy and a questionable reality. “Who would have believed us? Who? What evidence could we offer?” Without a name, a body, witnesses, Harun finally entrusts another stranger with not just Musa’s story, but his own confessions, as well.
Like Mohsin Hamid’s revelations-to-a-stranger in his Booker-shortlisted "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," Daoud fills in, explicates, and rewrites what Camus elided. Echoing Daoud’s initial reaction to Camus, readers may find that “Meursault,” too, “inspires discomfort, not pleasure,” but that’s sometimes the price for illumination and epiphany. In just 160 spare pages, Daoud recounts – and challenges – not only the original narrative of Meursualt, the anti-hero created by Camus, but through bestowing a name, family, legacy, to a forgotten victim, he sharply deconstructs the troubled decades of French-Algerian history, explores the erasure of identity and the legacy of colonialism, examines the consequences of violent independence and the ensuing, ongoing reconstruction of a national identity.
To begin to understand all that is surely worth an investment of just a few hours of reading.