Albert Camus’ early masterpiece The Stranger, published in 1942, is an enigmatic fable that has entranced generations of readers. One such reader, the Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, has expressed his admiration for Camus’ writings. Despite his appreciation, he also poses serious questions about a glaring omission in The Stranger.
The central act in the novel is the shooting of a man on a beach outside the city of Oran. The protagonist and narrator, Meursault, describes his rather confusing and hard-to fathom actions leading to the firing of five shots in the middle of the afternoon. These shots kill a man. But almost all we learn about the victim springs from the clipped confession of Meursault: “I killed an Arab.” Throughout the novel, the victim remains nameless. Instead, the focus is on Meursault, including his having earlier reacted with seeming indifference to news of his mother’s recent death.
… Daoud reveals the ways in which Camus’ work can be woven into a depiction of today’s Algeria.The famous trial imagined by Camus is a striking example of the absurdity inherent in the society of his time – French Algerian society twenty years or so before its demise through a revolutionary insurrection by the indigenous Algerian population. Symbolic of the hypocrisy of the legal system is the manner in which the trial unfolds. Meursault is found to be guilty far more on the basis of his lack of proper manners and his unwillingness to cry at his mother’s recent funeral.
In his first (and beautifully written) novel, The Meursault Investigation, Daoud gives us another take entirely on the trial. The nameless narrator of the novel offers up a detailed depiction of the victim’s life and restores his dignity by giving him a proper identity. Indeed, we might speak of the novel as a remarkable victim impact statement.
The first part of The Meursault Investigation irrefutably challenges the notion that Meursault provided a thorough and definitive version of the key events. The very fact that Meursault has so little to say about the man who has been shot – and appears to lack much in the way of curiosity or concern – means that he did not provide a fair and balanced account of the crime. The man with the capital “A” for Arab was shot presumably after he menaced a visiting French shipping clerk. In Camus’ novel, he remains a type – with a murky and unknowable life that leaves him deprived of the qualities that would render him a proper citizen and fully embodied individual. Daoud becomes an effective advocate, challenging assumptions readers of the earlier novel were likely to have made.
Daoud’s Algerian narrator reveals that he has obsessively returned to the famous trial and shreds Meursault’s “official” account. He takes us back to that long-ago summer day on a deserted beach. He states:
The Arab is killed because the murderer thinks he wants to avenge the prostitute, or maybe because he has the insolence to take a siesta. You find my summary … unsettling, eh? But it’s the naked truth. All the rest is nothing but embellishments…. Afterward, nobody bothers about the Arab, his family, or his people.
This novel is essential reading, but any reader must not be misled by the tenor of the opening chapters. One review, quoted on the dustjacket, suggests that Daoud’s novel stands as a rebuke to Camus. Later chapters broaden the scope of the work, so it is far more than an extended commentary on the earlier novel. Rather, it reveals that the death of Musa commences an unfortunate sequence of events for the narrator and his mother. Vital comparisons can be made between the role of the mothers in the two novels and the theme of separation and alienation, in families and in the wider society.
Further, the narrator in Daoud’s novel recounts the way in which he is drawn to commit his own crime and is later judged by Algerian authorities for something other than the act itself. We come to perceive that, in significant ways, Meursault gradually is understood to be a dark double of Daoud’s narrator.
One of the ways in which this happens is through a revelation in the new, independent but constricted society of Algeria post liberation. Religious authorities operating under a fundamentalist worldview do what they can to force our narrator to conform to the prevailing, conservative worldview. He rebels but pays a steep price for doing so. This naturally harkens back to the dialogue between Meursault and the priest, who urges him to confess his sins and somehow make peace with the Christian God that he does not believe in. He too refuses to act in an insincere manner and is further viewed as an unredeemable outcast.
The first part of The Meursault Investigation irrefutably challenges the notion that Meursault provided a thorough and definitive version of the key events.The Meursault Investigation shines as a profound contemplation of some of the paradoxes and uncertainties associated with the pursuit of justice. It is much more than a straightforward postcolonial condemnation of the shortcomings of the “colonial writer” Camus and the parochial approach that he might possibly be accused of in his treatment of colonial non-citizens in his work. Instead, Daoud reveals the ways in which Camus’ work can be woven into a depiction of today’s Algeria. The various ways in which Camus fought with his pen for the importance of liberty in all its manifestations – freedom of thought and of association, freedom to rebel against injustice, economic liberties for all citizens – continue to be relevant in the 21st century, just as they were at the dawn of the Cold War and the anti-colonial struggles.
Daoud is a journalist and now novelist of rare courage. He continues to report on Algerian affairs even in the face of a fatwa declared against him for daring to speak truth to power. I recommend that any reader search out interviews with the author to learn more about his diagnosis of the ills of the current era but also for his ongoing bond with the land of his birth.