In The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud responds to Albert Camus’ The Stranger as though it were autobiographical. His narrator, Harun, is the brother of the Arab murdered by Meursault in Camus’ most famous novel. For Harun, the popularity of Camus’ book is as though his brother is murdered again and again for more than 70 years because he is never once mentioned by name, only referred to as the Arab. “My brother’s name was Musa. He had a name. But he’ll remain ‘the Arab’ forever.” He’s counted and found that Arab appears twenty-five times, but his brother’s name is not mentioned once—his erasure a perpetual murder.
It has been twenty years or so since I read The Stranger and I almost wish I had borrowed it from the library as a companion to The Meursault Investigation because I think reading them together will enrich the experience of both books. Perhaps they will be twinned from now on. It is no literary blasphemy to pair Doaud with Camus; they are both fine writers who consider important themes with insight and discipline. Daoud’s writing would deserve admiration even if it were not linked to Camus.
The brothers are named Musa and Harun, (Moses and Aaron) and it seems to me that their names must be symbolic. After all, in the Torah, Aaron is the spokesman for Moses and Harun is the only one to speak for Musa. Moses and Aaron had a sister named Miriam and Camus’ novel claims the murdered Arab had a sister, though that was not true. However, Harun does fall in love with a woman named Meriem, one who does not reciprocate his passion, unless perhaps she had a sisterly fondness for him.
One one level, The Meursault Investigation calls out the racist colonialist viewpoint of The Stranger, a novel that disappears Musa, the murder victim, making him an “other” anonymous and labelled only as the Arab, someone Meursault could kill simply because the sun got in his eyes, he was bored, he felt like it, because life was meaningless. Someone millions of people would read about without ever thinking about. Daoud is demanding we think about him, see him as a real person, a loving son and brother, alive and corporeal, not an anonymous everyarab dead on the beach.
But The Meursault Investigation is not merely a reproach to the imperialist erasure of that dead victim, it is far more interesting than that. In many ways, it is a call and response to The Stranger. For example, Camus begins “Maman died today.” and Daoud begins, “Mama’s still alive today.” More importantly, while Camus never names his victim, calling him only the Arab whom he killed at 2:00 P.M. in the brilliant afternoon sunlight, when Musa kills a Frenchman, at 2:00 A.M in the moonlight, he names him and names him again and again. Musa tells the young visitor in the bar, “The Frenchman had been erased with the same meticulousness applied to the Arab on the beach twenty years earlier.” but it is not quite so, because he has a name and his body has a burial spot. We know some of his history, he is not anonymous. In these small ways, it is the antithesis of The Stranger, but Daoud does not stop there, where it would merely be an interesting companion to The Stranger.
Instead, as Musa ages and becomes alienated from his religion, his language and his country, it becomes a synthesis, bringing together Meursault and Musa, not in opposition, but in mutual alienation from conventional values and beliefs. Like Meursault, Musa rejects religion, a “public transportation I will never use,” as he describes it. In the end, Musa shares more with Meursault than murder; they both despise cant, hypocrisy, lies and the polite veneer of society. They reject the mores of their time. As Musa tells us, “I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double.” Meursault says nothing mattered, Musa says God is a question, not an answer. They are both bound together by their mutual understanding of the absurd nature of life.
This is a good book. It may frustrate some who like a linear narrative, but Harun is a slightly drunk old man telling tales to a student of Camus, rambling, repeating, promising to explain more later, just as a drunk, lonely old man with a captive listener would do. It is a small book, just 140 pages, but then so is The Stranger, and it is what it had to say that matters, not how many words it has to say it. Small, but mighty.