Re-reading Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” for the Classics Challenge 2016 led me to one of the most talked-about books of last year: “The Meursault Investigation.” Written by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, the novel takes a new look at “The Stranger,” humanizing and politicizing and the people and actions in it.
“Interesting” is the word my mother uses to describe a book or a movie she didn’t enjoy or perhaps fully understand, but in which she sees some merit. It’s the word I’ll use to describe “Investigation.” Yes, it’s damning with faint praise, and perhaps a cop out, but it’s also what you say about something that works in theory but not in practice.
Of course, that puts me out of step with the mainstream of literary criticism. This book has received praise around the world, being named to several “Best Books of 2015” lists. Still, it’s not all that satisfying: As a writing exercise, sure, but as a story, it’s not compelling.
The novel, which is short but feels much longer, is told by Harun, the brother of “The Arab” killed by Meursault, in “The Stranger.” It is 70 years after that afternoon on the beach when Meursault gunned the unnamed Arab down for no apparent reason other than that the sun seemed particularly hot that day. Harun holds court in Algerian bars telling everyone who will listen (and those who won’t) who he is and how Camus has destroyed his life. Well, it’s not really Camus he blames, but Mersault, who Harun believes is the actual author of “The Stranger.”
Harun’s story includes a mother who can’t get over the death of her firstborn, who Daoud names Musa. With no justice to be had (either Meursault wasn’t executed or wrote the book in prison while he awaited execution it’s not clear) she makes Harun pay for the crime. For decades, she stalks the streets and official government agencies, boy in tow, looking for information on the killing of Musa, whose body was never found. Eventually people stop paying attention to her. Unable to read, the mother gives her son the short, vague newspaper clippings of the murder and Harun, “reading” them, makes up long, detailed accounts of the incident.
There’s not much story here and the few plot events are slipped in so casually I had to reread parts to be sure what was happening was what I thought was happening. The book is the drunken rantings of someone who corners you in a bar. He contradicts himself from throughout the book and, as a reader, you have to pay close attention to that, too. Some of it is fascinating: Why was there never any mention of Musa’s name in the paltry news coverage of the event? Why does the government not have any record of his existence? How does a scholar studying “The Stranger” find Harun and his mother, certain they are the family of the unnamed “Arab” victim in the book?
English nerds will enjoy the hidden references to Camus’ other work and even the imaginative leap Daoud takes with the premise of the novel. In many ways Harun’s life parallels Mersault’s, but in substantive ways, they’re different. Mersault lived only for the moment, Harun is weighed down by the past. Mersault’s mother’s death is a vital plot point, Harun’s mother refuses to die. “The Stranger” is a seemingly apolitical work and “Investigation” depicts its narrator as a person haunted by the disappointment of promised political change that never happened. Daoud sometimes dazzles with these flights of fancy, but it’s not enough to stretch into a novel, even one as short as this is.
My theory is that Harun might just be a madman. He has lived his life disappointed by failed revolution and lack of justice. The world knows Algeria through “The Stranger” and he has brought the novel to life in his own mind. He wants to give voice to the nameless victim. He even wants to be Meursault for many reasons—not the least of which is Meursault’s dead mother.
Interestingly, this novel (which Daoud has said is an homage to, not an indictment of, Camus and his work) has caused a critical reassessment of “The Stranger.” Is it racist? Why is “The Arab” never named? Is that an artistic choice or the choice of a writer whose white privilege didn’t allow him to see Arabs as people? I read some criticism claiming Camus would have known killing an Arab in Algeria, which was under French rule at the time, would not have been a capital offense. Of course that would have ruined the ending. My argument would be that Meursault isn’t sentenced for the crime, but for the nontraditional way he responded to his mother’s death. It’s kind of the point of the novel.
I’m glad I read the book and find Daoud’s debut novel sometimes fascinating, but in the end, to quote my own mother, it’s merely “interesting.”