The wounds of civil wars last. You can forgive a stranger, but family and neighbors, that’s another story. In America, the Confederate flag still raises old myths and divisions. In Algeria, the French Algerians, derisively called pied-noirs, the flesh-and-blood symbol of French Colonial rule (1830–1956), still haunt the land they fought so viciously to keep and then fled over a half a century ago. The most famous of them, Albert Camus, remains an unsettling figure among Algerians to this day, partially because he was not vicious, loved Algeria, and advocated for political positions that would never come to pass.1
In The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud brings Camus back to Algeria in the most perverse and apt way possible: he inhabits Camus’s work as if it were his own, in much the same way that many Algerians simply slipped into the abandoned homes of pied-noirs after the War of Independence. If he and his novel seem more the product of a Hollywood pitch—young Algerian rewrites The Stranger from the point of view of the nameless, murdered Arab’s brother—it’s because the concept is a trap, and the bait is Camus.
Daoud knows that we think we know what he is after. At the heart of The Stranger is a dead Arab and that Arab is no more than wallpaper for Camus, a hazy backdrop from which art and philosophy seize the spotlight. How rude of him to lose track of the corpse, the nameless Arab corpse. It’s not just an aesthetic failure; it’s a deft attempt to sidestep the obvious savagery of French colonial rule.2
Daoud never rejects that criticism, and yet nothing about the novel follows from what we might expect of it. The story he tells, at first improbably and then with a crazed passion, is how Harun, the brother of the Arab killed in The Stranger—his name is Musa—finds a symbolic and true brother in Camus, or, as the novel imagines him, Meursault, the pitiless killer with “the perfect prose” style. What at first seems ridiculous—why not just point out the novel’s perceived deficiencies and call it a day?—veers into wild poetry without losing political bite. For Daoud, friendship, the possibility of any hope of brotherhood, begins in criticism.
Despite its marketing, The Meursault Investigation is not actually a retelling of The Stranger. As the new novel constantly and gleefully warns us: easy stories are suspect, especially your own. What Daoud has done is to take the bones of Camus’s The Fall, its confessional form, sly narration, and barroom setting, and use them to investigate the crucial events of The Stranger, as if that famous novel were instead a documentary film in need of correction, both factual and moral. “The Story we’re talking about should be rewritten … That is, starting when the Arab’s body was still alive, going down the narrow streets that led to his demise, giving him a name right up until the bullet hit him.”
Yet Harun’s argument is confusing; not in its moral impetus, but in the details of his claims. His shifty sense of the facts gives the novel a queasy undercurrent. Much of what Harun says, he says in absolute terms, dead certainties that have the sheen of revelation and truth. Daoud undermines Harun’s performance, though, with a series of subtle and not-so-subtle inconsistences. They appear less the effect of an unreliable narrator than signs of a man racked with pain and uncertainty.
That Harun is confused about whether his brother’s killer is dead or alive, executed or walking around free, a nobody or a celebrity, is unnerving in how it captures the shattered state of his mind. If he needs a free and famous author, he gets one; if he needs for him to be executed, well, that’s fine, too. He’s not a liar, just desperate and inventive. Daoud understands what grief does to sense; that it seeks a resting point and will twist facts to get there. As Harun recounts his investigation, we investigate Harun’s recounting of it. What we discover is not the absolute truth of Musa’s murder or his killer’s fate, but the eruption of feeling that it produced in a seven-year-old boy and the 77-year-old man who remembers it.
For Daoud, friendship, the possibility of any hope of brotherhood, begins in criticism.
But that’s simply the surface emotion of The Meursault Investigation: the never-ending psychic blow of a murdered brother, improperly mourned in the killer’s book—although what would you expect from a murderer, especially one with such stunning talent? “He writes so well that his words are like precious stones, jewels cut with the utmost precision.” He will never feel as Harun wishes him to, and how could he? How could anyone? How could there ever be such a person? For Harun, the boy, the teenager, the young man, the full-blown adult, even the old man who sits before us in a bar named, improbably, The Titanic, that can only mean one other person, and this is the genius of Daoud’s novel: mama!
I’ve only been able to remember two opening lines in my life: of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (“If music be the food of love, play on …” and of Camus’s The Stranger, although not in its English translation, but in a French I barely understood: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” There’s no doubt that a great deal of the novel’s rapturous reception and cultural staying power is because of that sly opening and the smooth mechanics of Camus’s prose.3
Daoud’s opening isn’t as felicitous. It clunks its way onstage with just enough élan to recall the original: “Mama’s still alive today,” or, a little better in French, “Aujourd’hui, M’ma est encore vivante.” But forget the prose: what a mother! You wouldn’t call her a character. She has no interiority at all and it would be hard to describe what she looks like. She just might be the greatest stick figure in the history of the novel. She has less depth than a chalk outline and yet the sheer demonic force, the fury with which she operates, is terrifying. But her worst, most monstrous quality is that she does not matter. This constant eruption of maternal madness is insignificant to everyone—her neighbors, her employers, Arabs, Berbers, pied-noirs, the FLN, the OAS, Parisians, Charles de Gaulle, the state of Algeria and the idea of France—that is, everyone except her son, and she is going to make Harun pay for every one of those sleights.4
The Meursault Investigation is actually the story of twin investigations. As mentioned earlier, the first is Harun’s, a rather refined take on the failures of a famous book similar to The Stranger, which he subjects to a series of complex readings, scholarly exegeses, and bursts of divine inspiration—“I spent the whole night reading that book. My heart was pounding, I was about to suffocate, it was like reading a book written by God himself.” That it fails to name Musa is the loose thread that unravels the spell of belief and leads him to where we find him, in a bar, pleased to perform, but content to talk to no one or the world.
The other investigation belongs to Harun’s mother, and she undertakes it with the savage zeal of a ham actor. Her performance, meant for the world, has only Harun for an audience, at first captive by need (he’s merely a child), and then, as he grows older, caught in the maternal right of tradition. The novel abounds with theatrical imagery—“the scenery got shifted,” “it sounds like a line that’s been rehearsed,” “I was condemned to a secondary role,” “I know the script by heart,” “It’s almost always the same scene and has been for years”—and those stock images and phrases catch the frenzy and deadness of pre-revolutionary Algeria, a stage set waiting for the birth of real Arab characters, real Arab events, and real Arab tragedies, all named. Everything is happening, and yet nothing.
We are three years from the Sétif massacre of 1945, an event many describe as the unofficial start of the Algerian Revolution.5 Algeria is waiting for a murder to ignite it, just as Cain’s killing of Abel sparks the history of human conflict. But Musa’s death, unlike Abel’s, leads nowhere. Cain is not marked; he’s celebrated for his stylish writing. The world goes on as if Abel never existed—“your Cain killed my brother for … nothing!”
All in all, a young man dies and little happens. His death doesn’t register; even his grave is empty. Harun and his mother mourn him, move in with relatives, get kicked out, and finally find work and shelter on a pied-noir farm. Their life is shocking in its poverty and desolation, it reminds you of Camus’s early muckraking journalism, and yet it’s also a bit of a romp.
Daoud, like Camus, takes what was a common story, the death of a native Algerian at the hands of a French Algerian, and turns it into philosophy.
From the moment of Musa’s murder, new possibilities open up. Harun describes how his mother “developed a taste for martyrdom,” how “Musa’s passing destroyed her, but paradoxically, it also introduced her to the macabre pleasure of a never-ending period of mourning,” and that her “grief lasted so long she needed a new idiom to express it in.” The first half of the novel is the mother’s attempt to graft that new idiom onto the world, to make it pay off, but with only a couple of newspaper clippings detailing the murder of a young Arab, what has she got? Musa, and any significance that might have attached to him, just seems to float away: “Who knows Musa’s name today? Who knows what river carried him to the sea, which he had to cross on foot, alone, without his people … Who knows whether Musa had a gun, a philosophy, or a sunstroke?”
Daoud, like Camus, takes what was a common story, the death of a native Algerian at the hands of a French Algerian, and turns it into philosophy. In The Stranger, as well as in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus proposes an awful possibility: that, whatever we feel, nature—the world, the universe—doesn’t return those feelings or, indeed, feel in any way. Camus claims that if “man realized that the universe like him can love and suffer, he would be reconciled.”6 But that’s Camus’s point: the “universe” doesn’t. The tragedy of Harun’s mother is her crazed desire for the world and nature and the heavens to not only feel (an impossibility), but to feel as she does, to see the world as a direct reflection of her experience, and for that experience to have exceptional significance. The world, of course, refuses, and, in the wake of that refusal, she leads Harun, the one person subject to her will, on a series of comic, futile, and shocking attempts to matter in any way possible.
At one point she and Harun stand in front of a house for “an hour, maybe two” before she decides to knock. When an elderly woman answers, she reels off “the longest series of curses she ever pronounced,” ending with the “sea will swallow you all!” Daoud captures not only the madness of grief, but also of belief: “Later she would explain to the neighbors that she’d found the house where the murderer grew up and had insulted his grandmother, maybe, and then she’d add, ‘Or one of his relatives, or at least roumi, like him.’” The more Harun and his mother seek justice, the further from the world they seem, as if Musa’s murder ripped them out of time and the normal flow of life. Or, as Harun sadly puts it—“Everything happened without us.”
Almost every review of this increasingly lauded novel points to this next scene, so I’m not giving anything away. It’s also crucial to Daoud’s use of Camus, and the culmination of so much foreshadowing that you already know what’s coming. All you have to do is put the book—either of them—up to a mirror. At the halfway point of The Meursault Investigation, the exact moment in The Stranger when Meursault murders the unnamed Musa, Harun murders a fat pied-noir named Joseph Larquis. Yes, Daoud gives him two names! Whereas the death of Meursault’s mother is the first flower of a daisy chain that swerves and swivels to the killing on the beach, Harun’s killing happens at night and with rather more maternal encouragement: “Mama was behind me, and I could feel her eyes on my back like a hand pushing me, holding me upright, guiding my arm, slightly tilting my head at the moment when I took aim.” Lovely.
And with that murder, all should be made right: at the tail end of the Algerian Revolution, Harun and his mother finally get to join the bloodbath and do what everyone has been doing for the last eight years: killing. You would think that would do it, and they could rejoin the club of those who live in the world and find significance and permanence in history. The only problem is that they’re off by a day. The war has ended, and Harun is arrested for—of all things in revolutionary Algeria—killing a pied-noir: “I wasn’t there for having committed a murder but for not having done so at the right moment.” And then the novel really takes off.
What’s shocking about Camus and Algeria is that he never stopped trying to find some way out of the bloodbath. At 26, he saw and wrote of the coming Algerian disaster in a series of newspaper reports, “The Misery of Kabylia” (1939), a stunning mix of journalistic despair and idealistic dreams. Given what we know now, his repeated calls for justice and political change are every bit as rousing as they are chilling: “Still, it is possible to know what it means to be a just person. And my prejudice is that France is best represented and defended by acts of justice.” His position had not changed much when he wrote a series of articles for Combat in 1945, just seven months after the liberation of Paris. By then, though, he knew that the situation was turning desperate and that many of the best solutions would not last: “If you are unwilling to change quickly enough, you lose control of the situation.”7
There is no doubt that Camus underestimated, even as he clearly saw it, the ferocious need for independence among native Algerians. We also know that the Algerian crisis challenged him aesthetically, politically, and emotionally, shattering his reputation in France on both the left and the right. Like Harun’s mother, he did not matter, or even worse, he was made a dupe of politics, a famous, soon-to-be Nobel laureate, no more than a pawn, a helpless adjunct to a vicious colonial war. As Camus chattered incessantly of justice, respect, the rule of law, a federated, multicultural Algeria united under the French ideal of universal brotherhood, I wonder how many of his friends nodded politely, smirking silently at his naiveté. Or when he chose silence, how many chuckled at what seemed a thousand poses of false nobility.
Still, Camus never quit. He spoke out and he didn’t, he worked behind the scenes, he stayed true to his beliefs, he pushed forward even as no one was listening or responding, as the true players in Algeria and France were imagining more lethal and inventive ways of wreaking carnage. Later, after his death, postcolonial theorists came on the scene, read his novels, and declared him guilty. They wanted to know where the Arabs were and why were they silent and unnamed. They found him not just naive, but possessing the true heart of the pied-noir—he wanted to kill the savages.
Many years later, and after another brutal Algerian civil war, Daoud wanders in, and while seeing Camus’s limitations, he also sees a fellow artist, a brother, a double, and a way out. He listens carefully, thinks alongside him, of murder, revolt, and what mothers bring to the world. He sees him not as a stranger but as one of the many who have fallen out of time. He looks at him and wishes what he wishes for himself, a return to history and significance. Daoud’s gloss of the last sentence of The Stranger is thrilling. It is a grand gesture of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and Daoud proclaims it with his arms symbolically wrapped around the shoulders of Camus and his fictional killer, Meursault.
First, the end of The Stranger, in Stuart Gilbert’s translation:
For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.
And here is Harun, echoing Meursault’s wishes:
I too wish them to be legion, my spectators, and savage in their hate.
It is Camus’s The Fall that Daoud rewrites; and it is Camus’s fall that he embraces as his own.
- Pied-noirs were French Algerians, although many weren’t French. In Camus’s case, his father was Alsatian and his mother was of Spanish descent. The recent publication of Algerian Chronicles in English is an excellent document of Camus’s thinking and positions on Algeria from 1939 to his death in 1960. He might have been wrong about Algerian independence, but one cannot fault him for the care and ingenuity of his thinking. “The Misery of Kabylia,” a series of newspaper articles he wrote for the Alger republicain, is an excellent example of Camus’s early commitment to social justice. See Algerian Chronicles, translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap, 2013), pp. 37–83. Joshua Hammer’s piece on the 100th anniversary of Camus’s birth gives a clear account of how controversial Camus still is in Algeria. See Hammer’s “Why is Albert Camus Still a Stranger in His Native Algeria?” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2013. ↩
- Daoud is not the first person to notice how hazy the murdered Arab is in The Stranger, or for that matter how absent Arabs are from The Plague. Edward Said and Conor Cruise O’Brien both believe that Camus, despite professing otherwise, is merely the smiling face of the French colonial machine. Said claims that Camus’s gifts as a writer “revive the history of French domination in Algeria, with a circumspect precision and a remarkable lack of remorse or compassion.” To reveal the effect French colonialism has on Camus’s ethics, O’Brien compares Camus’s depiction of the murderous Caligula in his play, Caligula, with Meursault: “It is as if Caligula, fascinating but odious on the historic European stage, became humdrum, acceptable, and finally endearing under the African sun.” See Said’s Culture and Imperialism (Vintage, 1994), p. 181, and O’Brien’s Albert Camus (Viking, 1970), pp. 30–31. ↩
- Just last February the Telegraph listed the 50 best cult books of all time. The compilers dutifully quote the opening lines of The Stranger, give a quick summary, and then breathlessly proclaim that if “you don’t love this when you’re 17, there’s something wrong with you.” ↩
- The FLN was the main political body of the Algerian Revolution. The OAS was a far-right paramilitary group dedicated to keeping Algeria French; its members were composed of disillusioned veterans of the French Army and pied-noirs. ↩
- The Sétif massacre began on May 8, 1945, the day after the night Germany surrendered. While Paris was celebrating the end of the war, a group of eight thousand Muslims marched in Sétif to protest the French occupation in Algeria. The local French police attempted to seize some of the politically provocative banners and a riot broke out. Over the next five days 103 Europeans were killed and “many of the corpses appallingly mutilated: women with their breasts slashed off, men with their severed sexual organs stuffed in their mouths.” The French army came in and restored order in brutal fashion, killing at least a thousand, probably more, and certainly not practicing anything close to due process of law. As the historian Alistair Horne notes: “In fact, the precarious peace was to last nine and a half years; but, in effect, the shots fired at Sétif represented the first volley of the Algerian War.” See Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962 (1977; NYRB Classics, 2006), pp. 23–28. ↩
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated from the French by Justin O’Brien (1955; Vintage, 1991), p. 41. ↩
- Combat was an underground, resistance newspaper that Camus wrote for and edited during the German occupation and after liberation. The passages quoted in this paragraph are from Camus, Algerian Chronicles, pp. 81 and 103 respectively. ↩