Give Kamel Daoud credit for audacity. In his debut novel, "The Meursault Investigation," the Algerian journalist goes head-to-head with a pillar of 20th century literature: Albert Camus' existential masterpiece "The Stranger."
First published in France in 1942, Camus' novel tells the story of Meursault — like the author, a French Algerian, or pied-noir — who under the influence of heat or fate kills an Arab on the beach at the peak of a summer afternoon. "I shook off the sweat and sun," Meursault informs us. "… Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness."
"The Meursault Investigation" takes place on the other side of that door, offering a glimpse of the fallout from Meursault's futile violence. Its narrator is the victim's brother, an old man named Harun who looks back, from the perspective of the present, on the killing and what it signifies. "And there," he observes, "I've always thought, is where the misunderstanding came from; what in fact was never anything other than a banal score-settling that got out of hand was elevated to a philosophical crime."
Such score-settling sits at the heart of "The Meursault Investigation" — both that of Meursault on Harun's brother and that of Harun on Meursault. Among the book's conceits is that "The Stranger" wasn't written by Camus but by Meursault himself, a turn on the ending of that novel, in which the narrator is sentenced to die. By positioning its precursor as part of the real world, not fiction so much as testimony, Daoud moves his work into the realm of the familiar, allowing him to speak less of existential than practical, even political, concerns.
This is important, for the true subject of "The Meursault Investigation" is the condition of contemporary Algeria, a secular Arab state with a large Islamic culture, existing in uneasy balance in the aftermath of a shattering civil war.
That civil war, which began in 1991 and continued for more than a decade, is never mentioned directly in "The Meursault Investigation"; the conflict to which it refers is Algeria's war of independence, which began in 1954 and ended in 1962 with the ouster of the French. During this era, Harun undertakes a gesture of vengeance that brings him uncomfortably close to Meursault.
"I'm not telling you this story to be absolved a posteriori or to get rid of a bad conscience. … God wasn't as alive and heavy in this country as he is today, and in any case, I'm not afraid of hell," he insists to the unnamed interlocutor to whom he speaks over a succession of evenings in an Oran bar.
The structure echoes that of Camus' 1956 novel "The Fall," in which a defense attorney confesses to his own corrupted fall from grace. Harun has something of a similar intention; "At the moment when I committed my crime," he admits, "I felt a door somewhere was definitively closing on me. I concluded that I had been condemned — and for that, I'd needed neither judge nor God nor the charade of a trial. Only myself."
At the same time, Harun's despair is not philosophical, exactly, but rather cultural. For him — and by extension, one imagines, for Daoud — the key problem of "The Stranger" is not one of meaning but rather one of race and class. "Do you understand why I laughed the first time I read your hero's book?" he asks. "There I was, expecting to find my brother's last words between those covers, the description of his breathing, his face, his answers to his murderer; instead I read only two lines about an Arab. The word 'Arab' appears twenty-five times but not a single name, not once."
The implication is stunning: that in examining the question of being, Camus overlooked (or, in any case, minimized) the issue of colonialism, identity. "I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice," he said, famously, of his opposition to Algerian independence, a statement I've long understood as referring to his solidarity with the pieds-noirs. Daoud, though, frames such a position as a provocation, one more instance of the imperialism of European mores.
It's an inspired twist, entirely obvious in hindsight (how, after all, could one have missed it?) but also revelatory in its way. Daoud is saying that Camus' entire posture grows out of privilege. "How can you tell the world," he wonders, thinking of his brother and all those other silent Arabs in "The Stranger," "… when you don't know how to write books?"
Were "The Meursault Investigation" to conclude there, it would stand as a vivid critique. The true measure of the novel, however, is that Daoud realizes critique is not enough. Critique, in this case, is just a mechanism to divide us. Critique is not as strong as complement, the investigation of everything we share. The specter of post-civil war Algeria asserts itself, with its uneasy mix of the secular and the devout. In such a landscape, Daoud has become a polarizing figure, arguing that zealotry is an impediment, reductive and retrograde.
"Friday? It's not a day when God rested, it's a day when he decided to run away and never come back," he asserts in the middle of the novel. The line recalls Meursault's confrontation with the jailhouse priest; "He seems so certain about everything, didn't he?" Camus writes. "… He wasn't even sure he was alive because he was living like a dead man."
That scene is re-created in the closing pages of "The Meursault Investigation," where Harun has a similar altercation with an imam. The novel as mirror, the novel as reflection, a literary game of shadows, in a sense.
And yet, the power — and, yes, the beauty — of "The Meursault Investigation" is that it moves beyond this to an unexpected integration in which we recognize that for all the intractable divides of faith or nationality, our humanity remains (how can it not?) essentially the same.
The Meursault Investigation
Other Press: 144 pp., $14.95 paper