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Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Meursault Investigation

[T]he absurdity of my condition … consisted in pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled back down, endlessly. – Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation

I was probably eighteen the first time I read The Outsider. Knowing me I picked it up because it was a slim volume—that and I related to the title (could never quite get used to Americans calling it The Stranger but if you’ve ever wondered why the difference you might want to check out this Guardian article). I’ve read it since—twice, I think—and unlike some of the books I relished in my teens, like Catcher in the Rye, it’s a book I found I grew into rather than away from, but even on a first read I knew this one was a bit special and so dashed out and bought The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague, The Fall and Exile and the Kingdom (books were a lot cheaper back then)—they’ve all got something but I can see why for most people The Outsider stands out although I do have a soft spot for The Plague.
As soon as I heard about The Meursault Investigation I knew I wanted to read it but expected to be disappointed. I’m delighted to report I wasn’t; far from it in fact. Of course it’s been done before—to my mind most notably in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead but also in Wild Sargasso Sea, Mary Reilly and Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West—minor characters are given a voice but few authors have had as little to work with as Kamel Daoud. His novel focuses on “the Arab”, the man Meursault shoots on the beach in The Outsider. What do we know about him for sure? That he wore blue dungarees; that he had a friend who played “a reed,” that he owned a knife and on at least one occasion in his life lounged on a beach. Not much. Even calling him “the Arab” isn’t especially helpful. It would be like a soldier in the British Raj talking about “the Indian” because at the time of the shooting this was French Algeria, one of France's longest-held overseas territories, and it continued as such until 1962. As Daoud points out:
Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period.
In even the poorest crime novel we generally find out something about the victim. Who he or she was matters. It goes to motive. Detectives do like to arrest criminals but I suspect solving a crime involves more than identifying the guilty party. It’s not enough to know who and how but in Meursault’s case the why ends up focusing on his character and in particular his relationship—or lack thereof—with his recently-deceased mother. It almost feels as if that is why he ends up being condemned to death and the murder of the Arab is evidence of that. Much has been written about this and I’m not going to add to the screeds out there.
When I first read about Daoud’s book I assumed we were going to go back in time and get the Arab’s story up to the point where he gets shot. Not so. The narrator is his brother who was seven at the time; now he’s in his eighties. An investigator—or reporter or student (it’s never quite clear)—tracks him down in Oran where he lives and over the course of several days (and many glasses of wine) listens to his story. At first I was ready to be disappointed until I could see where Daoud was going with this. Our narrator—who we learn is called Harun (Aaron)—has in many respects taken on the mantle of his dead brother, Musa (Moses), or at least become custodian of the dead man’s memory. (In the Bible Aaron acts as spokesman for his brother.) No, ‘taken on’ is too weak. He’s been forced by his grief-stricken mother to become his brother for all intents and purposes—“my mother imposed on me a strict duty of reincarnation”—although the more we get to know him, the ‘him’ Harun describes for us—the more we realise he actually comes to have in common with Meursault:
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.
The book he’s referring to is a novel entitled The Other although who exactly the author is is unclear. At one point it seems to be Meursault who must’ve been either pardoned or jailed because the brother says, “When the murderer leaves prison, he writes a book that becomes famous, in which he recounts how he stood up to God, a priest, and the absurd” but that contradicts what he says elsewhere: “Why the murderer was so relaxed after being sentenced to death and even after his execution…” [italics mine] Maybe ‘Meursault’ is a non de plume.
Clearly, though, Harun is an unreliable narrator and concedes as much when he talks about his relationship with the student Meriem (the girl from Constantine who, in 1963, first introduces him to the book), which he admits to elaborating—“[I]t’s a big fib. From beginning to end. The scene’s too perfect; I made it all up,” later adding:
Do you find my story suitable? It’s all I can offer you. It’s my word. I’m Musa’s brother or nobody’s. Just a compulsive liar you met with so you could fill up your notebooks … It’s your choice, my friend.
That’s the problem with eyewitness testimony. It’s so easy to cast doubt on it. And the more you think about it the less you can trust the “facts” but, of course, neither he nor his mother were eyewitnesses and so all they’re left with are their imaginings. “As a child, I was allowed to hear only one story at night,” he recounts, “one deceptively wonderful tale. It was the story of Musa, my murdered brother, who took a different form every time, according to my mother’s mood.” His mother keeps newspaper clippings “religiously folded in her bosom” and, once her son has learned to read French, insists he read and reread them to her:
“Here, take another look, see if they don’t say something else, something you didn’t understand before.” That went on for almost ten years, that routine.
With two paragraphs, I had to find a body, some alibis, and some accusations. It was a way of continuing Mama’s investigations, her search for Zujj [Zoudj is Algerian Arabic for two], my twin. That led to a strange book—which I perhaps should have written out, as a matter of fact, if I’d had your hero’s gift—a counter-investigation. I crammed everything I could between the lines of those two brief newspaper items, I swelled their volume until I made them a cosmos. And so Mama got a complete imaginary reconstruction of the crime, including the colour of the sky, the circumstances, the words exchanged between the victim and his murderer, the atmosphere in the courtroom, the policemen’s theories, the cunning of the pimp and the other witnesses, the lawyers’ pleas … Well, I can talk about it like that now, but at the time it was an incredibly disordered jumble, a kind of Thousand and One Nights of lies and infamy. Sometimes I felt guilty about it, but most often I was proud. I was giving my mother what she’d searched for in vain in the cemeteries and European neighbourhoods of Algiers. That production — an imaginary book for an old woman who had no words—lasted a long time.
So this is where the confabulation begins. Needless to say when he learns of the existence of the novel Harun says nothing to his mother. By then she’s quit pestering him with the clippings. She may even have finally thrown them away. Why stir her up needlessly? Because it’s only a novel. Yes, only a novel. Not the truth. At least not the whole truth.
And here, we come to an interesting twist in literary reception of both The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation: it’s important to note that, when the Algerian audience discusses The Stranger, Meursault and Camus are often seen as one and the same. As noted at the recent Contemporary French Civilization at 40 conference, in Algeria, The Stranger is understood to be a roman à clef if not outright confessional memoir. – Jennifer Solheim, ‘The Art of Making Ghosts Live: on The Meursault Investigation, Fiction Writer’s Review
Memoirs passed off as novels are not unknown and semiautobiographical novels are downright commonplace. Is it possible, is it just possible, that Camus shot a man on a beach in Algiers and got away with it? Imagine if that were true and you were the victim’s brother. Wouldn’t you want to understand how he could’ve done it? And what would be the best way to do that? To do the same? Surely no one would go out of his way to gun down a total stranger simply to get some kind of closure:
These days, I’m so old that I often tell myself, on nights when multitudes of stars are sparkling in the sky, there must necessarily be something to be discovered from living so long. Living, what an effort! At the end, there must necessarily be, there has to be, some sort of essential revelation. It shocks me, this disproportion between my insignificance and the vastness of the cosmos. I often think there must be something all the same, something in the middle between my triviality and the universe!
But often enough I backslide, I start roaming the beach with a pistol in my fist, scouting around for the first Arab who looks like me so I can kill him.
Well that’s not what happens; something else does; one day, the very next day after the Algerian War of Independence ends, he gets his chance to fill Meursault’s shoes. What would you do? This book may well have started off as one thing but it soon becomes its own thing and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never read The Outsider or seen the 1967 film version (which I recall being quite good) or even heard of Camus; it stands on its own feet. Granted its fragmented and sometimes repetitive approach to storytelling may not be to everyone’s tastes but it’s appropriate to the subject matter.
One of the major themes in The Outsider is Meursault’s take on God. These days we accept atheism as a norm—I’m always a bit sceptical when I read that two-thirds of the UK population identifies as Christian and wonder where they’re all hiding—but in 1942 things were quite different. In The Outsider Meursault is interrogated by the examining magistrate in his office:
[B]efore I could get the words out, he had drawn himself up to his full height and was asking me very earnestly if I believed in God. When I said, “No,” he plumped down into his chair indignantly.
That was unthinkable, he said; all men believe in God, even those who reject Him. Of this he was absolutely sure; if ever he came to doubt it, his life would lose all meaning. “Do you wish,” he asked indignantly, “my life to have no meaning?” Really I couldn't see how my wishes came into it, and I told him as much.
You can’t really imagine a conversation like that taking place nowadays. But what if these were Muslims? In The Meursault Investigation we discover that Harun has also come to question the faith into which he was born:
Sometimes I’m tempted to climb up that prayer tower, reach the level where the loudspeakers are hung, lock myself in, and belt out my widest assortment of invective and sacrilege. I long to list my impieties in detail. To bellow that I don’t pray, I don’t do my ablutions, I don’t fast, I will never go on any pilgrimage, and I drink wine—and what’s more, the air that makes it better. To cry out that I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer, and that I want to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.
As you might appreciate lines like that did not sit well with some and a Facebook fatwa (issued by Abdelfatah Hamadache, a radical Islamist preacher in Algeria who leads an obscure Salafist group known as the Islamic Awakening Front) resulted. After filing a criminal complaint against the imam the man backed down but, as you can well imagine, the kerfuffle did nothing to harm the book’s sales. Hamadache was eventually sentenced to six months imprisonment by a court in Oran and fined 50,000 dinars ($460).
Some have suggested that The Meursault Investigation will become essential reading for students studying The Outsider. I can see that. It goes a long way to making Camus relevant in today’s increasingly absurd world and, of course, it continues Algeria’s story into the present giving not only “the Arab” but all “Arabs” a voice.
You can read an extract from the book here.
Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he writes for the Quotidien d’Oran—the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper. His articles have appeared in Libération, Le Monde and Courrier International and are regularly reprinted around the world.

A finalist for the prix Goncourt, The Meursault Investigation won the prix François Mauriac and the prix des cinq-continents de la Francophonie. International rights to the novel have been sold in twenty countries and a film adaptation is supposedly slated for release later this year but I can find no details online.

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