‘The Meursault Investigation’ by Kamel Daoud – The Arabs’ Story

 

‘The Meursault Investigation’ by Kamel Daoud      (2013) – 143 pages

Translated from the French by John Cullen

 

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A couple of years ago I wrote an article about the novel ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus on this site which you can find here.  Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has written a “Reply” novel to ‘The Stranger’ called ‘The Meursault Investigation’ which won the 2015 Goncourt Prix for first novel.

In ‘The Stranger’ Albert Meursault shoots and kills “an Arab”.  He is imprisoned and tried for this heinous crime.

Why is this Arab who figures so dramatically in ‘The Stranger’ given no name? That is the central question of ‘The Meursault Investigation’ which is narrated by the Arab’s brother.

In ‘The Meursault Investigation’ we early learn that the Arab’s name is Musa.  We find out how his murder affected his mother as well as his seven-year-old brother Harun who now tells this story seventy years later.

Whereas ‘The Stranger’ is cool and detached, cold even, ‘The Meursault Investigation’ is emotional and heated.  Albert Camus himself summarized ‘The Stranger’ with the following remark:  “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.”   The main issue at Meursault‘s trial appears to be his reserve and lack of feeling at his mother’s funeral rather than the murder itself.  Meursault views the murder as a result of his being disoriented by the sun.  The murder is nearly a side issue to him, but that still does not pardon Camus from not giving the Arab a name.  Surely Meursault would have learned the name of his victim after the murder and should not always have to refer to him as “the Arab”.   The worst case would be that Camus himself was dismissive of Meursault’s murderous act because the victim was only “the Arab”.  In 1942 Algeria was a French colony, and that may have been a common colonial attitude.

the-strangerBy 1962, Algeria gained its independence from France.  Many remaining French people left their homes in a hurry, and Harun and his mother move into a house vacated by a French family.  During that time, Harun murders a Frenchman who does have a name.

This murder is not the only scene that mirrors ‘The Stranger’.  There is also the story of Musa and Harun’s mother.  In fact the first line of ‘The Meursault Investigation’ is “Mama’s still alive today” which mirrors the first line of ‘The Stranger’.

Kamel Daoud would have built a stronger case if he had dealt with the fact that in ‘The Stranger’ the two Arabs stabbed Meursault’s friend Raymond in the arm and mouth in a confrontation before the murder.  Earlier Raymond had beat up his Arab girlfriend, and the Arabs responded with violence. Certainly Raymond had it coming, but still that fact should have been discussed explicitly in ‘The Meursault Investigation’.

I suppose at some point the two novels ‘The Stranger’ and ‘The Meursault Investigation’ will be sold as a package so readers will get the entire story of both Albert Meursault and his victim.

 

Grade:    B+

 

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8 responses to this post.

  1. It’s open to anyone to interpret Camus’ novel anyway they like, of course, but I’ve always thought that not naming the Arab was a deliberate authorial choice, not a careless racist one, to make the Arab a symbol of colonisation, to draw the reader’s attention to their own racism.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      My guess is that Camus was so caught up in his idea about someone not crying at his mother’s funeral being found guilty of murder, that he didn’t concern himself with the murder enough. He should have at least named the Arab, since after the murder, the name would certainly be part of the indictment.
      But you may be right that Camus was showing the racism of the colonial era that Meursault figured he would get off because his victim was an Arab.

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  2. I tend to agree with Lisa here – and you have to bear in mind the tensions between the two groups, as you so rightly point out, and that there are points that Daoud hasn’t picked up on, maybe because they would have weakened the anger of his tale? I expect you’re right that the two books may be bundled, but I’m kind of not happy with that. The tale of the victim is not the one Camus would have told, it’s someone else’s take on it, which of course they’re entitled to do, but it’s the story of an Arab who’s been murdered and not necessarily the one Camus had in his book.

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    • Hi Kaggsy,
      The two novels are very different. Meursault is cool and detached from his own life in ‘The Stranger’ while Harun in ‘The Meursault Investigation’ is heated, and you are right to speak of “the anger of the tale”. I can see why you would not want them packaged together because they are two different visions.

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  3. Very interesting post and comments.

    I don’t think Camus not naming The Arab is a way to treat him as a non-entity. I think it’s more to focus the story on the trial and, as you say it, on the fact that not weeping at his mother’s funeral was Meursault’s actual downfall.

    That said, the French colonisation of Algeria was wrong as all colonisations are. For me, Meursault being put on trial and sentenced for the murder has always been a given. I never considered that in another country, he could have gotten away with it. It’s an interesting perspective.

    Something else. James Baldwin writes in one of his short stories set in Paris that he thinks that the French treat Algerian immigrants the way white Americans treat black people in the US. Since it’s in the 1960s, it’s not exactly a glorious comparison…

    PS : FYI. Death penalty existed in France when Camus wrote the novel but it’s been abolished in 1981.

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    • Hi Emma,
      If I remember correctly, Meursault’s friend Raymond had beat up the sister of one of the Arabs early on, and that is why the Arabs came after them. Later Meusault shoots one of the Arabs (can’t remember if it is the same one whose sister was beat up) seemingly without provocation beyond their earlier run-ins. That is when Meursault is arrested.
      Camus framed the story around Meursault’s lack of tears at his mother’s funeral but he could have just as well framed it around the antagonisms between the French and the Arabs. However we colonialist readers are more intrigued by the story of Meursault and his mother.

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