Albert Camus’ The Stranger, published in 1942, is a literary classic about one man’s existential crisis. The action of the novel takes place in Algeria under French colonial rule and the narrator, Meursault, is a Frenchman who has murdered an Arab. In The Meursault Investigation, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud imagines the same story as told by the victim’s brother. The result is a powerful and insightful tale of the destructive fruits of colonialism and its aftermath.
Before reading The Meursault Investigation, the reader would be wise to re-read The Stranger. The two books together account for a grand total of only 269 pages, but each short novel tells a story worthy of considered thought and discussion. In The Stranger, Camus, through Meursault, examines the meaninglessness and absurdity of life. His constant refrain is “nothing matters, nothing makes a difference.” Meursault is detached, alienated from the world. Human relationships don’t matter to him; his mother’s death has had no emotional impact on him, and girlfriend Marie’s desire for love and marriage are met with indifference. This man is an island. He no longer feels anything — not anger or love or sadness. One person he is willing to interact with is his neighbor Raymond, a thug who wants to intimidate his mistress, who happens to be an Arab and whose brothers seem to be following Raymond. While Meursault is on a trip to the beach with Raymond, Marie and another couple, the Arabs appear, and when Meursault finds himself alone on the beach with ‘the Arab,’ he shoots and kills him. The ensuing investigation, which goes on for 11 months, reveals to prosecutors and to his own lawyer that Meursault is indifferent toward life, God, his mother, and other people. “Nothing matters” is his constant refrain. When asked if he’s sorry, he replies that he’s more annoyed than sorry, and he tells the prosecutor that he feels no remorse, in fact has never felt remorse. The trial focuses on his insensitivity toward his mother and lack of sorrow at her funeral rather than on the murder of another man. Meursault is guilty and to him it doesn’t matter:
‘Well, so I’m going to die.’ Sooner than other people will, obviously. But everyone knows life isn’t worth living. Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn’t much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living ….
In the end, we’re all dead, so nothing matters.
In The Meursault Investigation, which treats The Stranger as a true story written by a real Meursault, our narrator Harun makes a point of telling his interviewer (an unknown and unnamed student or perhaps journalist) that the victim of Meursault’s crime had a name and it was Musa, his brother. Some 70 years after the crime has been committed, Harun and his mother, who is still alive, are haunted by the murder. The loss of Musa’s life was devastating, but the situation was made worse by the institutional response to it, and that response would have been dictated by colonial French authorities. No one interviewed them when Meursault went on trial; Musa’s body was never returned to them and they presume it was swept out to sea; no official records or newspaper stories gave Musa a name. Harun learned French in order to be able to track down information, but the most staggering piece of news comes to them in 1963, when a student named Meriem knocks on their door asking if they are Musa’s family. When she shows Harun a copy of Meursault’s book, he hopes that gaps in his brother’s story will be filled in. Instead he is incensed to see that his brother has no identity and that his life and murder occupy very little space.
… Musa’s body will remain a mystery. There’s not a word in the book about it. That’s a denial of a shockingly violent kind, don’t you think? As soon as the shot is fired, the murderer turns around, heading for a mystery he considers worthier of interest than the Arab’s life. He continues on his way, the bedazzled martyr.
More than a story of Harun’s personal anger and loss, this is a story about colonial occupation. Meursault treated Musa the way France treated the Muslims of Algeria, which is to say as a conquered people without identity, voice, rights, without a body. Talk about an existential crisis.
Everything happened without us. There’s not a trace of our loss or what became of us afterward.
Harun has some sharp and just criticisms of French rule and French attitudes toward the people of Algeria.
‘Arab.’ I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were ‘the strangers’…
Considering the day of Musa’s death, Harun notes that instead of asking why the ‘Arabs’ were on the beach that day, it makes more sense to ask why Meursault was there. He contends that Musa and his friend had no intention of killing anyone. So why were they there?
They were just waiting for them to leave, all of them, your hero, the pimp, and the thousands and thousands of others.
Harun contends that Meursault’s book is a lie beautifully told. First, he and Musa have no sister, certainly not a sister who was a prostitute for Raymond. He points out that this mythical Arab whore is …a distant symbol of our land, plowed by customers and passersby, reduced to dependence on an immoral, violent pimp, while the French girlfriend Marie has been …brought up in a greenhouse of impossible innocence. He also questions the story Meursault tells of his mother’s death and says that there is no grave for her, and that no one locally remembers her or such an event as her funeral procession.
Yet, while Harun is angry at Meursault and his selfish preoccupation with his own alienation from the world, he also sees that he and Meursault are similar. There are some obvious parallels to The Stranger in Harun’s story, notably the commission of a murder and the feeling of disconnection from the surrounding world. Harun is an outsider in his own community; he is an unmarried and childless man who does not believe in God, who drinks wine, and who did not fight in the Resistance during the war for Independence. When he commits a murder, there is an absurdity to the questioning he undergoes that is not unlike the absurdity of Meursault’s trial. Harun is frustrated with modern Algeria and the preoccupation with religion.
As far as I’m concerned, religion is public transportation I never use. This God — I like traveling in his direction, on foot if necessary, but I don’t want to take an organized trip.
… I detest religions and submission.
Harun also laments what has happened to women in his country. Meriem was his one love, and
Her type of woman has disappeared in this country today: free, brash, disobedient, aware of their body as a gift, not as a sin or a shame.
Daoud’s novel has met critical acclaim abroad, notably in France, as well as in his native Algeria. There has been some conservative Muslim backlash as a result, which is not surprising. The Meursault Investigation has made a number of “best of 2015” lists and certainly ranks as one of my favorites. I don’t think it’s possible to look at The Stranger in the same way again, and perhaps that is for the best. The two novels together would be great readings for history and/or philosophy courses.