A New York Times Notable Book of 2015
“A tour-de-force reimagining of Camus’s The Stranger, from the point of view of the mute Arab victims.” —The New Yorker
He was the brother of “the Arab” killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus’s classic novel. Seventy years after that event, Harun, who has lived since childhood in the shadow of his sibling’s memory, refuses to let him remain anonymous: he gives his brother a story and a name—Musa—and describes the events that led to Musa’s casual murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach.
In a bar in Oran, night after night, he ruminates on his solitude, on his broken heart, on his anger with men desperate for a god, and on his disarray when faced with a country that has so disappointed him. A stranger among his own people, he wants to be granted, finally, the right to die.
The Stranger is of course central to Daoud’s story, in which he both endorses and criticizes one of the most famous novels in the world. A worthy complement to its great predecessor, The Meursault Investigation is not only a profound meditation on Arab identity and the disastrous effects of colonialism in Algeria, but also a stunning work of literature in its own right, told in a unique and affecting voice.
Camus's The Stranger is vividly reimagined in Daoud's intensely atmospheric novel (a finalist for the Prix Goncourt), which is told in a meandering monologue by the adult Harun, over the course of several visits to a bar in Oran, Algeria. Harun's older brother, Musa, an Algerian Arab, was shot by the Frenchman Meursault on an Algiers beach in 1942; his body was never recovered. Musa's missing corpse casts a long shadow over Harun, "condemned to a secondary role" by his widowed mother as she drags him on an interminable investigation into the death, taking the two from the Bab-el-Oued neighborhood of Algiers to the town of Hadjout, in northern Algeria. Determined to "organize the world" through language, the teenage Harun masters French in flashback, and he is 27 by the time a chance encounter offers him an opportunity to irrevocably alter his fate. As Harun meditates on guilt, alienation, and his failed affair with Meriem, a university student, his quarrel is revealed to be not just with his mother and Meursault, but with post-Independence Algeria and God himself. Ultimately, Harun identifies more with his brother's killer than with his own zealous countrymen. The ghostlike "double" he sees in the bar where the tale is told may be Camus himself: "I'm his Arab. Or maybe he's mine." Daoud resists affirming which interpretation is "truer," and readers will be captivated by the ambiguity.
Tour de Force
Brilliant play on Camus.
The Stranger_ is the classic of existential lit. Daoud's novel is the parallel, antithetical, yet reduplicated story of the unnamed 'Arab' whom the anti-hero of Camus' novel kills. But, be warned - If you haven't read _The Stranger_ recently and haven't had to read it critically, then The Meursault Investigation will fall short. The brilliance of this novel is the layering that creates at first a contrast between Camus' Meursault and Daoud's narrator Harun, who tells the story of his dead brother Musa - 'the Arab' shot in Camus's novel -- but ultimately shows they are two sides of a single coin.
Absence of a god versus the killing of god/religion; the death of an unnamed local by a privileged colonial vs the death of a colonial after the end of the war for independence; the failure of that war and independence to live up to the expectations of those who wanted better and how the victors destroyed their own world in that reach for freedom; and trials not for killing someone but for their failures of character -- these are some of the complex comparisons and contrasts Daoud explores as his narrator tells his tale in bar over a series of nights.
We are eavesdroppers on an intimate conversation 70 years after the death of Musa. We only hear one side, but the interviewer carries his copy of _The Stranger_ (here presented as a factual account written by Meursault) and we can glean what it is he asks periodically. Harun is witty, and contemplative, but angry and obsessed, his entire life revolved around the incident of his brother's death and the book written about it. He is a hard man, and ultimately unsympathetic. There were moments where I wondered if his brother had been in fact the 'Arab' at all - that instead he became the substitute for the brother that disappeared and gave him a target for his righteous indignation at the colonists and the religious.
This is the type of novel that provokes thought, and argument, but leaves no solution, ties up no threads, fills in no blanks. It is the type of novel that inspires critical papers and if I were still teaching high schoolers, I'd pair these two novels because, in the end, they enhance each other while simultaneously making us question both.