“My brother had to be seen through your hero’s eyes to become an ‘Arab’ and consequently die.” -Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation.
Albert Camus’s The Stranger gained an almost mythical reputation early on as a classic text highlighting the alienation and meaninglessness of human existence. Like most of his works, the novel takes place in French Algeria. In a deceptively simple first-person narrative, the aloof hero Meursault opens his tale by relating his complete lack of feeling at his mother’s funeral. Later, after returning to the city, he shoots an unnamed Arab on the beach. He cannot explain his crime and is surprised during his trial when his emotionless non-commital lifestyle is used as evidence against him. He receives the death penalty as much for failing to weep over the loss of his mother as for his actual crime. In his only outburst, Meursault spends the novel’s final pages cathartically railing against a visiting priest. After this diatribe, he finally feels able to accept “the gentle indifference” of the universe.1
The novel’s minimalist aesthetic and absurdist philosophy appealed to a Europe exhausted by strident ideologies and shell shocked by two devastating world wars. Meursault was seen by many as a tragic Christ figure dying alone for failing to play along with society’s arbitrary rules.
But perhaps there may be something wrong with this picture. What of the nameless Arab gunned down for no apparent reason? Who was he? Did he have a family? Why is the Frenchman the tragic hero while his native victim is hardly considered? Kamel Daoud’s 2013 novel The Meursault Investigation seeks to answer these questions and balance the scales. In a brilliant deconstruction of Camus’s text and colonialism itself, the writer retells the story from the Algerian perspective.
The premise of this intriguing metatextual piece is that The Stranger was actually written by Meursault as an autobiographical memoir. In place of Camus’s protagonist, we have Haroun Ould el Assasse whose brother Musa played the victim in that fatal encounter on the beach in 1942. El Assasse, now an elderly man, recounts the events of his life to a young student who carries a copy of L’Etranger in his briefcase.
The work offers a striking counterpoint to Camus’s text. In contrast to the Stranger’s laconic pose of indifference, el Assasse burns with passionate intensity. Where Meursault narrates events with spare sentences, Daoud’s protagonist rambles, telling us his tale in fits and jerks. The Frenchman is condemned to death; the Algerian feels himself equally condemned to life.
El Assasse was seven years old when Meursault killed his older brother Musa on that infamous beach. We learn how the murder warped his home life, causing him to live forever in the shadow of his mother’s inconsolable grief. “Mama knew the art of making ghosts live and, conversely, was very good at annihilating her close relatives, drowning them in the monstrous torrents of her made-up tales. She can’t read, but I promise you, my friend, she would have told you the story of our family and my brother better than I can. She lied not from a desire to deceive but in order to correct reality and mitigate the absurdity that struck her world and mine. Musa’s passing destroyed her, but paradoxically it also introduced her to the macabre pleasure of a never-ending period of mourning. [Her] grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it.”2
And for his part, the narrator finds himself equally haunted by the death of a brother that he idolized. “My brother Musa was capable of parting the sea, and yet he died in insignificance, like a common bit player on a beach that today has disappeared, close to the waves that should have made him famous.” Elsewhere he says, “What hurts me every time I think about it is that he killed him by passing over him, not by shooting him. You know, his crime is majestically nonchalant.”3
Musa was the family’s sole support. His murder forced el Asssasse and his mother into an itinerant life wandering from town to town, where they became as much outsiders as Meursault. Peeling back the breezy Mediterranean facade, the narrator forces us to understand the realities of colonialism, recounting the devastating years of supporting his mother through farm labor and odd jobs. Even his memories of innocent pastimes are tinged with bitterness. “We kids would play marbles, and if one of us didn’t show up the following day, that would mean he was dead – and we’d keep on playing. It was the period of epidemics and famines. Rural life was hard; it revealed what the cities kept hidden, namely that the country was starving to death.”4
Throughout the novel, Daoud artfully explodes the racist assumptions that allowed Camus to make the killing of an unnamed Arab into a symbol of the absurd. And we may never read The Stranger in quite the same light again. But The Meursault Investigation is no mere reversal of roles, supplying us with stock innocent Algerians and evil colonists. As el Assasse tells us at one point, “This isn’t a trite story of forgiveness or revenge, it’s a curse, it’s a trap.”5
Daoud, a journalist and outspoken critic of contemporary Algerian politics, uses the novel to critique with an equal hand Algeria’s war of independence and the turbulence that has followed it. It is evident that more is going on under the surface of the narrative than we might at first suspect. As one critic writes, “Rather than read the investigation through a postcolonial lens as pertaining to the one nameless Arab murdered in Camus’s The Stranger, it may be more productive to read it in relation to the over seven thousand Algerian civilians who were forcibly disappeared during the bloody civil war in the 1990s who remain unaccounted for and whose disappearance cannot be investigated due to the Algerian Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation.”6
The Meursault Investigation offers both an homage to a classic text and a necessary correction to its frame of reference. It presents the harrowing devastation that a single death can cause and prompts us to think of the countless deaths that remain hidden from the eyes of the world. Finally, it reminds us that if there is an element of absurdity to our existence, perhaps it has its roots in the assumptions which allow us to value one human life over another.
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1. Camus, Albert, The Stranger, Matthew Ward tr. Vintage International Press, p.122
2. Daoud, Kamel, The Meursault Investigation, John Cullen tr. Other Press, p. 36
3. Daoud, pp. 4,9
4. Daoud, p.28
5. Daoud, p. 88
6. Lachman, Kathryn, “The Meursault Investigation: Literature and the Disappeared,” Yale French Studies, No. 135/136, Yale University Press, pp. 191-192
A Postcolonial Stranger: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2022
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