“Just think, we’re talking about one of the most-read books in the world. My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name… But no, he didn’t name him, because if he had, my brother would have caused the murderer a problem with his conscience: You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name.”
Seventy years after the publication of “The Stranger,” Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud revisits Meursault, the absurd anti-hero of Albert Camus’s emblematic novel. Meursault, “a Frenchman who just didn’t know what to do with his day and with the rest of the world, which he carried on his back,” shoots and kills an Arab man lying on a beach as he is dazzled by the blazing midday sun. In his book, “The Meursault Investigation” (Patakis, translated by Giannis Stringos), which was recently published in Greek, Daoud grapples with what he considers an overwhelming omission in Camus’s narrative and sets out to give the victim name and context. The details are narrated by the victim’s younger brother, Harun, who also discloses, as it were, the name of the dead Arab: Musa.
Harun, whose life has been hijacked by the anger and sadness of a mourning mother that imposed upon him the duty of reincarnating her tragic firstborn, is seeking justice and absolution. He will finally get his chance during the 1962 massacre of Oran, where a still-unknown number of Pieds-Noirs met their death. Ironically, killing a Frenchman – this one with a full name – leaves him with an absurd aftertaste. In the aftermath, Musa is not accused of taking another man’s life, but for picking the wrong time.
“This Frenchman, you should have killed him with us, during the war, not last week!,” an officer of the Algerian National Liberation Front yells at Harun during interrogation. “I didn’t see what difference that made, I replied,” says Harun. At the trial of “The Stranger,” Meursault is found guilty because he was not seen crying at his mother’s funeral.
Randomly thrown into a meaningless universe, Harun and Meursault appear immune to the values and the dictates of the judge, the priest, or the officer. Both are strangers in their respective worlds.
Although this is a post-colonial narrative about the legacy of millions of Meursaults, the author finds very little to celebrate as the setting smacks of decay and frustration. “I watched the post-independence enthusiasm consume itself and the illusions collapse,” the hero says.
Daoud uses the same material as Camus – “the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind” – but he uses it in a very different way. Contrary to the cold, detached language of the Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher, the book which last year won the Prix Goncourt for a first novel, crackles with tension and sentiment.
Born in 1970 at Mostaganem, Daoud now lives at the port of Oran on the Mediterranean coast where he works for a French-language Algerian newspaper. Not everybody is fond of his ideas: one ultraconservative cleric has demanded his public execution for being “an enemy of religion.” Inevitably, there are times when the words of Harun appear to come straight from the author’s lips:
“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.”