The Meursault Investigation

The Meursault Investigation was a Kindle special a few months ago, and Twitter told me I should read it.  So I did.  Depending on your familiarity with Albert Camus' L'etranger (The Stranger), you'll fall within a range of opinions about this book.

Was it well-written?  Absolutely.  There were points were the prose was just achingly beautiful.  Did it tell me something I hadn't already considered?  Not really.  However, I had already read Camus' work at least three times for academic purposes, and I had professors who challenged us to think beyond the narrative.  In fact, I thought that was the whole point of the book.

The Meursault Investigation is basically the backstory of the man killed by Meursault, the narrator of L'Étranger.  In a bar, an old man tells a scholar a story.  It is the story of his brother Musa, the victim of a Frenchman's bizarre and pointless crime.  This crime was the basis of a best-selling novel, but Harun is bitter that his brother was never even identified by name.  Harun describes how the death of his brother affected the trajectory of his life and altered his already twisted relationship with his mother.  It also led him to murder in return.

As a meditation on the effects of French colonialism in North Africa, this is a wonderful book.  Harun muses, "Tell me, is that a nationality, 'Arab'? And where's this country everybody claims to carry in their hearts, in their vitals, but which doesn't exist anywhere?"
"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,' the roumis God brought here to put us to the test."
This is a discussion of Othering that we need to have.  Who are we but labels placed upon us by others?  Will we accept those as a matter of due course, or will we reject them?  What is the difference between what we call ourselves and what others call us?  And in an invaded country, who is the foreigner?

Yet all of this leads to my largest issue with The Meursault Investigation, and that is this: Kamel Daoud's narrator presumes that all the white people who have read Camus' book empathize with Meursault and dismiss the man he killed as nothing more than a prop.

Never was I under the impression that we, the readers, were intended to see Meursault as some sort of tragic hero.  The man is a self-centered, narcissistic murderer.  He's a liar and a coward, hiding behind a so-called existential crisis to excuse his crime.  We have to see Meursault's environment as he does: a country filled with nameless people whom he considers to be less than human.  Meursault is the quintessential European conqueror.

Obviously, I am speaking from a position of white privilege here.  So was Camus.  I love the idea of telling the other side of Camus' very one-sided story, but there is this assumption made that readers who are white will automatically empathize with Meursault and call the book a "masterpiece."  When I read this for college (in multiple classes: being a French major means you will read and dissect this slim volume more times than you'd like to count), my professors always pushed us to challenge Meursault's unreliable narration.  For me, the point of the book was that you can't use moral torpor and existential idleness to justify your actions.  Having an existential crisis or being bored with life or whatever pretty, but ultimately hollow, excuse the Frenchman wants to toss out there does not give you permission to do as you please.

The conceit that in Daoud's novel, L'Étranger was a true crime story instead of fiction didn't quite work for me, either.  Harun constantly combines the identities of "the author" of the book--Camus--with Meursault.  Other times, they are separate people.  Harun also talks about how the murderer got away with it, while at the end of the novel, Meursault awaits the guillotine.  This may have been a stylistic choice: just as the reader cannot and should not believe Meursault, she must do the same for Harun.  Neither man's grasp on reality is particularly strong.

I did appreciate the nods to the original novel in much of the phrasing; even the opening sentence plays with the famous lines of Camus' original.

All in all, this is an interesting book for people who enjoy Camus, or for poor tortured French majors, or for people interesting in the effects of French colonialism on the identity of colonized nations.  Otherwise, you can definitely give this one a pass.

P.S. If anyone says that my issue with the fundamental premise, i.e. white people believe Meursault is a hero, is a superficial reading and that we are actually not supposed to believe that because Harun is an unreliable narrator, I'm going to slam my head into the nearest solid object.  That's something for you to go and debate in your thesis, and no, I don't want to read it.


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