The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

February 25, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (2013) Original French title: Meursault, contre-enquête.

Preamble: I downloaded a sample of the English translation on my kindle. All the translations of this post are by John Cullen who translated The Meursault Investigation into English.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is a story based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, told from the side of the victim’s family. The narrator is the victim’s younger brother and Daoud’s novel relates both the murder seen from the Arabs’ side and the consequences of this event on the younger brother’s life.

From the first sentence, the reader knows that The Meursault Investigation is constructed as a mirror to The Stranger. Indeed, it opens with Aujourd’hui, M’ma est toujours vivante. (Mama’s still alive today), a counterpart to Camus’s Aujourd’hui Maman est morte. (Maman died today) In a sense, the book is like a negative in photography.

In the first pages, the narrator mulls over the fact that the Arab killed in L’Etranger has no name. His first mission is to give him his name back, he says he was named Moussa. Our narrator is in a café, drinking wine and telling his story to a stranger. French is the language because this story needed to be told with the language of the colonizer. The pace of the story is in short chapters and often they end with a direct address to the reader, as if he were in the café, listening a storyteller. It’s like Scheherazade leaving cliffhangers to have her audience back the next day. You don’t see it in English, but in French, it’s said with the “tu” form and not “vous”. For me, it’s also a way to remind us that the narrator doesn’t use his native language for this story, that his native language is Arabic were the “vous” form isn’t used in spoken language.

Daoud never mentions Camus in his novel but he’s everywhere. He’s paraphrased in chapters, a mirroring text to the original, a text in reverse, the same way Arabic is written from right to left when French is written from left to right.

As I said, Camus is never mentioned directly and L’Etranger is a first-person narrative. This allows a confusion between the writer and the character, something that is very clear in this paragraph:

Comme tous les autres, tu as dû lire cette histoire telle que l’a racontée l’homme qui l’a écrite. Il écrit si bien que ses mots paraissent comme des pierres taillées par l’exactitude même. C’était quelqu’un de très sévère avec les nuances, ton héros, il les obligeait presque à être des mathématiques. D’infinis calculs à base de pierres et de minéraux. As-tu vu sa façon d’écrire ? Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! Son monde est propre, ciselé par la clarté matinale, précis, net, tracé à coup d’arômes et d’horizons. La seule ombre est celle des « Arabes », objets flous et incongrus, venus « d’autrefois », comme des fantômes et avec, pour toute langue, un son de flûte. Je me dis qu’il devait en avoir marre de tourner en rond dans un pays qui ne voulait de lui ni mort ni vivant. Le meurtre qu’il a commis semble celui d’un amant déçu par une terre qu’il ne peut posséder. Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre ! Etre l’enfant d’un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance. I’m sure you’re like everyone else, you’ve read the tale as told by the man who wrote it. He writes so well that his words are like precious stones, jewels cut with the utmost precision. A man very strict about shades of meaning, you hero was; he practically required them to be mathematical. Endless calculations, based on gems and minerals. Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! His world is clean, clear, exact, honed by morning sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by “the Arabs,” blurred, incongruous objects left over from “days gone by”, like ghost, with no language except the sound of a flute. I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves. How he must have suffered, poor man! The be the child of a place that never gave you birth…

Where does the assimilation between Camus and Meursault begin and end? The man who wrote it can be both Camus writing a novel and Meursault writing his journal. They were both born in Algeria. L’Etranger was written in 1942, before the War of Independence but I imagine that the tensions between the French colonizer and the locals were already palpable. Camus and Meursault were strangers to the land they were born to.

Let’s stop a bit and contemplate this paragraph.

Daoud perfectly nailed Camus’s style. That’s how I felt when I reread L’Etranger. I was dazzled by his words, his perfect way to describe the landscape and the Mediterranean light. Short sentences chiseled with precision. I have a reservation about the translation. When I read the French and the passage about Camus’s style, Daoud only uses the word pierre, not pierre précieuse. And John Cullen translated it with precious stone, and then jewels which takes the Anglophone reader to another path than the one I took. Perhaps Daoud told him that was his intention. That’s not the way I see it. When I read Daoud, I see carved stones, not gem stones. I see the rectilinear lines of buildings at the sea front in Algiers. I see light stones from a quarry, shaped into perfect geometrical stones to build buildings, to set up the inevitable ending of L’Etranger. I don’t see Camus as a jeweler, I see Camus as an architect and a builder.

Daoud also writes Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! and not Il parle d’un coup de feu et on dirait de la poésie ! which would be He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! In French, the use of art du poème is not natural and I wonder if it’s a way to show that the narrator is not a native French speaker and that he comes from a literary tradition where poetry holds a major place.

The end of the paragraph refers to the awkward place of French colonizers in Algeria. Some came to Algeria from Alsace and Lorraine after the 1870 debacle and the annexing of these regions to Germany. Part of the French living in Algeria were born there; they were not only people sent in Algeria for a few years as a military, a civil servant or an expat for a company. From an individual point of view, it was their country, in the sense of the place you were born. But of course, it was not their land because their presence was based on a conquest that took thirty years and they were living on stolen land, on a lie. Daoud’s words explain that for Algeria, Meursault was a stranger. For the French community, he was an outsider. This is why it’s difficult to clearly choose between the two titles used in English for L’Etranger, which covers both meanings in French.

I won’t tell more about the plot and how far the mirroring goes because it would spoil your reading. Suffice to say that it shows a narrator living in poverty and probably saved by the school system. (Like Camus and in the background, like Meursault) It shows Algeria after the independence, after the terrible decade of the 1990s and how a man who doesn’t comply to religious duties and drinks alcohol can feel as an outsider in his own country. The narrator might have something in common with Meursault after all.

The Meursault Investigation assumes that Camus never named the Arab who was killed because as an Arab, he was a non-entity. I don’t agree with this. I’m sure that a lot of scholars more qualified than me have written essays about it. As a common reader, when I closed L’Etranger recently, I thought this was a universal story and that the Algerian setting was incidental. Maybe Camus missed his place of birth in 1942, in the middle of the horrible WWII. To me, L’Etranger is closer to a Greek tragedy, something set up from the start, a literary machinery that corralled the character into the path designed by a writer who wanted to point out the absurdity of life, the narrowmindedness of his society and show his vision of life through a novel. I don’t read anything into the Algiers setting, sorry.

I think The Meursault Investigation is a brilliant book that left me puzzled. Its construction is skillfully done, Daoud knows Camus’s work inside out. There are obviouns references to L’Etranger but to other works by Camus like Caligula or The Myth of Sisyphus. I don’t fully agree with his interpretation of L’Etranger but Daoud wrote a compelling story and also used Camus’ novel as a stepladder to criticize his own country. I really recommend (re)reading L’Etranger before diving into The Meursault Investigation. It’s only 120 pages long and it will enhance your reading of Daoud’s novel.

Other reviews:

 

  1. February 25, 2018 at 11:54 am

    I remember reading Stu’s review of this, but it’s very interesting to read it from a French point of view, especially the way you look at the language he uses to show that French is not his native language:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 25, 2018 at 11:57 am

      I think this will be the companion book to L’Etranger in the future.
      I regret it didn’t win the Prix Goncourt. It deserves it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 25, 2018 at 12:03 pm

        I don’t know. Some people read Wide Sargasso Sea as a companion to Jane Eyre but I loved Jane Eyre as a young reader and (even though I understood the postcolonial impetus behind it) I hated the way that WSS messed with it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 25, 2018 at 12:07 pm

          The Meursault Investigation is a lot more interesting to read with L’Etranger than Wide Sargasso Sea with Jane Eyre.

          WSS doesn’t bring anything to Jane Eyre. Meursault, contre-enquête is an opportunity to discuss Camus and to discuss French colonization in Algeria, something we’d like to push under the carpet but can’t and shouldn’t.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. February 25, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    Brilliant review. I thought this novel was excellent, but I didn’t re-read L’Etranger before I read it & you’ve made me realise what a mistake this was. At some point I’ll have to re-read them both together!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 25, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      Thanks.
      And yes, they’re worth reading one after the other. They’re both short, so rereading them doesn’t take long.

      If you do that, have a look at the NY Times article I linked in my billet. You’ll have a even better idea of what you’re reading.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. February 25, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    I hadn’t read that NYT article about Daoud and Algeria, thank you for drawing my attention to it. It’s fascinating. Common to all writers who dare to ‘criticise’ their country, I believe…

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 26, 2018 at 2:28 pm

      The article is fascinating and it confirms what Yasmina Khadra says in his novel.
      In Meursault, contre-enquête, there are indeed harsh words against the way religious habits are forced upon people. There’s nothing against faith and religious feelings but a lot about having to follow a defined path to express them. (and be ostracised if you don’t follow the rules)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. February 25, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    A brilliant review ! The analysis of language was fascinating. As I said , I loved this book . I also recommend his latest novel Zabor ….not an easy read but an examination of the need for storytelling and the role of a writer in a fundamentalist society .

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 26, 2018 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll have a look at Zabor.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. February 25, 2018 at 10:22 pm

    What a coincidence, I also read the L’étranger/Meursault contre-enquete « sequence » this winter. But I still haven’t decided what I think of the two (taken individually and together), except that I was occasionally irritated by the second one. As to why… I don’t know except that it had to do with the main speaker. I’ll set aside your two posts to re-read and analyse, it might help me clarify my own thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 26, 2018 at 2:32 pm

      I was irritated at times too, during the first half of the book. I found him a bit too aggressive and I thought he presented Meursault’s crime as a racist murder which I don’t think it was.

      Since you’ve just read the two, don’t you think Camus could have set L’Etranger somewhere in mainland France as well? I imagine this in a small town, where everyone knows everybody and where they need people to comform.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 3, 2018 at 8:40 pm

        Yes, I agree it could have been on the mainland too, although now it’s difficult for me to imagine the book as being set anywhere other than in Algeria under the dazzling sun. But this ties in nicely with your other point about Meursault’s crime as a racist murder: does Daoud believe Camus was being racist, or is using this very famous book just a (very good) starting point to raise more general issues about how the French behaved towards the Algerians?
        Where I don’t really agree with you is about the style of the two writers: I found Camus’s Meursault extremely detached and Daoud’s narrator very agitated, and these big differences had a lot to do with the two writers’ style in my opinion.
        I wrote that I found Daoud’s book irritating at times, but I did enjoy all the connections he made with L’Etranger, which give a very different perspective to Camus’s book (though it must be difficult to set aside those perspectives when re-reading Camus for Camus’s sake only).

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 12, 2018 at 11:34 pm

          Oh I think you can find this dazzling sun on the other side of the Mediterranean, near Marseille or in Provence.

          I think Daoud’s character believes it to be a racist murder but I don’t know about Daoud’s opinion. I think it was also a way to write about today’s Algeria, to picture the early days / months after the independance and how things went wrong for the country from the start.
          He was really attacked for this book, for his character’s words on his country and on religion.

          L’Etranger was a starting point, an excellent one. A bit like Maalouf’s Les croisades vues par les Arabes. (It sure sets you straight about the barbaric violence done in the name of Christianity)

          I don’t think Camus and Daoud’s styles are alike. L’Etranger is embedded in Daoud’s work, it’s done on purpose and it’s a challenge to track these references down. (unless they’re in italic)
          I agree with you, the two characters have a different voice. Meursault is detached, aloof. Harun is more fiery, loud and sometimes obnoxious.

          I also enjoyed the connections between the two books and in my opinion, they also show Daoud’s admiration for Camus’s novel.

          Like

  6. February 26, 2018 at 2:40 am

    I loved your analysis both of the language and of the story, as it relates to the original and to post colonial analysis. Interesting that the French might regard themselves as Algerians. I don’t think that was ever the case for Brits in India or Hong Kong, but maybe in southern Africa.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 26, 2018 at 2:34 pm

      Thanks Bill.

      They didn’t regard themselves as Algerians at all. That could have helped them stay in the country after its independance. The huge mistake was to believe that Algeria was like mainland France and that they were as legitimate there as they would have been in Brittany or Burgundy.

      Like

  7. February 28, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    Fascinating analysis of language and technique. I think in a way it doesn’t matter for this what Camus intended by not naming the Arab, taking that lack of name as a springboard feels like a legitimate thing to do to explore colonialisms. Nice piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 3, 2018 at 8:37 am

      Thanks Max.

      I agree with you, I liked that Kamel Daoud used Camus as a starting point to discuss post independance Algeria.

      It’s a great read but French readers seem a little more enthusiastic about it. Maybe it’s because we know the historical context better or maybe something didn’t translate well.

      Like

  8. March 30, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    I loved the Camus novel and Daoud’s response to it and think both would hold up to multiple (re)readings. The conflation of Camus with Meursault is one of the narrator’s more mischievous antics in the Daoud novel, and while I don’t agree that the Algerian setting of the earlier novel was “incidental,” I do like your association of it with Greek tragedy. There’s something primal about the story for sure. Thanks, by the way, for linking to my posts in your billet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 1, 2018 at 8:42 pm

      I totally agree with you: both books deserve re-readings and Kamel Daoud managed a tour de force: he wrote a book that is a good complement to the original. Brave but succesful.

      About the Algerian setting being incidental. I think I was influenced by my reading of The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus. I couldn’t help thinking about it when I was re-reading L’Etranger. It’s set in Belgium, in the country and it’s about people who are led to terrible actions in their small circle. They have strangers among them, American soldiers stationed nearby. They have weird family and neighbours relationships. The weather seem to influence their moods as well and it’s not the blinding sun of Algeria, it’s the gray and continuous rain of Belgium.

      Like

  9. April 26, 2018 at 3:00 am

    A very interesting billet,thank you. Hence I took heed of your recommandations and will reread Camus before Daoud. Then the reviews you mentioned.
    According to my memory of L’Etranger, I agree with you: in Camus’ novel Meursault’s crime is not a racist murder as Meursault’s detachment excludes any racist feelings as well as any other feelings. Yet the strange atmosphere of the book, through all the unsaid tells a lot about racism as being part of the French colony; as a result, it weights subtlly on the story – Camus describes faithfuly what it looks like to live in Alger: the society splitted into two ethnic clans who never hang out together, probably even fear each other ; the victiim of the crime is never really thought as a true person, and has no other identity than his ethnicity all along the read.
    So, in a way, one can also think of Meursault’s crime as a racist murder resulting from the collective unconscious – all this pervading discomfort and suspicion the Colons might feel when in the presence of the Natives – a potential threaten as soon as they get closer -, despite Meursault’s arrest and death penalty for failing to display emotions. That’s why I can’t think of Camus novel taking place in another part of France – even the South of France.
    PS: I just discovered your blog and will definitely come back!

    Like

    • April 26, 2018 at 9:50 pm

      Racism was rooted in their everyday life and the French who went back to France after Algeria’s independance, brought it with them, amplified by the bitterness of having left everything behind.

      This time has not been discussed enough in our country and open issues remain. It affects the way French people with origins from the Maghreb are seen and it fuels the extreme right. As I said in my other billet about Toni Morrison’s The Origins of Others, I think that James Baldwin was right to make a connection between racism against black people in America and racism against the “Beurs” in France.

      The atmosphere of Algiers weighs on the story. Yes, the victim is a non-entity in Meusault’s eyes and because he’s in colonial Algeria, this man is Algerian. (“Arab” doesn’t mean anything to me, it’s not a nationality, not an identity, just a convenient way for whites to put a label on people and not invest time into discovering why a Tunisian is different from an Alegrian) But Meursault could have killed a vagrant in France and the part of the story when he’s trialed could have been the same.
      I agree with you on the part that it’s hard to forget the context of colonized Algeria.

      Anyway, that’s just my opinion, I’m sure that plenty of very serious studies have proved that the victim being an Arab was essential to the story.

      Like

  1. December 18, 2018 at 5:14 am
  2. January 6, 2019 at 11:06 pm

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