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Kamel Daoud: Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation)

Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (UK: The Outsider; US: The Stranger) is one of the most famous novels of the second part of the twentieth century. They key part of the novel is that the hero, Meursault, kills an Arab with little apparent motive, beyond the heat of the sun and the bright light, though there had been an altercation involving the Arab and the Arab’s friend, and Meursault and his friend, Raymond, earlier on. This novel takes as its basis that the story of Camus’ novel was not fiction but factual or, at least, based on fact. Haroun, who is telling the story, is recounting it to an unnamed French academic (though, as we learn towards the end of the book, the man is almost certainly not an academic), while sitting in a bar, drinking. (The story is told over several days.) Haroun, as we learn very early on, is the brother of the murdered Arab and was seven years old when his brother was killed by Meursault. The murder of his brother has, as we shall see, coloured his entire life.

Apart, obviously, from the fact that his brother was murdered for no apparent reason, Haroun has several issues. The first concerns the identity of his brother. His name is not mentioned at all in Camus’ novel; indeed, very little is known of him, the victim, barring the fact that he is called the Arab. Haroun is very bitter about this. Il aurait pu l’appeler “Quatorze heures” comme l’autre a appelé son nègre “Vendredi”. [He could have called him “Two p.m.”, as the other one called his negro “Friday”.] He adds that his nickname could have been the Arabic for 2 p.m., i.e. Zoudj . The brother, of course, does have a name – it is Moussa, the same name as the waiter in the bar. Moreover, even after independence, no-one made any effort to find out about Moussa – his name, his address, his family. He was completely ignored. He goes further when he complains that Moussa is only referred to as the Arab. Algerians do not, he says, call themselves, Arabs. (They are, of course, Berbers, rather than Arabs.) However, the French do look down on them, si nous étions des pierres ou des arbres morts [as if we were stones or dead trees].

His next complaint is that the book focuses on Meursault and what he is going through (death of his mother, girlfriend problems, hot sun) and completely ignores what the victim suffered. He goes even further – tous se sont échinés à prouver qu’il n’y avait pas eu meurtre, mais seulement insolation. [Everyone made every effort to prove that there was no murder, just too much sun]. Indeed, there was no investigation and no-one came to see them about it. There was, of course, no book written for him. Indeed, the only book Moussa had, according to Haroun, was his three tattoos.

Haroun initially says that he remembers the day well. He had been playing with an old tyre. Moussa had picked him up, put him on his shoulders and told him to uses his ears as though they were a steering wheel. Haroun then told his mother he was going out but would be back early. Donc l’histoire de ce meurtre ne commence pas avec la fameuse phrase, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte”, mais avec ce que personne n’a jamais entendu, c’est-à-dire ce que mon frère Moussa a dit à ma mère avant de sortir ce jour-là : “Je rentrerai plus tôt que d’habitude.” [So the story of this murder does not start with the famous sentence “Mother died today” but with what no-one has ever heard, namely my brother Moussa saying to my mother “I’ll be back earlier than usual”.] However, he later says that it was an ordinary day and he can barely remember what happened prior to Moussa’s death. Nor can his mother remember much, either. (The father had long since disappeared, so there were only the three of them.)

Was there a woman involved? In the Camus novel, Meursault had a friend called Raymond Sintès, who had an Algerian girlfriend who had apparently been unfaithful. In those days, Algerian men generally did not have a girlfriend but Haroun suspects that there was a girl involved and Moussa might have been defending her honour. She was called Zoubida and Haroun had heard Moussa calling out her name in his sleep. He knew who she was and, if he felt that her honour had in any way been insulted, it was his duty to defend her. Haroun had seen her once but had lost track of her.

A further insult was that they were never given the body of Moussa back to bury. After forty days, there was a funeral, but a funeral without a body. Ainsi, Moussa, mon frère, est mort trois fois de suite. La première fois à quatorze heures, le “jour de la plage” ; la deuxième, quand il a fallu lui creuser une tombe vide ; la troisième enfin quand Meriem est entrée dans notre vie. [So Moussa, my brother, died three times one after the other. The first time at 2 p.m., “the day of the beach”; the second, when we had to dig him an empty tomb; the third time when Meriem came into our life.] Meriem was a young woman who was studying Camus’ novel and wanted to hear the other side. She tracked down Haroun and his mother and asked them about Moussa and their life. Haroun fell in love with her and, for a while, they saw each other frequently but she lived in Algiers while, by this time, they had moved to Hadjout. Gradually, however, she loses interest and they lose touch. She was the only woman he fell in love with and now despises romantic relationships. They had moved to Hadjout soon after Moussa’s murder and his mother had stayed there and, indeed, is still alive and living there at the time of the novel. Haroun moved back to Algiers and, finally to Oran, where he now is. He did not participate in the Algerian Revolution and, indeed, this causes him trouble, as, after the revolution, he is arrested for not participating.

Haroun’s mother had spent considerable time investigating the death of her son, to little avail. However, she did manage to get hold of two newspaper clippings in French about the murder. Neither speak French but Haroun takes up French at school to be able to read the clippings and now knows them off by heart as his mother, even now, continues to interrogate him about them. He himself does some investigations and calls into question the details in Camus’ book. Where is Meursault’s mother buried? There is no trace of it. Did Meursault lie about her and her death, which would explain his seeming indifference to her death? Haroun’s mother thinks she finds the house where Meursault lived. She goes there and starts to insult the woman who answers the door. The woman, who is French and does not understand Arabic, is naturally frightened and threatens to call the police. The mother is hurried away by other Algerians so as not to risk trouble with the police. Haroun also searches in vain for Raymond and more and more thinks much of the story is made up.

Daoud does come up with a twist to the story but, ultimately, Haroun is left a bitter man, who feels his life has been destroyed by the death of his brother. His mother became totally obsessed with the death of her son and he feels that he has been neglected. Indeed, she tries to make him Moussa, by making him wear Moussa’s old clothes. They spend much time investigating the death. They leave Algiers for Hadjout, a town he hates. He is known, if at all, for being the brother of the man who was murdered. He turns away from religion, the Algerian Revolution and romance. Yet, by the end, he seems to be content, if not happy, sitting in the bar drinking and telling his tale to the academic who is not an academic, damning the French, your hero, as he calls Camus, and Meursault, all of which gives, at least, some meaning to his life. This is an excellent book, not only a clever idea but superbly executed.

Publishing history

First published by Actes Sud in 2014
First English translation by The Other Press in 2015