Kamel Daoud’s 2012 novel, “The Meursault Investigation” (“Meursault, contre-enquête”) is not exactly a re-telling of Albert Camus’s 1942 novel, “The Stranger” (“L’étranger”), written some 70 years earlier. Rather, it picks up the plot of “The Stranger” at its climax—a murder—and examines the aftermath from a different perspective.
“The Stranger” is told from the perspective of Meursault, a pied-noir—an Algerian resident of European origin during the colonial period—like its author, Camus. Algeria was occupied by the French in 1830 and remained a French colony until 1962, when it gained independence after an eight-year-long war.
Meursault narrates sensations and events without ascribing meaning to them, creating an account that is devoid of both spirituality and empathy. His lack of engagement with either the metaphysical or other people leaves him without a value system. When a friend brings Meursault to the beach and the pieds noirs end up fighting with a group of Algerians, Meursault, disoriented from sunstroke, shoots one of the Algerians.
The dead man is nameless and described only as an “Arab.” Meursault perceives the disruption he has caused by murdering the man not that he has annihilated another human being, but rather that he has merely “shattered the balance of the day.” Meursault’s total disregard for his Algerian victim exemplifies his attitude toward all of the native Algerians in the story.
Despite being set in Algeria, all of the characters who are given names are pied noirs like Meursault. Algerians only appear in the background—a nurse at his mother’s nursing home, Meursault’s victim and his friends, and Meursault’s cellmates in prison and their visitors. They are never given names nor any qualities that identify them as individuals.
Meursault’s victim is insignificant to him. He turns out to be equally insignificant to the French colonial court which tries and convicts Meursault and sentences him to death seemingly less for the murder itself than for his callousness in the face of his mother’s death.
Fast forward to “Meursault, contre-enquête,” and Haroun, the narrator here, of seeks to redress the imbalance of Meursault’s account in L’étranger by speaking in place of his brother Musa, whom we discover is Meursault’s previously unnamed victim:
“Laugh if you want, but this is more or less my mission: I peddle offstage silence, trying to sell my story while the theater empties out. As a matter of fact, that’s the reason why I’ve learned to speak this language, and to write it too: so I can speak in the place of a dead man, so I can finish his sentences for him. The murderer . . . wrote in his own language. Therefore I’m going to do what was done in this country after Independence: I’m going to take the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language.”
To what extent is it possible to make something new by merely rearranging the materials of an abandoned building? This image raises the question of whether it is ever possible to tell a story that is truly opposed to the history of colonialism, or whether any story attempting this will inevitably be shaped by the framework to which it is responding.
Turning back to “L’étranger,” the novel begins, famously, with the death of Meursault’s mother. Contrary to sentimentalizing his mother, Meursault admits that he did not visit her while she was alive, reasoning that she was content with her routine and that his visits would only have been a disruption.
Mary Ann Witt describes Meursault’s indifference toward his mother’s death as a metaphor for indifference toward the colonial project, which requires the continuity—meaning constant attention to both origins and the future—that mothers represent. Haroun’s narrative, in contrast, begins with the converse of Meursault’s first sentence: “Mother died today” becomes “Mama’s still alive today.” Meursault had the option of disengaging with both his mother and his context within the colonial project; Haroun, on the other hand, is forced by Meursault’s actions into closer contact with his mother than he would like.
After his brother’s death, he continues living with his mother and is forced to wander around looking for proof of this death. His mother wants to prove that Musa died a martyr, a project that is futile both because Musa was never named either by Meursault or in the newspaper and because he died before the war’s onset. Haroun’s proximity to his mother inhibits his development as an adolescent: he is not able to grow up as himself because he is forced to take on his brother’s identity.
Meursault is independent in both a metaphysical and a sociological sense, refusing to engage with anything beyond his direct experience. This lack of engagement applies to both religion and the French colonial project in Algeria. Meursault’s detachment from the colonial narrative is an instantiation of his philosophical position.
Colonialism’s secondary importance to Meursault contrasts with the central role it plays in Haroun’s life. Meursault’s forceful intrusion into Haroun’s life at a young age has placed colonialism at the root of Haroun’s experience. The deep entrenchment of colonialism in Haroun’s consciousness and experience is reflected in his relationship with the French language.
Haroun describes the necessity of speaking French both for logistical purposes and in order to express himself:
“It’s simple: The story we’re talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from left to right . . . . So one reason for learning this language was to tell this story for my brother, my friend of the sun. Seems unlikely to you? You’re wrong. I had to find the response nobody wanted to give me when I needed it. You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you; and from then on, it falls into the habit of grasping things in your place, it takes over your mouth like a lover’s voracious kiss. I knew someone who learned to write in French because one day his illiterate father received a telegram no one could decipher.”
The imposition of French infiltrates Algerians’ psychological reality: Algerians cannot avoid communicating with the French, but this communication is not reciprocal—an imbalance that the narrator now seeks to redress. It is still necessary to communicate with the French in their own language: re-writing “L’étranger” from right to left is a change of direction, but not a change of the terms (alphabet) of the conversation. The French have taken hold of and irrevocably altered Algerians’ consciousness, while Algerians have made such negligible impressions on Meursault that he does not even name them in his book.
Haroun is Meursault’s double in many ways. Both characters are outsiders in their countries, set apart by their atheism and reprimanded for their lack of synchronicity with their countries’ respective colonial/anti-colonial projects. (Meursault’s status as an outsider has two levels, as he is an outsider within the French colonial apparatus which is, itself, already an outside entity to native Algerians.) Meursault and Haroun are both characterized by their emotional isolation: Meursault has no relationships in which we see him truly empathize with another person, and Haroun has only one—his brief relationship with the woman who introduces him to “L’étranger.”
Meursault and Haroun are united by their social and political alienation, but only Meursault is able to achieve independence from his family and country. Haroun, who has been shaped by his stifling relationship with his mother, does not share this freedom. He lives within the framework that Meursault set up by murdering Musa, and describes his brother’s murder as having infected his and his mother’s lives with absurdity.
One of the ways in which Haroun’s story echoes Meursault’s is that he also commits a murder, this time of a pied noir who remained in Algeria after the country’s independence. Haroun sees this as the counterpoint to Meursault’s murder of Musa. Strikingly, Haroun’s mother guides him in this murder. Her influence over Haroun’s action contrasts with Meursault’s independent act in murdering Musa, surrounded only by some acquaintances and affected more by sunstroke than by any other person.
While Meursault is condemned for his independence—for refusing to act in a way consistent with the colonial project, Haroun, by contrast, has never had this option. He is forced into his close relationship with his mother, toward whom he feels no affection, by the trauma of his brother’s death. Haroun and Meursault also diverge in their attitude toward their victims: while Meursault is indifferent toward the “Arab” he kills to the extent of not knowing his name, Haroun is driven by resentment and is fully aware of his victim’s identity (his victim is George Larquais, a member of the family that inhabited the house he and his mother had moved into before being driven out during the war for independence).
The same lack of reciprocity manifests itself in Meursault and Haroun’s respective linguistic and interpersonal relationships with “the Other.” Arabic is irrelevant to Meursault; learning French is a necessity for Haroun. Meursault is ignorant of his victim’s identity, which, in any case, has nothing to do with his crime; the identity of Haroun’s victim is known to Haroun and is the catalyst for his murder.
The only person for whom Haroun feels real affection (besides Musa) is Meryem, the graduate student who introduces him to “L’étranger.” They meet when she comes to his and his mother’s house seeking out more information about the identity of Meursault’s victim. She provides an escape from the suffocating dyad of Haroun and his mother. Meryem helps Haroun to understand “L’étranger” in French, and the novel evokes a wide range of reactions in him: anger, appreciation, and a thrill of recognition.
As he continues to meet with Meryem to discuss the text and her search for a public record of his brother’s life that she can use to bring his identity to light, Haroun falls in love with her. This love is ultimately unreciprocated. Meryem nevertheless has a lasting influence in helping Haroun to learn French and even to appreciate, while he simultaneously resents, his brother’s murderer’s book.
Haroun’s love for Meryem contrasts with Meursault’s indifference to his girlfriend, Marie. While Marie seems to be in love with Meursault and asks him if he loves her, his feelings of closeness to her are entirely physical in nature. Like Haroun’s relationship with Meryem, Meursault and Marie’s relationship is not reciprocal.
Haroun is forced to learn another language in order to communicate; his life and his relationships have been defined by his brother’s murder. Meursault leads a freer life than Haroun, unencumbered by any significant recognition of other people. Yet Haroun’s life is fuller than Meursault’s because of his relationship with Meryem.
Both books address the effects of Algeria’s colonization by the French, which were devastating for Algerians. Yet they show also that colonization also exacts a price on the colonizer, however small in comparison. Negating the sovereignty of another country and its people entails a loss of humanity: to impose a non-reciprocal relationship is to cut off the connection.
Haroun’s grim circumstances are a consequence of colonialism, but colonialism has not spared him the responsibility of which it relieves Meursault: that of recognizing “the Other.” Haroun has an advantage over Meursault in that he is aware of and able to understand him—he has, in fact, been forced to do so under colonial rule—whereas Haroun and other Algerians are invisible to Meursault. This lack of recognition invariably goes hand in hand with Meursault’s independence. Ultimately, no one emerges unscathed.