While Kamel Daoud’s book is a classic subversion of Albert Camus’ classic, something far more meaningful breathes just below the surface.
“Mama’s still alive today”.
The opening lines of Kamel Daoud’s first novel, The Meursault Investigation (2013), play on that near universal familiarity with Camus’ text. This mirroring of Camus’ The Stranger occurs throughout the text, while initially feeling somewhat gratuitous, it builds into something far more poetic, and something far more powerful than what it initially holds.
Holed up in a bar in Oran, Harun is the brother of Musa, the “nameless Arab” killed by Meursault in the The Stranger, and it is his voice, his story, that narrates the rest of the book, and it is a beautiful tale.
It is these contrasts and allusions to Camus’ whole body of work that the book is so full of, and does so deftly, that show truly how indebted to the man Daoud must be. Not only The Stranger but references to The First Man and The Fall all present themselves throughout Daoud’s piece, and this subtle interweaving into a modern setting allows for Daoud to show the evolution of Algeria following those upheavals in the second half of the century, long after Camus had left it.
Never blunt, Daoud speaks of that “which stifled rumours of all other crimes” and a man who “parades his freedom around like a provocation”, giving voice to the concerns of a nation Daoud refuses to leave even as tension rises.
Daoud’s Algeria is seeped in deep description, flowing language that mirrors Camus’ original starkness, and his post-independence Algeria is alive and on edge, and just as absurd as it was originally described in 1942.
It is that same philosophy of the original that comes along too, though not unquestioned nor unchanged. Harun is not Meursault, and this helps to separate Daoud’s book from what could have read as hero worship (albeit lovingly crafted), into something of its own, and elevates it to be both a great standalone work, as well as a companion piece. Where Camus’ Meursault accepts his lot, the heat, that crack that would change his life, Harun is a different creature, a frustrated man, uncertain of what to do next.
This contrast plays back over in the language as well. Daoud’s Algeria is seeped in deep description, flowing language (wonderfully translated by John Cullen) that mirrors Camus’ original starkness, and his post-independence Algeria is alive and on edge, and just as absurd as it was originally described in 1942. Meursault was the individual in the absurd world, and Harun is the absurd individual in the greater world.
And by the novel’s close, Harun is revealed just as Meursault was; indeed, more so, for Daoud is far less obtuse with his characterisation and description, but a man whose position is just relatable and inhabitable for us.
Daoud’s success then comes from this, from his ability to present a mirror to Camus’ work and establish himself alongside as another way forward, a different angle of the same image, but seen from many years later, of what it said then and what it does now, giving a new voice both to Camus’ original, and to himself as a writer to watch for hopefully many years to come.