The Mersault Investigation
By Kamel Daoud
Translated from French by John Cullen
(Original title: Mersault: contre-enquête)
New York: Other Press, 2015
This book was not exactly what I expected. It was what I expected and much more.
I knew it would begin, “Mama’s still alive today,” announcing at the outset the contrast between this book and the classic twentieth-century French novel, and I knew some of what would appear in the story, such as --
The word “Arab” appears [in the book narrated by the character of Mersault] twenty-five times, but not a single name, not once.
That much I had read in several reviews. I understood that Daoud had written another version of The Stranger, had written about the fictional murder and its consequences as experienced not by the killer but by the victim’s family, and so the deep grief and implacable resentment of the surviving brother, narrator of this new story, was hardly unexpected.
Daoud’s narrator, Harun, is an old man recounting his story in a bar to a stranger, compulsively digressing and repeating himself as he speaks of his brother, his brother’s death, and the years that followed. I cannot say “as he remembers” these things, because he has been living over and over them for decades, the past more real to him than the present, memories more present than the flow of life. In a very real sense, he has had no life since his brother was killed but has been forced by his mother to live as his brother’s ghost.
Born in an occupied land, Harun was a child in the days of colonial power, and so we expect that the theme of colonialism will play a part, understanding that this story is being told from “the other side.”
He was Musa to us, his family, his neighbors, but it was enough for him to venture a few meters into the French part of the city, a single glance from one of them was enough, to make him lose everything, starting with his name....
There is a mother, and there are originally two sons, but the father disappeared from the family so long ago that he is little more than a name to Harun – and not much of a name at that.
Everything revolved around Musa, and Musa revolved around our father, whom I never knew and who left me nothing but our family name. Do you know what we were called in those days? Uled el-assas, the sons of the guardian. Of the watchman, to be more precise.
It was the way families were identified in those days.
Before I go further, I want to pause and speak of the writing itself. The controlled power is stunning.
The sun was overwhelming, like a heavenly accusation. It shattered into needles on the sand and on the sea but never flagged.
It was a heavy old revolver that looked like a metal dog with one nostril and gave off a strange odor. I remember its weight that night, not pulling me down to earth but toward some obscure target.
A reader reaches hungrily from the end of one sentence to the beginning of the next, captivated and enthralled.
What I was surprised to find in the narrator of The Mersault Investigation was a man every bit as alienated from himself and society as was Camus’s Mersault. Harun wonders how two people in this world can ever love each other, when all are ”born alone and will die separate.” Life is absurd; therefore, Harun believes only in death. “All the rest is nothing but rituals, habits, and dubious bonding.” Like Mersault, Harun is an outsider, a stranger.
A stranger possesses nothing—and I was one. I’ve never held anything in my hands very long, I start to feel revulsion for it, I have the sensation of excessive weight.
The likenesses continue. Like Mersault, Harun rejects religion, belief in God, and conformity to social conventions. The scene he recounts of his violent rage at the imam who would pray for him is a direct counterpart of the prison cell scene between Mersault and the priest who comes to hear his confession. After he has killed the Frenchman, Harun longs to be punished for his crime and identifies with Mersault’s desire to be hated by the crowd he imagines at his execution. Those expressions of hatred, finally, would grant his life meaning.
There is a parallel in their crimes and also in the way society interprets their guilt. Mersault took the life of an Arab, Mersault the life of a Frenchman, but Mersault was convicted of failing to mourn his mother’s death properly and Harun accused for not having joined the fighters for Algerian independence.
The list could go on.
For all their similarities, however, the two characters are two opposite sides of a coin, distinct and different, rather than mirror images. Harun is telling his story to correct the absence of his brother in Mersault’s story, to bring his brother back to life, in the sense of restoring him to history with a name. Harun tells his listener (and us, his readers) early in the book that what he wants is justice.
I think I’d just like justice to be done. That may seem ridiculous at my age...But I swear it’s true. I don’t mean the justice of the courts, I mean the justice that comes when the scales are balanced.
When he kills the Frenchman, Harun briefly feels the scales have been balanced, but his sense of relief and justice is short-lived. He is given no trial, set free without punishment, not even officially charged with murder. He has gained no notoriety. Worse, his brother’s name is still unknown, while Mersault, also dead, is world-famous.
Which brings us around to the original story, narrated by a character named Mersault, the famous novel that serves as the springboard for this brilliant new novel. Daoud deals with Camus in a manner audacious and breathtaking. He treats the fictional Mersault, a literary device, not only as the first-person narrator but also as the author of The Stranger -- and the “famous book” itself is never mentioned by its title, any more than there is mention of the writer Albert Camus.
Harun speaks of Mersault and the book he wrote,
If only your hero had been content with bragging, without going so far as to write a book! There were thousands like him back then, but it was his talent that made his crime perfect.
As Hurun tells the story, Mersault not only killed Musa but also wrote the book that became world-famous, the book in which Musa’s name and everything else about him have been left out, the book in which Musa is “the Arab,” twenty-five times, but always nameless.
Judging from your enthusiasm, the book’s success is still undiminished, but I repeat, I think it’s an awful swindle.
The book was, in Harun’s eyes, Meursault’s second crime, although he is fascinated by the criminal with whom he shares so many qualities.
Read what your hero wrote about his stay in a prison cell. I often reread that passage myself. It’s the most interesting part of his whole hodgepodge of sun and salt. When your hero’s in his cell, that’s when he’s best at asking the big questions.
Drawn in spite of himself to the original outsider’s philosophy, sharing so much of his view of life, Harun continues to recoil from Meursault’s colonial blindness.
Do you understand why I laughed the first time I read your hero’s book? There I was, expecting to find my brother’s last words between those covers, the description of his breathing, his features, his face, his answers to his murderer....
Now, when Harun tells the story, in Daoud’s novel, it is Camus the writer who has been erased, blended into the character he created. The book’s title is just as thoroughly omitted. There was no Musa in The Stranger? There is no Camus in The Meursault Investigation. “Not once.”
Under colonialism, colonizers and colonized alike suffer from alienation and the corrosive effects of man’s injustice to man. In these two novels, neither fictional outsider narrator Meursault nor fictional outsider narrator Harun expects or receives understanding or justice. But Meursault has at least been visible to the larger world, in retrospect, thanks to the talent of the writer Camus, while Harun, his brother Zusa, and all their family have all been without names, as if without existence. Until now.
It is unlikely that the name of Camus will vanish from world literature any time soon, and I doubt Kamel Daoud would even wish for its disappearance. Surely Daoud and Camus, were they able to meet, would express appreciation of one another’s talent and vision, just as Mersault and Harun would recognize in each other many mutual philosophical affinities. And yet, isn’t the erasure of Camus from the history of his own novel, in the end, a triumphant literary balancing of the scales at last?
Camus is one of my heroes, and, as I have written very recently, Camus was not Mersault. Camus was not deaf and blind to Algerian suffering – quite the contrary. I think, however, that he would have been among the first to understand and admire and recommend this new version of the story and that he would have recommended it in the name of justice, as well as in the name of art.
Were she still alive today, instead of having died at age 30, my friend Annie would have been 53 years old on March 14, and I can see clearly another version of reality, one that finds Annie once again in front of a classroom, her topic again ‘alterity’ – i.e., otherness, her reading assignment this week Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Connection. How Annie would have loved this book! How I wish we could sit down and talk about it together! Annie, dear, today’s post is for you!