Kamel Daoud has worked as a journalist and editor in Oran, Algeria, for quite a while. Lots of people work as editors and journalists. What are the chances that someone like Daoud could write a novel? A good first novel? A first novel that successfully uses the premise of a famous novel that is now read by every college prep student in America? How about a first novel that challenges the premise of its famous predecessor and argues for a different conclusion? How about a novel that is also a novel within a novel? What about the possibility that the journalist's first novel is a brilliant work that wins three prestigious literary prizes (Prix Francois Muriac, Prix de contenients de la Francophonie, Prix Goncourt) and raises serious questions regarding the reputation and thinking of a revered Nobel laureate? Well, that's what Daoud has pulled off with his first novel, The Meursault Investigation and in the process he also became the object of a fatwa issued by an overly literal imam.
The Meursault Investigation proceeds from the work of another Algerian writer, Albert Camus, and his novel, The Stranger. It is written from the point of view of Harun, the brother of the murder victim identified in Camus' novel only as "The Arab." Harun explains that his expressions are my unclaimed goods. Besides, the country's littered with words that don't belong to anyone anymore. You see them on the facades of old stores, in yellowing books, on people's faces, or transformed by the strange creold decolonization produces. (pp. 1-2)
Before his confession ends, Harun indicts Camus, the French, the FLN, French colonialism, his own mother, his countrymen, and, not least, himself. This is a good moment to recall Clemence in another Camus novel, The Fall. Or "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," both acts of confession.
Daoud isn't the first writer to use the novel as a vehicle for moral "investigation." Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez starts from a similar point: a murder already committed and the murderer already identified. The result, too, is an indictment of each person who could have prevented the murder and who "confesses" his or her reasons for failing to do so.
Daoud presents a case, but resists easy preaching. Instead, the "moral" belongs to the reader:
Do you find my story suitable? It's all I can offer you. It's my word. I'm Musa's brother or nobody's. Just a compulsive liar you met with so you could fill up your notebooks...It's your choice, my friend. It's like the biography of God. Ha, ha! No one has ever met him, not even Musa, and no one knows if his story is true or not. The Arab's the Arab, God's God. No name no initials. Blue overalls and blue sky. Two unknown persons on an endless beach. Which is truer? An intimate question. It's up to you to decide . . . Ha, ha . . . I too would wish them to be legion, my spectators, and savage in their hate. (p. 143)
Run, do not walk, to your nearest library or bookstore. The Meursault Investigation is one of the best novels - first, second or otherwise - that anyone will write.
[The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud, Other Press, New York, 2015, translated from the French by John Cullen.]