“Killing an Arab”: The Meursault Investigation

In a New York Times interview titled: “An Algerian Author Fights Back Against a Fatwa” Doreen Carvajal describes Kamel Daoud’s debut novel a “retelling of Albert Camus’s classic ‘The Outsider’ from an Alegian perspective.” According to the article there has been much controversy around Daoud’s and his new book. Like the British Indian novelist and essayist, Salman Rushdie, “a fatwa was issued [against him] by a Salafist imam from Algeria… Still unclear is whether the threat stems from Mr. Daoud’s outspoken television appearances abroad or his novel’s character, who rebukes a neighborhood imam. Or perhaps both.”

See, I am an unrelenting slave to hype, literary feuds and controversy. I immediately went on a hunt for the book to no avail. I resorted to ordering a copy online; it will be a few weeks before a copy of The Meursault Investigation arrives, but good things come to those who are impatient, but wait anyways, right? A few weeks later the book arrives and I take the plunge.

The Meursault Investigation opens with Harum, our protagonist and narrator, sitting at a bar telling his life story to a stranger — a stand-in for the reader. The narrator is a younger brother of the nameless “Arab” killed by Meursault — the anti-hero of Camus’ 1942 novel The Outsider. The Outsider is a story of one nihilistic mans battle with social norms and values. Meursault later gets executed for his flaunt indifference and not the crime he committed.

Harum’s tale of gloom and doom begins with him giving his brother a name, Musa (the prophet, also known as Moses in the Hebrew bible). In his version of the story Musa becomes a three-dimension character not a mere plot device as in The Outsider. “I rejected the absurdity of his death, and I needed a story to give him a shroud,” says Harum. Our young protagonist spent his life learning everything that had to do with the murder of his brother, an event that left him with massive shoes to fill and led to his mother being a recluse aging beyond her years.

“Mama’s still alive today,” says Harum, rewriting the opening line of The Outsider, “Maman died today.” In rewriting the opening line of The Outsider Kamel Daoud invites us to read his book in tandem with Camus’. Harum narrative becomes a response to Meursault’s account of events.

Like a debt collector Daoud reminds the “writer” (Meursault and/or Camus), that ityala aliboli (debt never roots); by that very fact he also reminds us that we don’t have to let sleeping dogs lie, at least not yet. Daoud drags us out of that complacency, willing or not. The genius of The Outsider was in making the reader forget about the dead “Arab”, instead be angery, indifferent or saddened (depending on your philosophical bent) by the absurdity of the events as they unfold. Through Harum’s retelling of the chronology of events the reader becomes an accomplice to the crime.

Justice delayed is not always justice denied. The protagonist might be too inconspicuous to get justice for his brother’s death, but it is not a justice of the courts that he seeks. He seeks to redeem the dignity of those who are dispossessed. In the preface to the English version of The Outsider Camus said, Meursault is “the only Christ we deserve.” These words do not apply to wretched of the earth — the Arab/Negro. The pronoun “we” is meant to be inclusive all of humanity, but unfortunately it is not because “Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, [it] only exists in the white man’s eyes;” it forces all those who aren’t white, Meursault the savior, to the margins.

The “wretched of the earth” must find their Christ elsewhere. The Christ they deserve is one who is strangely close to a fallen angel like Lucifer; a Christ of obstinate rebellion against the order of things. One who is ready to persist against all odds; one that wields fire and never turns the other cheek — Musa.

Daoud’s writing is delicate, intelligent, and in places very humorous. He makes us laugh so we can hold back the tears. The injustices of the past continues to haunt us, and will continue for generations to come. The book is a scourging criticism of old beliefs, colonialism, post-colonial Algeria in particular and Africa in general. It does all this with one eye fixed on France and its legacy in Algeria.

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