Kamel Daoud’s novel The Meursault Investigation may have attracted more international attention than any other debut in recent years. The Algerian writer’s book, first published in French in Algeria in 2013, then in France in 2014 (where it won the Goncourt First Novel Prize and was runner-up for the Prix Goncourt itself), then admirably translated into English by John Cullen and published here in the late spring, has been widely acclaimed in France, North America, and the UK as an “instant classic” (to cite The Guardian).
Daoud is an influential and controversial journalist who writes for Le Quotidien d’Oran, in the city on Algeria’s Mediterranean coast where he lives. Since last December he has been under a fatwa declared, on Facebook, by the Salafist cleric Abdelfatah Hamadache. This followed an interview on French television in which Daoud criticized Muslim orthodoxy and said that he considered himself Algerian rather than Arab.* Azadeh Moaveni, writing for the Financial Times, called Daoud’s book “perhaps the most important novel to emerge out of the Middle East in recent memory.”
The Meursault Investigation—called in French Meursault, contre-enquête, or counter-investigation—is a response to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Narrated by an aging drinker named Harun, the account conflates Meursault and his creator and presents the infamous fictional murder of “the Arab” on a sun-drenched beach as if it were a real crime worthy of a police inquiry. Harun’s aim is to tell the “true” circumstances of that story and its legacy, from his own perspective. In Camus’s book, he points out, “the word ‘Arab’ appears twenty-five times, but not a single name, not once.” Harun wants his listener to understand that the dead man had a name and a family, neither of which figure in Camus’s novel. “Just think, we’re talking about one of the most read books in the world,” he muses. “My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name.”
Meursault’s victim was in fact, Harun explains, his older brother Musa (Moses). Harun himself was only seven at the time of the crime (in 1942), and recalls that “everything revolved around Musa, and Musa revolved around our father, whom I never knew and who left me nothing but our family name.” As a result of the tragedy, his mother “imposed on me a strict duty of reincarnation”; serving the memory of his lost brother and his mother’s need to preserve it, he writes that he “had a ghost’s childhood.”
The novel is the poignant account of a man whose life has been warped, from the beginning, by his mother’s legacy of rage and grief. This is a familiar theme of postcolonial literature and one that Daoud will shape into a critique of revolutionary and postrevolutionary Algeria, a country that, in Harun’s view, is not much better off than in its previous incarnation. Harun, sitting on a barstool and chatting with…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.