Kamel Daoud translated from the French by John Cullen

The Meursault Investigation


Publication Date: Jun 02, 2015

160 pp

Trade Paperback

List Price US $14.95
ISBN: 9781590517512


List Price US $12.99
ISBN: 9781590517529

A New York Times Notable Book of 2015 — Michiko Kakutani, The Top Books of 2015, New York Times — TIME Magazine Top Ten Books of 2015 — Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year — Financial Times Best Books of the Year

“A tour-de-force reimagining of Camus’s The Stranger, from the point of view of the mute Arab victims.” —The New Yorker

He was the brother of “the Arab” killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus’s classic novel. Seventy years after that event, Harun, who has lived since childhood in the shadow of his sibling’s memory, refuses to let him remain anonymous: he gives his brother a story and a name—Musa—and describes the events that led to Musa’s casual murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach.

In a bar in Oran, night after night, he ruminates on his solitude, on his broken heart, on his anger with men desperate for a god, and on his disarray when faced with a country that has so disappointed him. A stranger among his own people, he wants to be granted, finally, the right to die.

The Stranger is of course central to Daoud’s story, in which he both endorses and criticizes one of the most famous novels in the world. A worthy complement to its great predecessor, The Meursault Investigation is not only a profound meditation on Arab identity and the disastrous effects of colonialism in Algeria, but also a stunning work of literature in its own right, told in a unique and affecting voice.

Excerpt from The Meursault Investigation

Mama’s still alive today.

She doesn’t say anything now, but there are many tales she could tell. Unlike me: I’ve rehashed this story in my head so often, I almost can’t remember it anymore.

I mean, it goes back more than half a century. It happened, and everyone talked about it.  People still do, but they mention only one dead man, they feel no compunction about doing that, even though there were two of them, two dead men. Yes, two. Why does the other one get left out? Well, the original guy was such a good storyteller, he managed to make people forget his crime, whereas the other one was a poor illiterate created by God only, it seems, to take a bullet and return to dust—an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name.

I’ll tell you this up front: the other dead man, the murder victim, was my brother. There’s nothing left of him. There’s only me, left to speak in his place, sitting in this bar, waiting for condolences no one’s ever going to offer me. Laugh if you want, but this is more or less my mission: I peddle offstage silence, trying to sell my story while the theater empties out. As a matter of fact, that’s the reason why I’ve learned to speak this language, and to write it too: so I can speak in the place of a dead man, so I can finish his sentences for him. The murderer has become famous, and his story’s too well written for me to get any ideas about imitating him. He wrote in his own language. Therefore I’m going to do what was done in this country after Independence: I’m going to take the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language.

“[A] rich and inventive new novel…so convincing and so satisfying that we no longer think of the original story as the truth, but rather come to question it…[a] letter of love rebellion and despair for Algeria.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Nothing…prepared me for [Daoud’s] first novel, The Meursault Investigation, a thrilling retelling of Albert Camus’s 1942 classic, The Stranger, from the perspective of the brother of the Arab killed by Meursault, Camus’s antihero. The novel…not only breathes new life into The Stranger; it also offers a bracing critique of postcolonial Algeria… The premise is ingenious: that The Stranger, about the murder of an unnamed Arab on an Algiers beach, was a true story…Meursault is less a critique of The Stranger than its postcolonial sequel.” The New York Times Magazine 

“[A] stunning debut novel…[A]n intricately layered tale that not only makes us reassess Camus’s novel but also nudges us into a contemplation of Algeria’s history and current religious politics; colonialism and postcolonialism; and the ways in which language and perspective can radically alter a seemingly simple story and the social and philosophical shadows it casts backward and forward.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“A tour-de-force reimagining of Camus’s The Stranger, from the point of view of the mute Arab victims.” —The New Yorker

“[A] retelling of Albert Camus’s classic The Stranger from an Algerian perspective…[this] debut novel reaped glowing international reviews, literary honors, and then, suddenly, demands for [Daoud’s] public execution.” —The New York Times

“Daoud has said that his novel is an homage to Albert Camus’s The Stranger, but it reads more like a rebuke…Where Camus’s godless prose is coolly mathematical in its ratio of words to meaning, Daoud’s work conducts waves of warmth. The sand and the sea and the sky and the stars, which, for Camus, seem to negate life rather than affirm it, are, for Daoud, vital witnesses and participants in his existence.” —TheNewYorker.com

“Kamel Daoud’s remarkable debut novel isn’t simply a postcolonial reimagining but an allegory of his own country and time…[The Meursault Investigation] has the magnetism of its forebear, but its themes of voicelessness and vengeance feel utterly present-day.” —Vogue

“[A] scorching debut novel that is sure to become an essential companion to Camus’s masterpiece…The Meursault Investigation…is a biting, profound response to French colonialism. It is also a lamentation for a modern Algeria gripped by pious fundamentalism…The book’s brilliance lies in the gradual way Mr. Daoud reveals Harun to be a perfect mirror: the tragic double of Meursault/Camus… Daoud’s prose is propulsive and charged. The pages glitter with memorable phrases. This brave book is a vertiginous response to a century of trauma.” —The Economist

“[A] mesmerizing first novel…The Meursault Investigation has an inescapable topical resonance, given the role played by political Islam in Algeria in recent times…an absorbing, independent story and a shrewd critique of a country trapped in history’s time warp.” —The Wall Street Journal

“More than a mere reimagining of the primary text, The Meursault Investigation is layered with allusions to Camus’s life and his other work.” —The Washington Post

“Daoud’s book stands Camus on his head…What makes Daoud’s book so good is that, steeped in independent thinking, it offers an illuminating, if controversial portrait of today’s Algeria.” —Fresh Air, NPR

“Give Kamel Daoud credit for audacity. In his debut novel, The Meursault Investigation, the Algerian journalist goes head-to-head with a pillar of 20th century literature…The true measure of the novel…is that Daoud realizes critique is not enough…the power—and, yes, the beauty—of The Meursault Investigation is that it moves…to an unexpected integration in which we recognize that for all the intractable divides of faith or nationality, our humanity remains (how can it not?) essentially the same.” —The Los Angeles Times

“Remarkable…[Kamel Daoud’s] core idea is of startling ingenuity…Daoud…takes Albert Camus’s classic novel, The Stranger—or more precisely the ‘majestically nonchalant’ murder of an Arab at the heart of it—and turns that Arab into a human being rather than the voiceless, characterless, nameless object of a ‘philosophical crime’ by a Frenchman called Meursault on an Algiers beach 20 years before the culmination of Algeria’s brutal war of independence.” The International New York Times

“With The Meursault Investigation, [Kamel] Daoud has achieved the near impossible: a retelling of a classic that consistently measures up.” San Francisco Gate

“For its incandescence, its precision of phrase and description, and its cross-cultural significance, The Meursault Investigation is an instant classic.” —The Guardian (UK)

“[Kamel] Daoud’s book is energetic and garrulous…he has taken a western classic and used it to illuminate the Algerian mind.” —The Sunday Times (UK)

The Meursault Investigation is a subversive retelling of Albert Camus’s The Outsider…but there is far more to his book than a clever deconstruction of a canonical novel…[it is] a penetrating inquiry into loss itself…It is a testament to Daoud’s subtle, profound talent that his story works both as a novelistic response to Camus and as a highly original story in its own right. The Meursault Investigation is perhaps the most important novel to emerge out of the Middle East in recent memory, and its concerns could not be more immediate. ” Financial Times

“Provocative…What begins as a reproach to The Stranger for marginalizing ‘the second most important character in the book’ becomes a lament for Algeria’s long battle for independence, first from French colonists and subsequently from authoritarian Islamism.” —NPR

“In just 160 spare pages, Daoud recounts–and challenges–not only the original narrative of Meursualt, the anti-hero created by Camus, but through bestowing a name, family, legacy, to a forgotten victim, he sharply deconstructs the troubled decades of French-Algerian history, explores the erasure of identity and the legacy of colonialism, examines the consequences of violent independence and the ensuing, ongoing reconstruction of a national identity. To begin to understand all that is surely worth an investment of just a few hours of reading.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“In…The Meursault Investigation, Mr. Daoud corrects, or ‘writes back,’ to Camus’ [The Stranger] from the point of view of the dead Arab’s brother…The Meursault Investigation invokes the language, images and plot of The Stranger and adapts them to the Algerian context…Mr. Daoud’s writing is like a live wire flowing with anger. It sparks fresh insights, raises important questions about the links between literature and politics, and challenges us to view the literary past and political present in new ways.” —The Pittsburgh Post Gazette 

“Quirkyand compellingit is a meditation by turns passionate, cynical, and angry on power, freedom, and the indifference of the universe.” —Philly.com

“In the hands of Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, The Stranger has become the springboard for another novel that serves as both homage and rebuke to Camus’ masterpiece…It is a brilliant, infinitely rich tour de force of the imagination that never mentions Camus by name but gives Meursault’s victim not only a name–Musa–but a history, a family and a would-be future…Its originality of vision carries the book a long way toward mastery of its form…The Meursault Investigation stirs our imagination, showing that literary classics are never finished.” —The Wichita Eagle 

“Humor erupts in The Meursault Investigation every time there is tragedy, and this recipe for the Algerian absurd gives Daoud’s book its literary sting…For Daoud, the novel is above all an opportunity to engage with the legacy of Algerian independence, half a century old, and to ask what the country has made of its liberation. Daoud turns the novel into an aesthetic platform for his particular sense of the Algerian absurd: the tyranny of official religion and an asphyxiating national history.” —The Nation

“Camus’s The Stranger is vividly reimagined in Daoud’s intensely atmospheric novel…readers will be captivated.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred review)

“The nameless Arab victim of Albert Camus’s The Stranger receives a biography and a name in this thoughtful, controversial rejoinder from the other side of the colonial question…Fiction with a strong moral edge, offering a Rashomon-like response to a classic novel.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[A] blazing, brilliantly conceived debut novel…An eye-opening, humbling read, splendid whether or not you know and love the original.” —Library Journal

“In The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud takes us to a territory that is clearly his own. I loved the unexpected depth to the restorative nature of the text, which enthralls the readers all the more, especially when they are familiar with Albert Camus’s The Stranger.  It is a wonderful novel and I enjoyed reading it.” —Nuruddin Farah, award-winning author of Hiding in Plain Sight

“A superb novel…In the future, The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation will be read side by side.” —Le Monde des livres

“Very beautiful writing, original, located between suppressed anger and bursts of elation.” —Les Echos

“A breathtaking and effectively realized novel. The Stranger becomes a palindrome… The Meursault Investigation approaches the incredible, in that it reverses the perspective and point of view not without an emphatic ferociousness, all while playing with the prose and perspective of The Stranger.” —La Croix

“A remarkable homage to its model.” —Le Nouvel observateur

“An intense and surprising story.” —La Montagne

“You could call this book a post-colonial duel of unreliable narrators, but that’s not quite right, because only one narrator actually speaks. You could call it a discursive, intertextual ghost story, but that’s not it either, because it’s much more than that. Imagine a main character who is an old man of humble origin spinning yarns from a bar stool, but with a dash of Fanon’s insight and Zizek’s humor. The MMEursault Investigation is all this and more–there’s nothing else like it on bookshelves today.” —Beth Weber, The Book Table (Oak Park, IL)

“Maman is dead and so is Meursault. The French have their justice and the absurd reigns. But what about the denizens of Algiers? What about the family and friends of the unnamed Arab with five bullets in his corpse? What about the mourners haunting the edges of Camus’s existential classic? Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation conjures the ghost of one of the literary canon’s many brown victims, turning memory and witness into forms of resistance. Hypnotic, visceral, and deeply empathic, Daoud’s debut joins J.M. Coetzee’s Foe and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea as one of the great parallel narratives of post-colonial literature.” —Hal Hlavinka, Community Bookstore (Brooklyn, NY)

The Meursault Investigation is a complex and subtle reckoning with the legacy of colonialism and the silences it imposes. Although the novel was conceived in the shadow of Camus’ The Stranger, one realizes quickly that it haunts those shadows not because it lacks its own light, but because Kamel Daoud wants to plumb the depths of that darkness to tell a story that demands to be heard. I hope everyone listens.” —Stephen Sparks, Green Apple Books (San Francisco, CA)

“Haroun, the effluent narrator of Daoud’s debut novel, uses his story to both retaliate against Camus’s famous novel and to discover the complications inherent in his own life of grief and revenge seeking. While on the surface a faithful and reverent continuation of The Stranger, the reader will find within The Meursault Investigation a critique and complex reckoning of what it means to live in the shadow of a senseless tragedy, as well as the struggle of an independent country to assert its identity in the shadow of colonization. Where Camus’s Meursault narrated from a cold, precise distance of inhaled cigarette smoke and indifference, Haroun breathes deep and he wildly, humanly confronts the thin membrane that connects meaning and absurdity.” —Kevin Elliott, 57th Street Books (Chicago, IL)

“Kamel Daoud rearranges the stars of Camus’s The Stranger to create a new lush and impossibly complicated constellatory portrait of a post-colonial society, adding warm flesh to nameless bones.” —Mandy Medley, Unabridged Bookstore (Chicago, IL)

“The persistent magic of The Meursault Investigation is to veil its rhetoric and socio-historical rage behind pure story. A raw nerve pulses beneath its meta-fictional layering. Do Arab lives matter? The book couldn’t have arrived at a better time.” —Davi Marra, The Corner Bookstore (New York City, NY)

“Kamel Dauod’s The Meursault Investigation is like a shattered mirror. From a distance, we can easily make out the broken images of Albert Camus’s classic novel. The name of Camus’s anonymous Arab is finally spoken, and with it, a pent-up, post-colonial rage finally unleashed.  Stepping into the broken scene, we catch sight of our own reflection—our cameo role in the novel—as a spectral oppressor.” —Brad Johnson, Diesel Bookstore (Oakland, CA)

“It’s not an easy feat to engage in a conversation with a book as beloved and established as Camus’s The Stranger, but Daoud manages it seamlessly, all the while laying out a compelling metaphor for the Algerian struggle for independence. The Meursault Investigation ought to be required reading.” —Anna Thorn, Upshur Street Books (Washington DC)

The Meursault Investigation is a mind-bending literary tumor, embedding itself in The Stranger and irreparably transforming it. Within Camus’s Meursault will forever lurk Daoud’s Harun, doggedly fighting his way out from under his counterpart’s shadow and becoming more and more a piece of him in the process. Like Molloy and Pale Fire, these two novels now form one split organism of elaborately confused identities, one person’s fiction asserting its universal and troubling hold on another’s fact. Just thinking about this book makes me feel dizzy.” —Jonathan Woollen, Politics & Prose (Washington DC)

The Meursault Investigation is a timely and powerful reexamination of The Stranger told from an Arab perspective. It serves as both a complement to and critique of its predecessor and should be required reading for anyone wanting a better understanding of postcolonialism and the current state of affairs in the Middle East.” —Shawn Donley, Powell’s Books (Portland, OR)

1. Harun describes Musa, as portrayed in Meursault’s book, as “an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name” (p 1). What names are used for various characters in the book? Does Harun’s mother have a name? What does Harun call Meursault?

2. Describe the relationship that emerges between Harun and his mother after Musa’s murder. Is it comparable to how Musa describes the power organized religion holds over the imaginations of his countrymen? (See “She seemed to resent me for a death I basically refused to undergo…Maman knew the art of making ghosts live and, conversely, was very good at annihilating her close relatives” pp 36–37; “My body, therefore, became the visible trace of her dead son, and I ended up obeying her unspoken injunction” p. 41; “[The imam] wasn’t even sure he was alive, because he was living like a dead man” p 141.)

3. Harun says his mother has “a husband swallowed up by air, a son by water” (p 37). How else are disappearance and vanishing described in the novel? What is Harun’s relationship to the sky and to the sea? How are the cities and the village Harun lives in shaped by the sky and the sea?

4. Why does Musa learn French? What does he appreciate about French and the way Camus/Meursault uses it that he does not find in how Maman uses language? In the story, Maman holds an enormous amount of power over Harun. When he learns to read and write in French, does that power dynamic change?

5. The Meursault Investigation is a response, or sequel, to Camus’s The Stranger, which in this novel becomes a work that tells of a true story—Musa’s murder. Who else tells the story of Musa’s murder, and what are the differences in what they tell of it?

6. Harun describes his world as having a “binary calendar” (p 11). Other than days with rumors and days without rumors, what other binaries are there?

7. What is the effect on you as a reader of learning about Harun’s murder of a pied-noir before learning in detail about his encounter with the published account of his brother’s murder?

8. Harun compares his brother Musa in Meursault’s account to Robinson Crusoe’s Friday. Why does he do this? What commentary is he making when we later learn that Friday is his most hated day?

9. Harun says, “What hurts me every time I think about it is that [Meursault] killed [Musa] by passing over him, not by shooting him” (p 5). Describe the power that Meursault’s account of his murder, as opposed to the murder itself, has on Harun’s family and the course of his life.

10. One of Harun’s criticisms of his mother is how her language is “not too big on precision” (p 37). What else is Maman imprecise about, and how does her imprecision shape Harun’s life?

11. Harun explains that because of the popularity of Meursault’s account, his brother Musa “over and over again . . . replays his own death” (p 3). What else recurs in the novel? In the end, is this cycle of recurrence something that can be broken?

12. Meriem is one of the many characters in the novel who “disappears,” yet Harun never refers to her as such. Why do you think that is?

13. Does The Meursault Investigation have a Musa of its own—a character or characters who are afforded nothing more than anonymity? Does this anonymity have the same violence as the anonymity of “the Arab” in The Stranger?