An old man sits in a bar in Oran and tells a stranger the story of his brother’s murder. He tells of the circumstances surrounding the murder, he tells of how his brother’s murder shaped his and his mother’s lives, and he tells of the supposed investigation that comes after the murder. But The Meursault Investigation is more than the story of a family and its tragedy—it is the story about the power of storytelling itself, about the power of language and the need to use it carefully, about the totalizing alienation felt when a story uses its power to obscure a truth, and the violence that’s inflicted when that obfuscation is taken as the only story to be told.
A response to The Stranger, The Meursault Investigation brings new and insightful perspective to Camus’s classic text, initiating a fresh and unique dialogue with Camus’s themes of alienation and absurdity, while situating them within the context of the urgent questions faced by both Algerian and American society today. In reading Kamel Daoud’s novel, students will be able to consider questions about personal and national identity, the power of literacy to affect change, and the ways in which one finds and constructs meaning.
Contains mature content. You may want to preview before reading aloud.
Teaching the Book
How do you confront stories that are told not by you, but about you? How does who tells a story shape what the story says and means? How can a person tell a story about himself that works against the his total absence in someone else’s story, without recreating the violence experienced from that absence? The Meursault Investigation stands on its own as a commentary on the social ills faced in modern societies, and offers students ways to examine those ills. It also allows students the opportunity to revisit Camus’s The Stranger with new questions and a new critical perspective. Why would someone want to write a response to The Stranger?
Theme Focus: The power of language
Comprehension Focus: Authorship
Language Focus: Alienation and disenfranchisement
Get Ready to Read
Preview and Predict: Discuss with students the title and cover of the book. Have them describe the cover and consider these questions:
- Where do you think the book is set? Why?
- What feelings does the cover evoke? What does the man on the cover of the book make you think of? Would you think differently if it were a lone woman?
- Whose footprints are on the cover of the book?
- Have the students take particular note of who the author of the book is.
- Does the man on the cover of the book remind you of Camus’s Meursault?
Brainstorming: Have the students read the book jacket description. Ask the students what they know about colonialism and “the Arab world.” After having read Camus’s The Stranger, did they have any questions about “the Arab,” or had they forgotten about him? After reading the description of The Meursault Investigation, what questions about “the Arab” come to mind, if any? Ask the students to think about other books they’ve read that were “responses” or continuations of classic texts, and why these books are written, decades after the original.
Explain to the students that the author uses vocabulary to evoke a certain response from his readers. Some of these words have exact histories behind them and are used in academic and social justice contexts today. Others simply help to create the world Harun inhabits, and serve to capture the alienation and otherness he feels. The following list contains some of these words.
Ask students to write down what they think the following words mean as they come upon them. Afterwards, have them look up the words and write down their definitions. Have students compare their own definitions with the ones the dictionary provides and decide which one they think applies better and why.
- impunity (p.6)
- intangible (p. 6)
- settler (p. 11)
- decolonized (p. 31)
- indifferent (p. 39)
- diaphanous (p. 58)
- absurdly (p. 75)
- interminably (p. 103)
- dissonances (p. 119)
- despair (p. 133)
Using Vocabulary: Ask students to refer to the definitions they wrote for the above words to answer the following questions.
- When Harun says that Musa’s murder was “committed with absolute impunity,” is he referring to the trial Meursault faces in Camus’s The Stranger, or Camus’s book itself?
- What specific act is Harun describing when he says “Some of our people even decolonized the colonists’ cemeteries”? Is he using the word ironically?
- Why is Musa indifferent to the fact of his mother’s life? What else is he indifferent about? What is he not indifferent about?
- Who is Harun referring to when he uses the word settler? Is there another name he uses for them?
- What is the despair Harun refers to that he thinks Meriem runs away from?
As You Read
Reading the Book:
Modeled Reading: Read aloud from the first few pages of the book. Ask the students to describe the voice of the speaker and their reaction to his speaking directly to an unnamed listener. Ask them to consider the differences they notice between how The Meursault Investigation begins and how The Stranger begins. Why does Daoud make these changes? What are some similarities and differences they notice between Harun and Meursault?
Textual Analysis: Ask students to keep these questions in mind as they read the book, and to point to passages from the book to support their answers: Is what Harun faces at the hands of the djounoud comparable to what Musa faced at the hands of Meursault? What causes Harun’s alienation? Is the hold Maman has over Harun similar to other exercises of power in the book?What do you make of the fact that both Harun and Meursault are fatherless?
Authorship: How many investigations are there in the book, and who leads them? What is the difference Harun experiences between hearing the story of Harun’s murder from his mother, reading it in the newspaper, and reading it in “Meaursault’s book”? Is it comparable to the difference you experience when reading The Stranger and reading The Meursault Investigation?
After You Read
On Authorship: Musa’s murder is one story told by several voices. Who are the people who tell this story? In each version of the story, what is the focus? What is included and omitted and why? What is the difference between how each of the voices tell the story, and what is the objection Harun has to how others tell the story?
Why is language important?: 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 his mother uses language? In the book Musa’s mother holds an enormous amount of power over him. When he learns how to read and write in French, does he start having any power over her?
Compare and contrast these two passages:
“Yes, the language. The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that’s not hers. Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision. Mama’s grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in. In her language, she spoke like a prophetess, recruited extemporaneous mourners, and cried out against the double outrage that consumed her life: a husband swallowed up by air, a son by water.” (p. 37)
“The reason why your hero tells the story of my brother’s murder so well is tha he’d reached a new territory, a language that was unknown and grew more powerful in his embrace, the words like pitilessly carved stones, a language as naked as Euclidian geometry. I think that’s the grand style, when all is said and done: to speak with the austere precision the last moments of your life impose on you.” (p. 100)
Have the students choose one of the words describing alienation and disenfranchisement from the above list and use it tin a one-paragraph review of the book. In another paragraph, have the students use other words from the list for who they imagine could be Harun’s counterpart in the United States.
Do Camus and Daoud use the same words to describe alienation? Have students find the similar words and write the sentences they appear in next to one another.
Have the students use the vocabulary words to relate the anonymity the Arab in The Stranger and Harun in The Meursault Investigation grapple with what some people may be experiencing in the United States.
Content Area Connections
History: Have students research the history of the Algerian War of Independence and compare it to contemporary efforts for liberation, such as the Arab Spring or the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Language Arts: Have students write a 500 word response to Daoud, imitating his voice and style.
Arts: Have students create a new cover for the book.
—Compare and Contrast: The novel is in many ways a response to Camus’s The Stranger, even as it uses the form of Camus’s later novel, The Fall. Ask students to read The Stranger and The Fall, and to then consider what commentaries The Meursault Investigation makes on Camus’s books.
—Are there any sentences or scenes from The Stranger that are directly quoted or lifted in The Meursault Investigation? When they first read The Meursault Investigation, did theses sentences or quotes seem as though they came from another voice?
—Are there any themes are revealed in The Meursault Investigation after reading Camus’s books that remained hidden before?
—Can they identify why Kamel Daoud chose to use the form of The Fall for a book that is a direct answer to The Stranger?
—Do The Stranger and The Fall resonate with them in the same way The Meursault Investigation does? What effect does the 70 year difference between the publication of The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation have on how they approach each work?
For Further Reading
The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Fall by Albert Camus
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe