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the complete review - fiction
The Meursault Investigation
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- French title: Meursault, contre-enquête
- Translated by John Cullen
- Awarded numerous prizes, including the prix Goncourt du premier roman, 2015
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B+ : neat idea, well-realized
See our review for fuller assessment.
Very impressed; an important work
From the Reviews:
- "(A) biting, profound response to French colonialism. It is also a lamentation for a modern Algeria gripped by pious fundamentalism. (...) Mr Daoudís 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
- "Daoud executes this enormous task nimbly, but there is far more to his book than a clever deconstruction of a canonical novel. The Meursault Investigation is also a meditation on bereavement and a lament for the growing hold of conservative Islam on post-independence Algeria. (...) The Meursault Investigation (...) contains stories within stories, yet its narrative vitality never flags. (...) 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." - Azadeh Moaveni, Financial Times
- "The Meursault Investigation rejects the binary choice usually offered Algerians, between militarised nationalism or religious internationalism, condemning both as meaningless. (...) The theatrical monologue is sometimes Beckettian, sometimes (in its self-referential intricacy and intertextuality) Borgesian, and always brilliantly metaphorical. For its incandescence, its precision of phrase and description, and its cross-cultural significance, The Meursault Investigation is an instant classic." - Robin Yassin-Kassab, The Guardian
- "Last summer, as tempers were cooling, the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud turned up the heat again with his extraordinary novel (.....) Like Vendredi, Michel Tournier’s subaltern rewrite of Robinson Crusoe, Meursault, contre-enquête wrests the narrative away from the settler." - Jeremy Harding, London Review of Books
- "Were The Meursault Investigation to conclude there, it would stand as a vivid critique. The true measure of the novel, however, is that Daoud realizes critique is not enough. Critique, in this case, is just a mechanism to divide us. Critique is not as strong as complement, the investigation of everything we share. The specter of post-civil war Algeria asserts itself, with its uneasy mix of the secular and the devout." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times
- "(S)on premier roman frappe par son ambiguïté morale et de désespoir politique. A l’avenir, L'Etranger et Meursault, contre-enquête se liront tel un diptyque." - Macha Séry, Le Monde
- "Humor erupts in Meursault, contre-enquête 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." - Alice Kaplan, The Nation
- "This is not just a clever, playful conceit. As executed by the gifted Mr. Daoud, an Algerian journalist, it provides the architecture for an intricately layered tale that not only makes us reassess Camusís novel but also nudges us into a contemplation of Algeriaís 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
- "Not only does he use an indigenous voice to retell the story of The Stranger, he offers a different account of the murder and makes Algeria more than just a setting for existential questions posed by a French novelist. For Daoud, Algeria is the existential question. (...) It is in this simple, direct language, ably translated from the French by John Cullen, that Daoud writes his letter of love, rebellion and despair for Algeria." - Laila Lalami, The New York Times Book Review
- "In giving an identity to Moussa, Haroun stresses the broader native Algerian identity and teases out the tension with French settlers implicit in the original novel. Daoudís text is not, however, a corrective to Camusís, but rather a continuation, designed to show that the issues it raises remain acute and that the legacies of the French presence in Algeria still demand consideration. It is also a demonstration that Daoud is in equal measure a thoughtful and provocative writer." - Russell Williams, Times Literary Supplement
- "John Cullenís translation establishes a credible voice for the sardonic, half-drunk but always intelligent man at the bar, who interrupts himself only to call for another glass. Yet there are slips. (...) Mr. Daoud has not set out to invalidate Camusís novel. His skill resides in treating The Stranger as the great work of art it is, then augmenting it with a well-constructed story that probes the assumptions of the original." - James Campbell, Wall Street Journal
- "On its surface, Daoudís book is an angry screed attacking colonial European attitudes that reduced Arabs to nameless objects. On a deeper level, it suggests that the real stranger in The Stranger is not Meursault, but the dead man on the beach. (...) The implied equivalence between Meursaultís crime and Harunís, and between the moral compromises of the narrator and the possible deceit of the listener, is more than a clever literary device." - Michael Mewshaw, The Washington Post
- "It is a fine examination of the relationship between independent Algeria and France and has received much critical praise." - Adele King, World Literature Today
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Meursault Investigation is, as the title already hints at and the opening line -- "Mama's still alive today" -- confirms, a rejoinder to Albert Camus' classic, L'étranger (The Stranger or The Outsider in its English translations).
The French title perhaps suggests better than the English one what Daoud is doing, his novel not simply an investigation into the events Camus described but rather a 'counter-inquiry' that considers them and their contexts from an entirely different view-point.
The present-day account, many decades after the 1942 murder featured in Camus' book, by Daoud's narrator, Harun, is presented as the old man reflecting on these past events and his life, night after night, at a bar in Oran.
As he tells his audience -- an unnamed man who barely figures in the monologue, but clearly takes some interest in this specific story --:
Ah, you know, I never bothered myself to write a book, and yet I dream of committing one.
Just one !
No, don't be so sure, it wouldn't be a new investigation into your man Meursault's case.
It would be something else, something more intimate.
Yet he has never been able to escape Meursault and what he did: Harun is the younger brother of the man whom Meursault killed.
Just seven years old when the murder took place, it was a defining event for Harun -- the murder itself, and its legacy, public and private.
Twenty years later, in the tumult of Algeria becoming independent, Harun would kill a Frenchman -- a crime not (simply) of vengeance, but practically a continuation of what had happened two decades earlier:
I squeezed the trigger and fired twice.
One in the belly, and the otehr in the neck.
That makes seven all told, I thought at once, absurdly.
He sees his own two shots as just the final two, after the five fired into his brother.
But this mirror-act does not cancel out the earlier one, it is just more for Harun to live with.
Harun became aware of L'étranger, and of Meursault's story; it was foreign to him, in every sense, including the language, French -- which Harun eventually learned so as to be able to read the book.
But as he argues -- in French:
The story we're talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left.
From right to left -- as Arabic is --, as though that might help reverse the perspective and shift the focus, from perpetrator to victim.
Much of Harun's outrage stems from the fact that the perspective has always been so one-sided, that the tale is very much the murderer's, and not the victims.
As Harun notes, the victim isn't even identified in L'étranger, he is merely some nameless Arab.
There's practically no trace of him -- the body was never found, Harun notes -- and beyond that:
There's something I find stunning, and it's that nobody -- not even after Independence -- nobody at all tried to find out what the victim's name was, or where he lived, or what family he came from, or whether he had children.
Everyone was knocked out by the perfect prose, by language capable of giving air facets like diamonds, and everyone declared their empathy with the murderer's solitude and offered him their most learned condolences.
Daoud gives the victim a name: Harun reveals that his older brother's name was Musa -- and while Musa was a son and brother:
About the murderer we knew nothing.
He was el-roumi, the foreigner, the stranger.
People in the neighborhood showed my mother his picture in the newspaper, but for us he was the spitting image of all the colonists who'd grown fat on so many stolen harvests.
There was nothing special about him, except for the cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, and his features were instantly forgettable, easy to confuse with those of all his kind.
It mirrors how the French saw Meursault's victim: "Musa was an Arab replaceable by a thousand others of his kind, or by a crow, even, or a reed, or whatever else".
In justifying his own crime, in 1962, Harun could try to see it as: "not a murder but a restitution"; he was arrested, but in those troubled times, with so many unexplained disappearances and deaths, there was little follow-through.
Ultimately, there's neither much cost nor satisfaction to what Harun did.
It's just another essentially senseless crime, another murder that haunts him.
As in L'étranger, the mother figure is a significant one.
In contrast to Meursault's mother, Harun's is very much alive, a constant living presence and reminder to Harun, even if he doesn't visit her often any more.
Meanwhile, Harun expresses his doubts about Meursault's mother -- "his mother never existed, for him least of all", he goes so far as to suggest.
Ultimately, Harun sees his own act and life a failure much like Meursault's.
And while Meursault and his story -- especially the way it is presented in in L'étranger -- are products of a failed French colonial system, Harun's own acts and experiences suggest the difficulty of moving beyond this legacy in post-colonial Algeria.
The Meursault Investigation indicts Meursault and Camus, but offers little redemption, either; Harun can not easily move beyond the events of the past, and their (re)presentation.
The Meursault Investigation is a companion piece to L'étranger.
Daoud intentionally, emphatically twins the two, from an opening line that mirrors Camus' own to the many allusions (and occasional direct quotes) from the earlier novel.
Yet Daoud's novel isn't merely reaction to Camus', much less the same story from a different perspective; Daoud goes considerably further in his 'counter-inquiry'.
It's an intriguing exercise -- both thought-experiment and story -- and quite impressively realized.
A fine piece of writing, The Meursault Investigation is unquestionably a significant work, and will deservedly be widely read (and no doubt endlessly analyzed in student-essays).
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 May 2015
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The Meursault Investigation:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of French literature
- See Index of books from and about Africa
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About the Author:
Algerian author Kamel Daoud was born in 1970.
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© 2015 the complete review
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