Published in 2013, The Meursault Investigation
is a literary fiction novel by Kamel Daoud. It is a retelling of Albert Camus' 1942 novel The Stranger
, which follows a man named Meursault who casually murders a victim called only "the Arab" and blames his actions on the midday heat. Daoud's story is told from the perspective of the Arab's younger brother as he reflects on the murder later in life. The novel won the Prix François-Mauriac award in 2014, the Prix des cinq continents de la Francophonie award in 2014, and the Goncourt first novel prize in 2015.
Harun Uld el-Assas' brother, Musa, was murdered in the early 1900s, when Harun was just seven years old. This happened in Algeria during the War of Liberation, but now it's 70 years later, and as an old man, Harun is approached by a graduate student who is interested in the unsolved murder as a subject for his thesis paper. The pair meet in Oran in the bar which Harun frequents as a rambling drunk. Over the course of several such sessions, the tale unfolds.
The day of the murder begins like any other. Musa drinks coffee and leaves the house, saying he'll be home early. Instead he is shot on a dazzlingly sunny beach by Meursault, the French antihero of The Stranger
. The body disappears, so the family cannot prove that it was Musa who was murdered. He is finally declared dead after a mandated waiting period of 40 days, and the family holds a funeral over an empty grave. In many ways, Harun dies that day too; from then on, he ceases to be Haran and instead is forced to grow up as a proxy for Musa due to his mother's inconsolable, often times cruel, grief.
His mother frequently makes him accompany her as she searches for clues about her elder son's fate. There is little information available: only two newspaper articles (which never name Musa) and a book written by the murderer (here Daoud refers to The Stranger
). Harun accuses Meursault of leaving his brother nameless in his book because of the racist feelings aimed at Arabs in French-occupied Algeria. He states, "If he calls my brother ‘The Arab’ it’s so he can kill him the way one kills time, by strolling around aimlessly." In telling his story to the graduate student, Harun seeks to give his brother a name and a place in history. The name Musa also translates as Moses, and similar to how the biblical character was silent (instead allowing his brother Aaron to speak for him), Harun speaks for his brother who is unable.
Eventually Harun reveals to the student that he too has committed a murder. On a hot July night in 1962, a Frenchman wanders onto the property where he lives with his mother. At her urging, he shoots and kills him. Although he's arrested as a result of the deed, it's soon revealed that Harun is not in trouble for murdering a Frenchman, but only for doing so in violation of the cease-fire that concluded the war for independence from France. During his questioning, the soldiers are mainly concerned with Harun's lack of patriotism, since he did not join up as a resistance fighter during the war. Eventually they let him go with no punishment, and he feels cheated by the lack of justice.
As a result of this newfound independence, Harun believes Algeria has changed, which has left him feeling like a stranger in his homeland. With no external enemy to fight, the country quarrels with itself, falling victim to politics, greed, corruption, and mindless religious zeal. Though he hates French colonialism, he also loathes what has become of his home country, describing Algeria as being full of “millions of Meursaults.”
Daoud draws several parallels between his work and Camus' famous novel. Harun is clearly portrayed as a mirror for Meursault, including his toxic relationship with his mother and his identity as a murderer. Meursault shoots Musa at 2:00 in the afternoon because of the heat of the day, while Harun shoots the Frenchman at 2:00 in the morning while transfixed by the moon. Harun also feels that he is a stranger in his homeland, which is a nod to the title The Stranger
. In addition, whereas the first line of The Stranger
reads, "Mother died today," the first line of Daoud's novel is, "Mama's still alive today." One key difference between the two men, however, is that Harun names his victim rather than dismissing him as unimportant. He calls him Joseph, which is notably the name of the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus. This speaks to Harun's bitterness towards religion.
As the novel ends, Harun becomes increasingly introspective. He expounds on what he sees as the failures of Islam and the absence of God as a guide in life. He criticizes the followers of Islam as well, saying that people are willing to believe in a God they cannot see or hear, but they won't believe his story about Musa without proof. The student asks Harun if he believes in God, but Harun turns the question around, instead asking the student if he believes the story he's been told about Musa.