His book isn’t even on sale in the United States yet, and already Kamel Daoud has been the subject of breathless coverage in The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine. A Salafist imam in Algeria issued a fatwa against him on Facebook. He narrowly lost the Prix Goncourt—France’s top literary prize—by only two votes. A movie adaption is slated for 2017. So if you haven’t heard of Kamel Daoud yet, take a deep breath. Here we go.
The Meursault Investigation is a novel-length rebuke of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Remember in The Stranger, how the main character—a self-questioning young Frenchman in Algeria named Meursault—goes to the beach at mid-day and lazily shoots a stranger dead? The whole book hinges on that scene. It’s meant to show us that Meursault is so conflicted about conventional morality that he genuinely doesn’t know if killing a stranger is wrong anymore. Must be tough to be Meursault, right?
Maybe. But it’s even tougher to be the guy Meursault killed. In The Stranger he’s only described as “The Arab.” Even though this character’s death is the crux of the novel, and he’s been, you know, murdered for no good reason, Camus barely mentions him. Doesn’t even give him a name. The death of this nameless Arab is a blip in the life of our European hero. For decades, readers have venerated Camus and discussed The Stranger in those terms.
Who that “Arab” was, and how his random murder affected the lives of his loved ones, are the subjects of The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. Written in the first-person by Haroun, whose brother Musa was the unlucky Algerian on the beach that day, the book is a 100-page rant against Meursault, Camus, the French occupation of Algeria, and the real-life injustices that literature commits when it casually discards the lives of under-represented people. Even if—especially if—those people are fictional.
I could quarrel over this book. I could complain that the writing (a one-sided monologue that bears a strong resemblance to The Fall) is occasionally stiff, and the point-by-point rebuttal of The Stranger never rises above the level of a great high school lecture, and Daoud could have invested more effort in giving his characters a well-rounded psychological depth.
But who cares? The Meursault Investigation has a better premise than any other book in recent memory. It has a politically urgent message—one that can be read as an allegory for everything from the War on Terror to #blacklivesmatter, from campus rape scandals to #binders. And it’s so intense! Haroun, the narrator, can be charming as hell, or he can breathe hellfire. His righteous anger sets fire to the page. This is a book about a specific crime—the thoughtless killing of a fictional character—that speaks for millions of real-life victims today.
So get ready to know a lot more about Kamel Daoud and The Meursault Investigation. This is easily the most important novel of the year.
– Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Editor of Fiction Advocate.