One of the best books I read in 2015 was The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. It’s an Algerian writer’s response to Albert Camus’s The Stranger—especially to the way Camus’s protagonist thoughtlessly shoots an Algerian man at the midpoint of that book, and nobody—not the shooter, not the author, not subsequent generations of readers and literary critics—stops to consider the humanity of that dead, fictional Algerian.
In Daoud’s novel, the idea that Camus treated the dead Algerian unjustly is practically a foregone conclusion, especially since the French have a history of abusing Algerians. But this is not a type of injustice that we typically think about. The Meursault Investigation accuses an author of abusing his own character. It turns a fictional death into a real-world injustice. That’s rather astounding. And it has big implications for storytelling in general. Continue reading
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.