Published in 1942, Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” remains a landmark of international literature, an example — despite its author’s denials — of the existential absurd. The narrator, Meursault, an alienated French Algerian, drifts through his mother’s death, a sexual liaison he falls into shortly after the funeral and his inexplicable murder of an anonymous Arab on an empty beach. He tells the police that the blistering North African sun drove him to it. At his trial, witnesses for the prosecution seem more offended by his detached attitude toward his mother than by his cold-blooded murder of a disenfranchised native. Nevertheless, he is condemned to the guillotine and passes the last part of the book in jail awaiting execution and suffering the blind indifference of the universe.
Kamel Daoud, an Algerian journalist, has written a counterinquiry to “The Stranger” from the point of view of the murdered Arab’s fictional brother, Harun. More than a mere reimagining of the primary text, “The Meursault Investigation” is layered with allusions to Camus’s life and his other work. Similar to the original novella in its intense compression and written in the same incisive style, it has been heralded in France and recently won the best-first-novel prize from the Académie Goncourt. In the United States, it prompted a laudatory pre-publication profile of the author in the New York Times magazine. By contrast, in Algeria there have been calls by Muslim clerics for Daoud’s death — far from an empty threat in a country where more than 200,000 people have been killed in the past two decades of sectarian strife.
On its surface, Daoud’s 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. No one would ever guess from Camus’s work that in 1942 Arabs outnumbered Europeans about 9 to 1 in Algeria. The French regime controlled everything, rendering the local population almost invisible.
Now an old man, Harun, sits sipping wine in a bar in present-day Oran, recounting his tale to a French academic eager to learn the back story of “The Stranger.” (This structure resembles another Camus novella, “The Fall,” which also takes place in a bar and consists of a narrator’s attempt to justify a lifetime of moral duplicity.) In the course of Harun’s dramatic monologue, he confesses that in spite of his professed animosity toward Camus and the French, he never participated in the Algerian revolution. But shortly after the nation won its independence, he needlessly killed a Frenchman. Local police scarcely bothered about this gratuitous homicide. They were far more offended by his failure to fight in the war. Still, Harun was never indicted or punished except by his own conscience. As he puts it, “The only verse in the Koran that resonates with me is this: ‘If you kill a single person, it is as if you have killed the whole of mankind.’ ”
It emerges that Harun has told the story of his brother’s death before, to the first and only woman he ever loved. In a mutual seduction, she coaxed him to share his secrets while he coaxed her into bed. Once she got enough material for a university thesis, she abandoned him — which leads to his cynical assumption that the French academic is using him even as he uses the silent listener for his own purposes.
The implied equivalence between Meursault’s crime and Harun’s, and between the moral compromises of the narrator and the possible deceit of the listener, is more than a clever literary device. It helps explain the fatwa against Kamel Daoud. In a nation where martyrs for independence are still revered and sclerotic revolutionary leaders have ruthlessly held power for more than half a century, ambiguity and subtle distinctions are unwelcome. In political terms, Daoud has committed the unpardonable sin of suggesting that the French and the Algerians were guilty of violent indifference to human life. In religious terms, he goes further and expresses contempt for fundamentalist Islam, presenting it less as a spiritual movement than another system — not much different from colonialism — for dominating an impoverished population.
Rather than go underground or demand around-the-clock security guards in Algeria, Daoud continues to live openly in Oran and publishes a column in the local newspaper, fully aware that dozens of journalists have been assassinated for offenses far less serious than his. The great irony, or the sublime absurdity, is that like a priest who practices his faith after the death of God, Daoud esteems Camus even as he exposes the Nobel Prize-winning writer’s blind spots. What’s more, he accepts the Sisyphean task of tussling with a writer who has fallen into an anonymity in Algeria almost as deep as the dead Arab’s. There are no streets named after him in his native land. The apartment where he was raised has passed into the hands of a poor man who resents the tourists who pester him and complains that if they love the writer so much they should buy the place and turn it into a museum.
Daoud deserves a better fate: honor in his own country and a wide readership in a world still grappling with the ethical dilemmas that he so passionately portrays.
Mewshaw’s most recent book is “Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship With Gore Vidal.” He has also published several books about North Africa. For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.
THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION
By Kamel Daoud
Translated from the French by John Cullen
Other. 143 pp. Paperback, $14.95