Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Garden of Fiction: A Mixed Verdict on "The Meursault Investigation"

          I have mixed feelings about "The Meursault Investigation" by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, a book that has received considerable worldwide attention and which I have been eager to read in the year since its publication.
          Here is Amazon's capsule summary of the novel's premise:
"He was the brother of 'the Arab' killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus' classic novel ['L'etranger']. Seventy years after that event, Harun, who has lived since childhood in the shadow of his sibling's memory, refuses to let him remain anonymous: He gives his brother a story and a name―Musa―and describes the events that led to Musa's casual murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach."
             Like almost everyone, I was intrigued by that premise. I remember reading "L'etranger" (translated then as "The Stranger," and more recently, and contentiously, as "The Outsider") for a French class and wondering why the victim of the Meursault's maddeningly pointless crime was referred to merely as "l'arabe." Thus, a living breathing human being was cheated of a name. Reading "The Stranger," I simply could not understand how Meursault, the contemporary antihero, could care so absurdly little for the life of the man he killed -- or, ultimately, for his own. Well, that turns out to be the point.
            Daoud's book invents a first-person narrator, who tells the story of Meursault's crime from the point of view of the victim's brother. In that way the novel rights one of Meursault's wrongs: he gives the victim a name and therefore a personal identity and family.  But for much of the novel's first ninety pages or so, I had difficulty believing this correction of the record was worth a whole book. Daoud's narrator, who does nothing but drink in a cafe and obsess over his "pathetic" life (to use his own term), repeats accusation that the highly regarded classic "L'etranger" denied the victim a name about a hundred times through the first two-thirds of the book.
            I take this denial of a victim's identity to stand for a wider point. The European, Western colonialism that dominated and oppressed most of Asia, Africa and the Middle East for centuries deprived these societies of their own identity, suppressed their culture, forbade their religions, and exploited their resources, stealing their wealth to fill the coffers of rich and powerful nations. It's hard to say what reckoning should be made for these crimes. Perhaps we have not yet paid it.
            After Daoud's narrator cycles back and forth through the misery the murder of his brother Musa brings to his mother and himself, he announces that he will begin the whole tale over again. He acknowledges to his listener (a nameless 'researcher' with a notebook) that "I should have told you this story in chronological order." Indeed. The remainder of this book -- whether intended to be truth, allegory, or realistic fiction; in fact it works on all these levels -- is a devastating and riveting psychological portrait of the central figures and the society they now inhabit. And its reach goes well beyond an indictment of Meursault, his crime, his 'outsider' status, and the praise heaped on Camus's book, to the insights Daoud has to offer into the psychology of loss and the 'absurdity' of life as experienced by a particular man in his own harrowing time and place, leaving us with a blistering critique of the deadening independent Algeria that has replaced the exploitive French colony.
            "The Meursault Investigaton" may in fact be the literary tour de force critics have pronounced it, although I found much of this book not much fun to read. The good parts, however, are likely to stay with me (and any reader) for a very long time.