Book Review: With a prose which is sharp and lyrical at the same time, The Meursault Investigation is a stellar novel
That is not the only reason to read The Meursault Investigation by Algerian writer Kamel Daoud of course. It is a tour de force that is simply fascinating at various levels and is unquestionably my book of the year, but it also gives deep insight into what the West likes to describe as 'a Muslim problem' or 'an Arab problem'.
This was the year that saw fiction become breaking news - and vice versa. Undiscovered novels made headlines (e.g. Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, the disappointing sequel to the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird, with the towering crusader Atticus of the earlier book being transformed into a crotchety, racist in the later one); our writers made news for weeks on end (returning awards, making "intolerance" into a nationwide cause, contributing in no small measure to the defeat of the BJP in Bihar according to the ruling party's stalwarts); the surprise news of a former minister conceding that the banning of the controversial Satanic Verses was "wrong" (though there is still no answer to Salman Rushdie's tweet that "This admission just took 27 years. How many more before the 'mistake' is corrected?").
But to make sense of the most dramatic, the most shocking, the most tragic headline of the year that will end in a few days, the headline that will continue to reverberate in the year and years to come, namely the Paris attacks of November 2015, one can do no better than to turn to a fictional account written two years ago in French but translated into English only a few months ago. That is not the only reason to read The Meursault Investigation by Algerian writer Kamel Daoud of course. It is a tour de force that is simply fascinating at various levels and is unquestionably my book of the year, but it also gives deep insight into what the West likes to describe as "a Muslim problem" or "an Arab problem".
Meursault, as you may remember, was the anti-hero of Nobel laureate French Algerian Albert Camus' debut novel The Outsider. Published in 1942, it is the story of one Meursault, a French Algerian, who murders an Arab on the beach at Algiers simply because the sun gets in his eyes. The Meursault Investigation, Kemal Daoud's first novel as well, is the story of the Arab who got killed, narrated by his brother half a century later.
It is the counter-point or the counter-punch, as you will, right from the word go. The opening sentences of The Outsider is one of literature's greatest starting points. It begins, "Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure." The Merusault Investigation launches into its narration with "Mama's still alive today. She doesn't say anything now, but there are many tales she could tell. Unlike me: I've rehashed this story in my head so often, I almost can't remember it anymore."
The story that has been reverberating in the head of the dead man's brother Harun is "simple" he says. "The story we're talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left. That is, starting when the Arab's body was still alive, going down the narrow streets that led to his demise, giving him a name, right up until the bullet hit him."
Because, as Daoud points out tellingly, the one who is killed is not even given a name in the whole book. "He [the killer] had a man's name, my brother had the name of an incident. He could have called him 'Two PM', like the other writer who called his black man 'Friday'." The anger of the entire Arab world resounds in Harun's words when he says it was as if this "poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust - an anonymous person who didn't even have the time to be given a name."
Can the Paris attacks be seen as the legacy of thousands of Meursaults and their callous indifference to Arab life? Who can deny it altogether? As Robert Fisk wrote in the British paper The Independent soon after the November tragedy, "Whenever the West is attacked and our innocents are killed, we usually wipe the memory bank. Thus, when reporters told us that the 129 dead in Paris represented the worst atrocity in France since the Second World War, they failed to mention the 1961 Paris massacre of up to 200 Algerians participating in an illegal march against France's savage colonial war in Algeria. Most were murdered by the French police, many were tortured in the Palais des Sports and their bodies thrown into the Seine."
Kemal Daoud captures the indifference of the Westerners chillingly when he writes, "From the very beginning, you can sense that he's looking for my brother. And in fact, he seeks him out, not so much to meet him as to never have to." After all, "Arab-ness is like negro-ness, which only exists in the white man's eyes."
But The Meursault Investigation is not just an anti-colonial tract, a victim's rant. It also questions the post-colonial reality, where the current bosses have donned the plumes of the rulers of yesteryears and behave just as abominably. In the book, Algerian Muslims are described most unflatteringly as idle young men, liars, and petty thieves who pee on walls, beat their wives and mothers, and play soccer with dug-up Frenchmen's skulls. The Imams too are castigated while the ruling authorities are ridiculed.
In the end, Harun goes and kills a Frenchman, just as pointlessly as Meursault killed an Arab, and causes an embarrassment for the new, independent rulers of Algeria. If only he had killed the Frenchman a few days ago, they lamented, then it could have been considered a nationalist act, a patriotic act, a blow for the emerging nation. Daoud's message: the Arab continues, in a way, to be shot over and over again on that same beach, sentenced to a posthumous anonymity, but instead of Meursault being at fault, today it is by his own hand.
Little wonder that Daoud, though immensely popular as a writer and a newspaper columnist, is seen as an "apostate" and a "self-hater" by many in his country. A minor cleric has even issued a fatwa against him. (Ironically, publishers abroad made sure to mention the fatwa on the back cover of the book under "Praise for The Meursault Investigation.") He doesn't help himself by giving interviews to the Western press where he says, "Today's Friday. It's the day closest to death in my calendar. People dress ridiculously, they stroll through the streets at noon still wearing pajamas, practically, shuffling around in slippers as though Friday exempts them from the demands of civility. In our country, religious faith encourages laziness in private matters and authorizes spectacular negligence on every Friday…"
Nor does he win brownie points anywhere by writing, as he did in an article in the New York Times right after the Paris attacks: "Black Daesh, white Daesh. The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity's common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things. The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia. In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other."
But it is neither his anti-colonialism, or anti-religionism or his politics that makes The Meursault Investigation such a stellar novel. It speaks to the reader because it is above all a tale of the human condition, of a mother's grief for her dead son, of a brother's conflicting emotions and frustrated anger, of a nation's existential angst. And in a prose that is sharp and lyrical at the same time. How can you not fall in love with a writer who can say, about the language of Camus in this case, "He's writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry"? There can be no better description of his own writing as well.
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