The Stranger is the classic of existential lit. Daoud’s novel is the parallel, antithetical, yet reduplicated story of the unnamed ‘Arab’ whom the anti-hero of Camus’ novel kills. But, be warned – If you haven’t read The Stranger recently and haven’t had to read it critically, then The Meursault Investigation will fall short. The brilliance of this novel is the layering that creates at first a contrast between Camus’ Meursault and Daoud’s narrator Harun, who tells the story of his dead brother Musa – ‘the Arab’ shot in Camus’s novel — but ultimately shows they are two sides of a single coin.
Absence of a god versus the killing of god/religion; the death of an unnamed local by a privileged colonial vs the death of a colonial after the end of the war for independence; the failure of that war and independence to live up to the expectations of those who wanted better and how the victors destroyed their own world in that reach for freedom; and trials not for killing someone but for their failures of character — these are some of the complex comparisons and contrasts Daoud explores as his narrator tells his tale in a bar over a series of nights.
We are eavesdroppers on an intimate conversation 70 years after the death of Musa. We only hear one side, but the interviewer carries his copy of The Stranger (here presented as a factual account written by Meursault) and we can glean what it is he asks periodically. Harun is witty and contemplative, but angry and obsessed, his entire life revolved around the incident of his brother’s death and the book written about it. He is a hard man, and ultimately unsympathetic. There were moments where I wondered if his brother had been in fact the ‘Arab’ at all – that instead, he became the substitute for the brother that disappeared and gave him a target for his righteous indignation at the colonists and the religious.
Daoud paints a brilliant portrait of the country during his childhood through to when he tells his story. The cultural divide between the colonial French and the Algerians is present and underlies Harun’s anger and identity.
This is the type of novel that provokes thought, and argument, but leaves no solution, ties up no threads, fills in no blanks. It is the type of novel that inspires critical papers and if I were still teaching high schoolers, I’d pair these two novels because, in the end, they enhance each other while simultaneously making us question both.