(This is the second of two posts on Camus and Daoud. See the first here.)
I have to make a confession: I felt bored throughout most of Meursault, contre-enquête (The Meursault Investigation). When I first heard about it, I was extremely eager to read it. I don’t usually like spinoffs of famous novels, but an Algerian responding to Camus seemed so perfect. Because of this, my disappointment was twice as strong.
But the disappointment didn’t keep me from feeling that there is much to say about it, starting with the fact that many of the things that made it frustrating for me to read were clearly deliberate choices, possibly even brilliant ones. After all, judging by Goodreads and Amazon reviews as well as major critics, I am very much in the minority in not liking it.
The book is structured as a confession in a bar. Haroun, the younger brother of Moussa, the Arab murdered in L’Étranger, is talking to someone- a young student, it seems- over a series of nights and days. He is old, and the time seems to be more or less the present. Haroun has seen Algeria’s war for independence and its long aftermath, and now he is watching his country become increasingly religious. His days drinking in bars are numbered, and he does not believe in God. He is bitter over the French colonization and (of course) the death of his brother, but whatever he imagines freedom to be (he never says exactly), it’s not this.
The story is thus not really about the murdered Arab in L’Étranger, but about his little brother. Moussa remains foggy; we do get a few details about his personality, but not much. He was the older brother, adored by their mother, and he was sometimes angry at the pressure this placed on him. His activities are mysterious, as is the reason he died. His body is never found. But his death consumes Haroun’s life: their mother (the father is long gone) is obsessed with Moussa and first forces (so Haroun feels anyway) Haroun to become his brother’s ghost and finally to murder a French man right after the war ends, as a kind of revenge or balancing.
It was this fogginess of detail I found frustrating and yet interesting: the story is very unsubtle emotionally yet unfailingly slippery when it comes to concrete events. On the emotional level, Haroun’s rage is upfront. He is angry that his brother was not named in Meursault’s story. In his world, as in ours, this story was published as a famous book- though by Meursault himself, who incidentally was pardoned and never executed (making the trial a rather obvious and heavy-handed miscarriage of justice instead of the subtler travesty it was in L’Étranger). And Haroun is mad about it. He is angry about the success of “Meursault’s” book. And he is especially angry that the language of the book is so beautiful. After a while, this starts to look like special pleading. Haroun’s own prose is fine, but that’s all it is. In fact, as if to underscore the point, whole sentences and paragraphs of it are lifted straight from L’Étranger.
Haroun has the right to rage, especially since his own life, as he presents it, has been utterly warped by the murder. Still, I kept thinking of what truly majestic rage looks like- Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me comes to mind- and feeling that this was not it. But after a while I wondered if Daoud was in fact, gradually and insistently, telling us that this was not it. And the book became more interesting to me because of this. Daoud, after all, is not in the position of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who rages against a society still mired in injustices hundreds of years old, a society still feeding on the same dream (that empty American Dream). For Daoud (and for Haroun) the reckoning came long ago, and it has proved a farce. And after a while, Haroun’s pain beings to look like a farce as well.
Or like a charade. For one thing, the improbabilities keep piling up. The oddest is that Moussa’s body is never found. In L’Étranger, he is killed on the beach with friends, and that these friends (who were surely the ones who reported the murder, because otherwise who would have ever known that Meursault had done it? Except Raymond, who surely would have said nothing?) somehow lost track of the body- that the coroner who counted the bullets lost track of the body- that the authorities who put Meursault on trial bothered to put him on trial without a body- struck me as highly unlikely. Other material clues, such as addresses, relatives, supporting characters in the stories, are also missing. We know that, according to Haroun, Meursault got facts wrong or lied about them. But Haroun tells us we can verify nothing he says either. And he reminds us of it repeatedly.
In fact, Haroun himself only knows what happened because a girl named Meriem showed up with the book (L’Étranger) and told him it was about his brother. Haroun read it to learn the details of his own story. But what if it wasn’t in fact his story? What if Haroun’s brother died, but not this way? Or what if Haroun’s brother didn’t die? What if Moussa simply left, like their father? What if Haroun never even had a brother?
Settings, characters, and details remain persistently vague, especially the war itself. Haroun apparently stayed on the sidelines, and the only reason anyone is bothered by the murder he commits is because it happens just as the war is over, and thus at the wrong time. The war, as a historical event, creates no tension. It’s just a prop for the murder and a way for Haroun to have his own Meursault-ish trial. His disillusion with religion echoes Meursault’s, sometimes down to the same words and phrases. And his only love story is also curiously claustrophobic, refracted through L’Étranger. Meriem, the object of his affection, is the student working on Meursault’s book, and she and Haroun seem to talk about nothing else.
In other words, L’Étranger has either eaten Haroun’s life so completely that no detail outside it can acquire clarity….or he is making everything up, and is conjuring a history for himself from a book he both loves and hates. After all, Haroun doesn’t seem to want revenge against Meursault so much as to become Meursault. And we never do get Moussa’s story. We certainly don’t get the story of the other nameless Arab, the woman who was supposedly the catalyst for the murder. (We do get a possible name for her, but we’re not sure it’s the right name. And we’re assured that this woman- an Algerian moving in a kind of demi-monde of the French part of the city, perhaps a prostitute- is certainly NOT any sister of Haroun’s or Moussa’s). In fact, we don’t get any aspect of Haroun’s life that is not reactive against L’Étranger. We get, instead, a distorted mirror- killings, trials, confrontations with religious figures, failed love stories- that echoes events in L’Étranger according to a rigid pattern, so that when Haroun says, at the end, “I too hope that my spectators will be many, and their hate savage…” the reader can only sigh at the predictability.
In the end, I was left wondering if Daoud does, in fact, want us to doubt Haroun, or if he wants us to doubt ourselves instead. Haroun is unreliable, but is he unreliable because he was robbed of his story, which is what postcolonial interpretations of L’Étranger have argued and what Haroun himself seems to argue? Or is he unreliable because he is lying, and has claimed a tragedy that is not his so that he can make his own life into a different kind of story (a story of rejecting a futile postcolonial order, perhaps)? The confessional structure of the book echoes another Camus novel, La Chute (The Fall), which I haven’t read. I don’t know much about La Chute, but I do know that it centers on the hero’s self-deception and his slow realization that he has lived (morally) a lie. And I wonder if Daoud is very clever indeed, and is saying something not just about structural injustice but about the various ways we claim victimhood or break out of such injustice.
Probably this interpretation is not correct. But either way, I suspect the ultimate mockery is aimed at us, the readers, for wanting a sympathetic story, for wanting an object of compassion or guilt. It is not easy to sympathize with Haroun. But maybe sympathy is condescension, and freedom is something more jagged.