He was the brother of “the Arab” killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus’s classic novel. 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.
But to be successful, a literary retelling must not simply dress up an old story in new clothes. It must also be so convincing and so satisfying that we no longer think of the original story as the truth, but rather come to question it ... In The Meursault Investigation, Daoud has done exactly this. Not only does he use an indigenous voice to retell the story of The Stranger, he offers a different account of the murder and makes Algeria more than just a setting for existential questions posed by a French novelist. For Daoud, Algeria is the existential question ... It is in this simple, direct language, ably translated from the French by John Cullen, that Daoud writes his letter of love, rebellion and despair for Algeria. It is a letter filled with doubles — a speaker and a listener, a narrator and a narrated, a murderer and a victim, an author and an icon, fanatics of the gun and fanatics of God.
The Meursault Investigation rejects the binary choice usually offered Algerians, between militarised nationalism or religious internationalism, condemning both as meaningless ... Along with the philosophy comes superlative writing, beautifully translated from the French by John Cullen. Where Camus’s vision is cold and stripped of emotion, Daoud’s is sensuous, comical and passionate ... The theatrical monologue is sometimes Beckettian, sometimes (in its self-referential intricacy and intertextuality) Borgesian, and always brilliantly metaphorical. For its incandescence, its precision of phrase and description, and its cross-cultural significance, The Meursault Investigation is an instant classic.
The genius and the limitation of Daoud’s novel lie in the directness of this engagement with Meursault/Camus ... Daoud is giving literary voice, in a language intelligible to the West—both literally, in French, and also within a familiar philosophical tradition—to a point of view that the West longs to hear but that tends to be drowned out by other voices from the Middle East ... Daoud’s voice is particularly telling for its subtlety and tolerance ... Daoud neither rejects Camus and his colonial legacy outright nor accepts his work uncritically. His resulting meditations are rich and thought-provoking, both for Algerian and for Western readers. He lets no one off the hook, including Harun himself ... That said, the book cannot be read meaningfully without The Stranger behind it: for all its vitality, the novel’s skeleton is Camus’s. Harun’s actions and meditations exist in counterpoint to Meursault’s ... By the same token, The Meursault Investigation, fascinating and important as it is, is not of itself an especially interesting work of art. Cleaving as it does to the substance of The Stranger, taking The Fall as a literary model, it too has the quality of an intellectual exercise—albeit one expertly executed and replete with significance; one that should, even must, be read for its fierce and humane intelligence.