“Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” The first sentences of Albert Camus’ The Stranger are one of the most famous opening gambits in literature, combining absolute plainness with a mysterious kind of threat. As it turns out, Meursault, the narrator of Camus’ novel, has a perfectly good reason for not knowing exactly when his mother died: He has only just received a telegram from the nursing home, which didn’t specify the time of her death. What is upsetting to the reader is not that he doesn’t know, but that he clearly doesn’t care. For Meursault, apathy is a kind of philosophical credo, a principled refusal to play the game of social obligation and expectation. It is a kind of mutilated virtue, a way of putting the principles of Camus’ existentialism into action.
The message of the novel is that this kind of independence—a cousin, in its stubborn muteness, to that of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener—is more deeply threatening to society than any conventional crime. When Meursault kills an Arab on the beach, in what Camus portrays as a fit of heatstroke and absentmindedness, he is sentenced to the guillotine less because of his actual deed than because of his refusal to mourn his mother in the expected ways. When the court hears about how he smoked a cigarette in front of his mother’s coffin, or how he went to a Fernandel comedy at the movies the next day, the judges conclude that he must be a monster. In fact, he is only living in the truth: “I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything,” he reflects in jail. “My mind was always on what was coming next, today or tomorrow.”
It is no coincidence that The Stranger is one of those books everyone reads in high school. For one thing, its simple, lucid prose makes it a natural choice for students of French. More important, however, is the way Meursault’s inarticulate resistance, his commitment to sincerity above all, speaks so deeply to the adolescent spirit. Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Stranger is a book about authenticity and phoniness, with a hero who reenacts the adolescent’s discovery that adult life is founded on pretense and concealment. But Holden Caulfield is just a mixed-up kid next to Meursault, an adult who is willing to die for his convictions. Better the guillotine, he suggests, than admitting you love your mother.
The Stranger is adolescent, above all, in its refusal to reckon with the actual meaning of Meursault’s crime. His murder of “the Arab,” as the victim is called in the book, is not entirely unmotivated: The Arab is part of a gang that earlier in the day attacked Meursault and his friend Raymond, who had been dating (and beating up) the Arab’s sister. But Camus leaves no doubt that the crime is undermotivated, just like everything else Meursault does. In the crucial passage, Camus writes as if the trigger of Meursault’s gun pulled itself:
That’s when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver. The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, is where it all started. … Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.
Undermotivation can be one of the writer’s best ways of bringing a character to life—just look at Hamlet, who seems so real because, like ourselves, he is often impossible to understand. In this case, however, Meursault’s lack of motive feels less like realism than like the illustration of a thesis. If life has no inherent meaning—if choice is arbitrary yet responsibility inevitable, as existentialism teaches—what better way of demonstrating these truths than with a murder, which raises the stakes so high? In the second half of the novel, indeed, the murder comes to seem like a plot device for getting Meursault into jail, the better to confront him with big questions about freedom and mortality.
This way of understanding Meursault’s crime—as an arbitrary deed whose consequences are primarily borne by the killer himself—depends, however, on a massive and unsustainable erasure. This is the erasure of the victim, who notoriously is never granted a name, much less a biography. And in the context of French Algeria, the fact that Camus chose to make this nameless victim an Arab, a member of the disenfranchised native population, inevitably carries a strong political message. Arabs are there to facilitate the moral education of Frenchmen like Meursault; they are part of the setting, like the hot sun and pounding waves, rather than equals with their own values and desires. In short, the philosophical imagination of The Stranger is also a colonialist imagination.
Camus’ book was first published in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Paris. At that time, the problem of French-Arab relations in Algeria seemed less urgent than the problem of how to maintain inner freedom in a defeated country. But by the time Camus died, in a car accident, in 1960, Algeria was in full-blown revolt against French rule. A few years later, the war ended with Algerian independence and the chaotic flight of the pieds-noirs, French-born Algerians like Camus’ family. The colony was abandoned, but The Stranger remained, a masterpiece of colonial literature whose assumptions and omissions were embraced anew by each generation of readers.
To Kemal Daoud, a Francophone Algerian writer, it must have seemed as though independence was not complete until The Stranger had been demolished, like a statue from a leftover regime. That demolition is the express purpose of The Meursault Investigation, his Goncourt Prize-winning novel, which has now been translated into English by John Cullen. The ancient Greeks had a literary genre known as the palinode, a poem written to retract or rebut an earlier poem, and The Meursault Investigation can be considered a novel-length palinode of The Stranger, starting with its pointed first sentence: “Mama’s still alive today.”
Camus’ famous opening is turned upside down, and Daoud proceeds accordingly. “Well, the original guy was such a good storyteller, he managed to make people forget his crime,” he complains, “whereas the other one was a 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.” As this sentence suggests, there is a certain slippage in Daoud’s account between Camus, the author of the The Stranger, and Meursault, its narrator. Daoud never actually names Camus or his book, and at one point he seems to suggest that he is inhabiting a fictional world in which Meursault himself is the author of his own account. In this way, Daoud keeps open a fruitful ambiguity in his attacks, which are directed against both the real author and the fictional character at once.
The naming of the unnamed, the use of the empire’s language against the empire, are the classic gestures of post-colonial literature, and The Meursault Investigation is almost literally a textbook example of the genre. “The Arab,” we learn, had a name, Musa, and a family, consisting of his mother and younger brother, Harun. The novel is narrated in the present day by Harun, now an old man, who sits in a bar in Oran and harangues a young acolyte who has come in bearing a copy of Camus’ (or Meursault’s) novel. We learn about the “actual” circumstances of Musa’s death—the story about the sister, Daoud’s narrator insists, was a lie—and about the effects of the murder on those he left behind. As the story develops, Harun comes more and more to resemble Meursault himself—we learn that the narrator, too, has committed a murder—and Daoud cleverly packs his novel with allusions to Camus’ other works. (Oran is the setting of The Plague, and the narrative situation—the old man in a bar—resembles that of The Fall.)
Tonally, however, Daoud has gone in the opposite direction from Camus. Where The Stranger is deliberately unemotional, The Meursault Investigation is a tirade, in which the same basic points are made again and again. Musa was a real person; his death was a real tragedy for his family and community; Meursault’s fame should be that of a killer, not a hero. “The Arab isn’t even killed in it—well, he is killed, but barely, delicately, with the fingertips, as it were. He’s the second most important character in the book, but he has no name, no face, no words. Does that make any sense to you, educated man that you are? The story’s absurd!” Harun declares.
The word “absurd,” of course, is Camus’ trademark: It is how he describes a life devoid of any meaning other than that which we decide to give it. But for Daoud, this kind of philosophical absurdity is a First World luxury he cannot afford. He is attuned to a more ordinary and comprehensible kind of absurdity, which is not metaphysical but moral: the absurdity of a society in which French colonists can kill Arab natives without even thinking about it. The ferocity of the book, especially when it comes to Daoud’s description of reprisals against the French during the Algerian war, leaves no doubt that these wounds continue to fester, even half a century after independence.
The power of The Meursault Investigation comes from the way it reinstates precisely what Camus omits from The Stranger: not simply the name of “the Arab,” or a political agenda, but a morality based on empathy. Existentialism can deprecate murder, because it considers the act in the abstract, as a meaningless violation of nonexistent laws. In actuality, however, murder is not abstract but horribly concrete. It destroys a specific person and brings lifelong pain and suffering to the victim’s loved ones, as it does to Musa’s brother and mother. The kind of empathy required to appreciate this pain is an acquisition of adulthood; where adolescents live for principle, adults respect suffering. In literary terms, The Merusault Invesigation is not, and doesn’t claim to be, a rival to The Stranger and its hallucinatory perfection. In moral terms, however, Daoud supplies just what Camus does not: a convincing sense of the cost of a human life.
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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.