Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman (Goncourt Prize for a debut novel) in 2014, “The Meursault Investigation” opens with the line
Mama’s still alive today.
Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers”, the roumis God brought here to put us to the test, but whose days were numbered anyway: One day or another, they would leave, there was no doubt about that And so nobody responded to them, people clammed up in their presence, leaned on the wall, and waited. Your writer-murderer was wrong, my brother and his friend had no intention whatsoever of killing them, him and his pimp friend. They were just waiting for them to leave, all of them, your hero, the pimp, and the thousands and thousands of others. We all knew it, we knew it from early childhood, we didn’t even need to talk about it: We knew one day they’d eventually leave. When we happened to pass through a European neighborhood, we used to amuse ourselves by pointing at the houses and divvying them up like spoils of war. One of us would say, “This one’s mine, I touched it first!” and set off a frenzy of claims and counterclaims. We were five years old when we started doing that, can you imagine? As if our intuition was telling us what would happen when Independence came, but leaving out the weapons.
Also split into two sections our narrator Harun, rather than clinically living through his mother’s death and funeral, brings to life his own mother’s existence and lamentations as well his own personal suffering of his brother’s death, his brother being the nameless “Arab” in Camus’ work. Our narrator is spilling out his life story to a nameless note taker in a bar in the Algerian coastal city of Oran (“This is a city with its legs spread open toward the sea”) and we are a witness to this outpouring of his tale.
And I don’t suppose you’re putting up with this pretentious monologue of mine for the happy moments.
The first half of “The Meursault Investigation” explores the events in Camus’ book and gives a life to the nameless Arab (now Musa), the second half features a revenge killing of a Frenchman (who is not nameless) and the emotional baggage suffered by our narrator, the investigation, arrest and obvious release (he’s narrating our story!!!) A polar opposite of Meursault in “The Stranger”.
Let’s see, let me try to remember exactly…How did we learn of Musa’s death? I remember a kind of invisible cloud hovering over our street and angry grown-ups talking loud and gesticulating. At first, Mama told me that a gaouri had killed one of the neighbor’s sons while he was trying to defend an Arab woman and her honor. Then, during the night, anxiety got inside our house, and I think Mama gradually began to realize the truth. So did I, probably. And then, all of a sudden, I heard this long, low moan, swelling until it became immense, a huge mass of sound that destroyed our furniture and blew our walls apart and then blew up the whole neighborhood and left me all alone.
Our story here is full of contradictions, our narrator has an unreliable voice, as we get further and further into the book we begin to question the authenticity of Harun. For example we learn that the newspaper article about his brother’s death is etched into his memory, later he states that he can’t remember the details reported. Totally unlike the clinical Meursault in Camus’ work we have a narrator who is fallible, unreliable, maybe even downright dishonest. But then again how reliable is Meursault’s voice in “The Stranger”?
Not simply a book built on the success of another, this work also explores the Algerian life as told by the locals, their side of the French Occupation and events leading up to the 1954 War and 1962 self-determination referendum and independence.
I want to pass away without being pursued by a ghost. I think I can guess why people write true stories. Not to make themselves famous but to make themselves more invisible, and all the while clamouring for a piece of the world’s true core.
Unlike our absurdist anti-hero in Meursault, our anti-hero here, Harun, is more of a realist, fallilble but unreliable, but he also is isolated, it is seventy years and he’s telling the tale to a stranger with a Camus novel in a bar. He is alienated, detached, removed, he has lost a brother who the rest of the world sees as an “Arab” and there is no literary fame for him.
For people looking at an introduction to contemporary translated fiction and an entertaining story, this is a great work to start with; a book that has already received its fair share of publicity and given recent longlisted titles on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize lists one that will probably feature in the 2016 Man Booker International Prize list of 2016. If you haven’t caught up with the news the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International Prize will merge next year (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/07/man-booker-international-and-independent-foreign-fiction-prizes-merge-to-create-super-award )
After a number of “challenging” reads from the Best Translated Book Award longlist of 2015, it was refreshing to pick up a slightly “easier” and straightforward work, a book which understandably is selling well and introducing new readers to the world of translated fiction. A book I’ll remember in years to come? Unlikely, although it will always come to mind when people mention Camus.
Later in the week I’ll explore another book with a connection, and another book with isolation, alienation and detachment as a theme. Maybe next week I’ll pick up a light love story? Unlikely.