The Reading Room

The Mersault Investigation

Review of Kamel Daoud’s new novel…

acThe Mersault Investigation is an intriguing book, brilliantly conceived and a very respectable addition to your collection of Albert Camus novels of whom this book and his novel ‘The Outsider’ is written about. It is essentially a look at ‘The Outsider’ through the eyes of the family of the deceased and unnamed Arab in Camus’s novel. In his book, Camus writes forcefully about the world, religion, philosophy and one man’s rebellion at conforming to the stereotype and in this, his first novel, Daoud presents a mirror image of the Camus classic.

I personally don’t believe you can fully appreciate Daoud’s book without first reading The Outsider. Camus begins his novel telling us “Mother died today” whilst Daoud begins with “Mama’s still alive today” and the last chapter echoes as loudly as the first. Like Camus, Daoud’s character narrates the book and there are pleasing similarities to Mohsin Hamid’s sublime The Reluctant Fundamentalist in the way the central character tells his story with such purpose and passion to a stranger in a bar in Algeria.

Most significantly however is Daoud’s deliberate naming of the central character and his murdered brother who appears in Camus’ novel as ‘The Arab’, a victim without a name, a skin colour which defines the degree of response to his murder, a story written in 1942 with a narrative which remains as typical and vital to this day as it did under French colonial rule in 1940s Algeria. There is no hiding the venom Daoud’s character aims at Mersault in Camus’ book whilst seemingly ignorant of the striking similarities he shares with the man who murdered his brother. For both men their mothers play a near intoxicating role in their lives and both men question their God and his relevance to them and their lives. Both of these books are vehicles for the authors desire to take on religion with a philosophical sword and whilst I appreciated Camus’ bravery for tearing his religion apart in the 1940s one cannot help but admire Daoud’s stance which has since earned him a fatwa by the Islamic Awakening Front for ‘placing the Koran in doubt’.

Both books centre around a senseless murder committed by the lead character with their mother’s influence resonating throughout either case. Daoud moves the story on to the modern day with his character now an elderly man reflecting on a life poorly lived. Daoud continues the theme of the act of a futile murder and the disproportionate response to both. In The Outsider, the prosecution’s attack on Mersault seems more pronounced towards the lack of emotion he showed towards his mother’s death than that of killing an Arab whilst on the flip side we see Daoud’s character being castigated by the authorities for killing a Frenchman two hours after the announcement of Algerian independence rather than two hours before it.

The story becomes a tale of revenge and killing for killing’s sake. A Frenchman took an Arab’s life without clear reason and the Arab’s life and death is forgotten by all but his own mother and brother. In Daoud’s novel the said brother takes the life of a Frenchman to bring justice through revenge. A familiar scenario being played out across the Middle East for generations past and future. Daoud, like Camus, presents a character tortured by his surroundings and an imposed God and belief system they both detest. It is a lesson in life and the futility of hatred, the over-complication of our own existence and the knowledge that no God can or will save us from ourselves.

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