“Mersault, contre-enquête” by Kamel Daoud – just existence. Translated as “The Mersault Investigation”

It is not an entirely original idea to reverse a situation found in the plot of a famous classic, as did Jean Rhys when she wrote “Wide Sargasso Sea” from the viewpoint of Mr Rochester’s wife Bella in “Jane Eyre”, before she married him and was incarcerated in his house as a lunatic.

In this novel, the Algerian author has focused on the younger brother of the anonymous Arab shot by the Frenchman Mersault in the disorienting, blinding sunlight over the shimmering sea off an Algiers beach in Camus’s exploration of absurdism in the context of a pointless murder.

Kamel Daoud portrays the victim’s brother whom he names Haroun, to be found, several decades after the shooting, reminiscing in a local bar to the visitor from France who has come to probe him about the murdered Arab in the novel.

Haroun is embittered by the appalling effect of the death on his life. Not only did he lose the kindly young man who supported him after their father had abandoned the family, but their mother was clearly driven mad by the event, continually searching for the body, the lack of which to provide irrefutable evidence of her son’s death meaning that she has been unable to claim a pension. She appears emotionally cold towards the surviving son whom she seems to have resented for being the one to survive. The discovery that the murder has become the topic of a best-selling novel, bringing fame and fortune to the writer, only adds to the sense of outrage. Yet the ultimate insult is the failure to give the victim a name, remedied here by the information that it was in fact “Moussa”. ( It seems that the brothers names are Moses and Aaron in English).

Strictly speaking, this is not a counter-enquiry into a murder, but a somewhat cynical portrayal of Algeria, post the trauma of civil war and independence, casting an absurdist light on the religious bigotry used as a tool of social control, the enduring poverty, stagnation, corruption and betrayal of vision .

It is beneficial to have read “l’Étranger” first because of the frequent references made to it. When I reread it after finishing “Mersault, contre-enquête”, I was struck by how often Daoud mirrors events in the earlier novel: in “L’Étranger” (The Outsider), the opening sentence tells us that “maman” has died today, whereas in the later novel, “maman” is still alive. Just as Mersault describes his close observation of the comings and goings in the street below the balcony of his apartment, Haroun portrays the view from his overlooking the busy square which represents a microcosm of life in Algiers. In this, both create a strong sense of place.

Similarly, Mersault’s expression of his atheism, and his existentialist view of the absurdity of life (although he does not use these terms), reactions which so outrage both his defence and the prosecution, are imitated by the narrator Haroun’s ranting against God and the influence of the mosque. This led to the issue of a fatwa against the real-life author for blasphemy, which rather seems to justify his criticisms.

Note the parallel irony: whereas Mersault’s essential crime seems to be that he did not show grief at his mother’s funeral, for Haroun it is that he killed a Frenchman in symbolic revenge after Algeria gained independence rather than before.

Although this book has won much praise, I was sorry to find it extremely repetitive, too meandering, with a frequently somewhat overblown style as read in the original French. There are a few striking passages such as the description of the narrator’s mother’s face in old age: a kind of amalgam of the faces of all his ancestors, passing judgement on him. Although only about 150 pages in length, the novel seems too long for its thin substance. Each time I returned to it, I kept losing interest after a few pages, and had to force myself to read to the end for a book group. The failure to appreciate its style may be a fault on my part because I am more accustomed to and prefer a spare and concise approach more common in “western culture”.

This novel also reminded me of the much more engrossing “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, perhaps because it employs the same device of a narrator button-holing someone to unburden himself, Ancient Mariner-wise.
Based on an interesting premise with great potential, this novel could have been executed better. Prompted to reread “L’Étranger”, the clarity of the prose, narrative drive and tighter structure defined for me why that is the superior novel, even though Mersault’s almost autistic lack of emotion and engagement in an absurd world is less explicable than Haroun’s very understandable anger over his lot.

It also struck me that, for Camus, the book is located in Algeria, his country of origin but existentialism is the main point, whereas for Douad, the tragedy of the failed project of Algerian independence is a major concern. His novel misses the mark partly because the author seems to lose sight of his fundamental aims.

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