Do-Overs: The Meursault Question

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Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation is getting a lot of attention. This retelling of Camus’ classic The Stranger imagines the eyes that stare down Meursault’s gun. The unnamed Arab from the original is given a name, Musa, and a brother, Harun, who tells the family’s story in a bar.

Camus’ work is widely taught in high schools, and imagining the perspective of the unidentified Arab is a common assignment. But Daoud exceeds all expectations in his reinterpretation of the original, a book that his characters contend was penned by Meursault himself in an effort to explain his actions.

Before getting into the subtleties of Daoud’s book, it’s important to note that the idea of Camus’ work exists, for contemporary English readers, somewhere in the intersection of the two best known translations: that of Stuart Gilbert in 1946, and the 1989 translation by Matthew Ward. When we examine the retelling of old stories by new writers, the contribution and voice of the translator can’t be overlooked. Take, for example, Gilbert’s Meursault, telling us “Mother died today,” while Ward’s Meursault uses the familiar “Maman.” Both translations of this opening line are still debated. The nuances of each book are different. Stuart’s translation, once called “Kafka by Hemingway,” is terse and dry. Ward’s translation attempts to infuse complexity of language, to Americanize. These differences are most evident as the two authors differ in their lines following Meursault’s murder of the Arab at the end of Part I. Ward’s Meursault tells us the shots were “like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness,” while Gilbert’s confesses that the murder “was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.”

Since Daoud’s Investigation is translated by John Cullen, the new book comes through another filter of authorship: Camus, in a game of existential telephone. But Daoud’s work shows attention to all of his influences. He tells us as much, through Harun, who says he wants to give his story voice through “the murderer’s words and expressions,” like “stones from the old houses the colonists left behind.” Daoud doubles down on the idea of text as critique; his character’s use of Meursault’s language where his own fails also underscores the ideas of appropriation of culture Daoud highlights in The Stranger.

In her review of Daoud, author Laila Lalami says “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.” Daoud’s work is both convincing and satisfying, even as it diverges into the sloppiness of human grief. And though it is an effective retelling, I disagree that it questions—at least, it does not question in a way that seems at odds with what Camus intended. This is its power. Meursault was meant by Camus to provoke, to make both those in the narrative and those reading his tale feel—and question their own—disgust, frustration, and incomprehension. Meursault illuminates the absurdity of life, its futility and lack of meaning. What Daoud does is spin a whole person out of the questions Camus asked in 1942.

“Mama’s still alive today,” Harun tells us at the start of The Meursault Investigation, establishing Daoud’s work as an inversion of Camus’. Yet for all Harun’s raw emotion, his warmth that contrasts Meursault’s coldness, Harun still murders a man, just like Meursault. He renounces any external imposition of meaning on that murder, just like Meursault. He denies others the right to a justification for his crime, just like Meursault. The Meursault Investigation serves both to highlight the differences between the two men, and to show how they’re tragically similar products of the same cruel world. Daoud ends with Harun recalling Meursault’s final words. “I too would wish them to be legion,” he says. “My spectators, and savage in their hate.”