Albert Camus's The Stranger (in the Matthew Ward translation) begins: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe. I don't know."
Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation (in John Cullen's translation) begins: "Mama's still alive today. She doesn't say anything now, but there are many tales she could tell. Unlike me: I've rehashed this story in my head so often, I almost can't remember it anymore."
Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he writes for Algeria's third-largest French-language newspaper. His novel is a tour-de-force, has won a number of prizes, is being translated around the world, and will be the basis of a 2017 film.
Meursault is the name of Camus's narrator, a pied noir who seems to be without ambition, motivation, or inner life. When his boss in Algiers offers a bigger job, an opportunity to live in Paris and travel, he turns him down. "I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn't dissatisfied with mine her at all." That evening when Marie, the woman with whom he's been having sex, asks if he wants to marry her, "I said it didn't make any difference to
Daoud's brilliant idea was to tell the story of the murder from the point of view of the dead Arab's brother, who was a child at the time. He's now an old man, sitting in an Oran bar, talking to an unidentified and silent interlocutor, hashing and rehashing the murder. He gives the victim a name, Musa, and talks about the effect on himself and his mother, his anger at the unnamed author who wrote a book about Meursault, colonialism, his involvement (or not) in the Algerian revolution, his own murder of a pied noir, his failed relationship with a woman. I believe a case could be made that Daoud's narrator is a mirror image of Meursault. Except that this narrator is more engaged:
"I squeezed the trigger and fired twice. Two bullets. On in the belly, and the other in the necs. That makes seven all told, I thought at once, absurdly. (But the first five, the ones that killed Musa, had been fired twenty years earlier . . .)"
He, like Meursault, has interesting observations about life: "To tell the truth, love is a heavenly beast that scares the hell out of me. I watch it devour people, two by two; it fascinates them with the lure of eternity, shuts them up in a sort of cocoon, lifts them up to heaven, and then drops their carcasses back to earth like peels. Have you seen what becomes of people when they split up? They're scratches on a closed door."
One does not have to have read The Stranger to be fascinated and engaged by Daoud's narrator but reading it, then The Meursault Investigation can make the experiences seriously richer. I was skeptical about an unknown writer taking off on the Nobel Prize-winning Camus, but Kamel Daoud's novel, while offering its own rewards, can stand with Camus's.