The novel is narrated as a stream-of-consciousness monologue from the perspective of Harun, an elderly Algerian man. Harun’s older brother, Musa, was murdered by a Frenchman in 1942, while Algeria was a French colony. The murderer, Meursault, evaded punishment and eventually wrote a novel about his experiences in Algeria, in which he names Musa briefly and dismissively as “the Arab.” Meursault corresponds to the protagonist of Albert Camus’ 1942 novel The Stranger, and Harun’s narrative is a response to that book.
Harun is telling his story to a young interlocutor he meets at his favorite bar over the course of several nights. Little information is given about the interlocutor, but he seems to be a student of some sort, interviewing Harun as part of his research.
Harun tells the interlocutor that he and Musa grew up in a poor neighborhood of Algiers. Their father had abandoned the family years before, and Musa supported Mama and his younger brother by working as a handyman at the port. As he was only seven when Musa died, Harun has few memories of his older brother, but he remembers riding on his shoulders at the end of the work day, and looking up to Musa as a father figure.
One day when Harun is seven, Musa doesn’t come home from work. At first Harun is unaware that anything has happened, but eventually news reaches the neighborhood that an Arab has been killed by a Frenchman at the beach, and Mama finally realizes that it’s her son who has died. In his book, Meursault attributes the fatal altercation to a fight over Musa’s sister, who was a prostitute; however, as Musa doesn’t actually have a sister, Harun suspects he was trying to avenge the honor of a woman with whom he was having a secret relationship. Finally, amid the clamor of neighbors coming to give their condolences and Mama’s collapse into incoherent wailing, Harun realizes that his brother is dead. He’s distraught, but no one pays attention to him.
Soon after Musa’s death, Mama and Harun decide to leave Algiers and its bad associations. They stay with an uncle who treats them poorly and then move to the rural town of Hadjout, where they work on a large-scale farm. The work is hard and there is little food, but eventually Mama improves their situation by getting a job as a housekeeper to a family of French settlers. Eventually, when the Larquais family flees after Independence, Mama is able to claim their house for herself.
However, in the months before they leave, Mama conducts a relentless investigation into the circumstances of Musa’s death. She’s anguished because the authorities have provided no explanations and haven’t even returned Musa’s body. All she has are a handful of newspaper clippings, which she’s unable to read. For his part, Harun is confused by his mother’s mental decline and feels that she resents him for outliving his older and more beloved brother.
Harun tells the interlocutor a bit about his own life. Although he’s very old, he doesn’t have a wife or family, and he lives alone in his apartment in Oran. From his balcony he can look out on the mosque across the street. He deplores Algeria’s increasing religious conservatism and he mocks his neighbors’ devotion to religious dogma, saying it contrasts with the sordid hypocrisy of their actual lives. Harun’s rejection of religion has made him an outcast in the neighborhood, but it allows him to feel personally free.
When Harun is a teenager in Hadjout, he gains admission to a local school, where he is one of two Arab students. Harun does well in school and quickly learns French, motivated by the desire to investigate Harun’s murder in the language of the people who control his country. As soon as he can read French well, Mama forces him to translate her newspaper clippings over and over again. Harun knows she will be upset with the paucity of information they actually contain, so he makes up elaborate stories in which Musa is a hero and martyr.
During Harun’s twenties, Algeria rebels against French rule and ultimately secures its independence. It’s during this time that Mama’s employers flee the country and she and Harun settle in their house. One night, one of the previous occupants’ friends, a Frenchman named Joseph, flees some conflict in the street and takes refuge in the courtyard. Harun and Mama wake up to the noise of his entrance. Guided by Mama, Harun takes an old gun down to the courtyard and shoots Joseph several times, after which he and Mama bury the body and obscure all traces of the crime. Mama feels that, with the Frenchman’s death, Musa’s murder has been avenged. From this point onward she’s much more tranquil and affectionate towards Musa.
Although the Algerian army, now in control of Hadjout, quickly figures out that Harun murdered Joseph, they summon him to the town hall and arrest him not for committing a crime but for doing so outside the auspices of the “official” fight for liberation. Harun spends a few days in jail, after which a young officer berates him for refusing to join the resistance army, as almost all the young men have, and for killing a Frenchman after the end of the war. After this, he is released. Harun is somewhat disappointed because he wanted to be judged and sentenced for his crimes.
The next year, a young woman named Meriem arrives in Hadjout; she’s doing research on Meursault’s novel and wants to talk to “the Arab’s family.” Harun and Mama were unaware that Musa’s death has been recorded in a book, and they are astonished by this information; reading the novel for the first time, Harun is both overwhelmed by Meursault’s literary genius and incensed that he has treated Musa’s death as part of his personal philosophical explorations, rather than as a serious crime.
Moreover, Harun immediately falls in love with the beautiful, educated, and independent Meriem. Throughout the summer she visits Harun, explaining to him the context surrounding Meursault’s novel and introducing him to French literature. At the end of the summer Musa asks Meriem to marry him; however, she soon stops visiting Hadjout, and their correspondence dwindles away. Harun has not had a meaningful relationship with a woman since then.
Harun ends his monologue in the present day, musing on his pariah status in his neighborhood. He feels that he’s already like a ghost moving among his fellow inhabitants, but because he has rejected the absolute dictums of religion he feels that he has access to a sphere of truth that they do not. He once gets in a violent fight with an imam who tries to convert him, shouting that his certainties are worth nothing. Harun often fantasizes about climbing the mosque’s minaret and shouting blasphemies through the speakers; he wishes that he could do so and then be executed by a swarm of his neighbors, who would be “savage in their hate” as they watched him die.