Set in Algeria before and after the transition from colonial rule to independence, The Meursault Investigation reimagines Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger from an Algerian Arab perspective. Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger, murders an Algerian man who is known simply as “The Arab;” this crime is flashpoint for Meursault’s existential anxieties, and Camus never discusses “The Arab’s” character or his unjust death. In contrast, Daoud gives the murdered man a name—Musa—and narrates his story from the perspective of his brother, Harun. Focusing on the people disregarded by the original novel, Daoud uses Musa’s death to show how colonial rule exploits and disadvantages Algerians for the benefit of the French, and that European literature tends to discount and ignore the narratives of colonial peoples deemed “peripheral.” At the same time, the transition to self-rule fails to provide any closure or compensation for Musa’s death; Daoud uses this circumstance to argue that the postcolonial regime, inefficient and quickly descending into corrupt bureaucracy, is not capable of solving the problems created by colonialism.
By rewriting The Stranger to focus on the lives of Musa and Harun, Daoud demonstrates that colonial regimes not only materially disadvantage territorial citizens but consigns their narratives to permanently second-class status. In The Stranger, Algiers is simply a setting for Meursault’s existential dilemmas, and the death of another human being is important only in that it clarifies Meursault’s nihilistic views; “the Arab” himself is totally dispensable, and Meursault never displays any interest in the man’s life or remorse that he has needlessly ended it.
Daoud uses some indirect tactics to combat this pernicious indifference to Algerian lives; while Camus rarely describes Algiers except to emphasize the extreme heat that impairs Meursault’s judgment, Daoud provides vivid description of the city streets, the crowded tenement in which Harun and Musa grow up, and the wary aversion with which Mama teaches her sons to treat the French roumis—foreigners—who control the country. By providing these tactile and sociopolitical details, Daoud primes the reader to consider Musa’s death a human tragedy, rather than a detail in Meursault’s philosophical crises.
Moreover, the novel rests on the premise that Meursault evaded execution for his crimes and returned to France, where he wrote The Stranger about his experiences in Algeria, ultimately using Musa’s death to soar to literary fame. Conversely, as Musa supported Mama and Harun by working at the docks, his death plunges them into destitution and forces them to move to another city for work. The opposite fortunes of Meursault and Musa show that material benefits colonialism brings to “central” countries depends on the exploitation and impoverishment of “peripheral” territories.
As an adult, Harun reads The Stranger to gain more knowledge about the murder that has shaped his life, but he is most outraged by the novel’s complete disregard for his brother—especially by its refusal to give him a name. In Harun’s words, the novel portrays Musa as “a poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet.” His insistence on telling Musa’s story and poignantly evoking the effects of his death on the family are an explicit attempt to challenge Camus’s Eurocentric viewpoint, insisting that future generations approach Musa on his own terms, rather than Camus’s. The constant contrast Daoud evokes between Meursault’s indifference towards and Harun’s preoccupation with Musa shows that European literature, which supposedly cultivates enlightened moral values, actually reflects and helps perpetuate colonialist exploitation.
However, as outraged as he is by the colonial regime that killed his brother and buried his narrative, Harun quickly becomes disillusioned with the postcolonial regime, which he believes is ill-equipped to solve the problems caused by colonialism or help Algeria move forward. Harun comes of age during the fight for independence, but he’s very alienated from the liberation effort. He has no faith that the new regime will be able to fulfill its extravagant promises, so he refuses to join the resistance army; his attitude makes fellow townspeople very suspicious of him. Despite being painfully cognizant of the evils of colonialism, Harun refuses to embrace the incoherent nationalist ideology that replaces it, or the groupthink mentality that leads those around him to ostracize him.
Harun also dwells on the new regime’s inability to resolve and refusal to acknowledge Musa’s death. No investigation takes place after Independence, and when Mama tries to have Musa formally classified as a “martyr” so that she can receive a small pension, she’s unsuccessful because, due to obfuscation by the colonial police, she has so little information about the circumstances of his murder. Musa’s death emblematizes the injustice of the colonial regime, but the new regime’s response to it shows how ill-equipped it is to seriously address these injustices, and that instead of attempting to do so it will form a rigid bureaucracy that further oppresses the people it claims to liberate.
Ultimately, The Meursault Investigation is an indictment not just of colonial exploitation but the failures of post-colonial regimes. However, even when criticizing Algeria’s government, Daoud provides the country and its people a dignity denied them by The Stranger. The very existence of his critique establishes Algerian society as worthy of exploration and examination in its own right, rather than as an outpost of a colonial regime.
Colonialism and its Aftermath ThemeTracker
Colonialism and its Aftermath Quotes in The Meursault Investigation
Well, the original guy was such a good storyteller, he managed to make people forget his crime, whereas the other one was a poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust – an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name.
Therefore I’m going to do what was done in this country after Independence: I’m going to take the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language. The murderer’s words and expressions are my unclaimed goods. Besides, the country’s littered with words that don’t belong to anyone anymore.
And that’s where you go wrong, you and all your predecessors. The absurd is what my brother and I carry on our backs or in the bowels of our land, not what the other was or did.
For centuries, the settler increases his fortune, giving names to whatever he appropriates and taking them away from whatever makes him feel uncomfortable. If he calls my brother “the Arab,” it’s so he can kill him the way one kills time, by strolling around aimlessly.
Who, me? Nostalgic for French Algeria? No! You haven’t understood a word I’ve said. I was just trying to tell you that back then, we Arabs gave the impression that we were waiting, not going around in circles like today.
People in the neighborhood showed my mother his picture in the newspaper, but for us he was the spitting image of all the colonists who’d grown fat on so many stolen harvests. There was nothing special about him […] and his features were instantly forgettable, easy to confuse with those of all his kind.
Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test, but whose days were numbered anyway […].
I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double. I finally came to the last lines in the book: “…had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me cries of hate.”
The Arab’s the Arab, God’s God. No name, no initials. Blue overalls and blue sky. Two unknown persons on an endless beach. Which is truer? An intimate question. It’s up to you to decide.