A retelling of Albert Camus’s The Stranger from an Algerian perspective, The Meursault Investigation is structured around two different and often contradictory stories: the book Meursault writes in France, and the continuous monologue through which Harun gives his own account of his brother Musa’s death. As a young man, Harun has several significant encounters with language and storytelling—from the newspaper articles that obscure the circumstances of Musa’s murder, to the famous novel that frames it in terms of Meursault’s existential crisis, to the books through which Meriem introduces Harun to education and intellectual freedom. These experiences show him how powerful and critical language is in shaping lived experience, determining whose version of a particular story is believed, and whose thoughts and whose deaths are considered valuable. Accordingly, Harun becomes obsessed with mastering French and becoming educated, both in order to achieve personal freedom and to avenge Musa’s death by communicating it clearly to the rest of the world. The compelling monologue he delivers to his young interlocutor in the bar is the product of Harun’s belief in the power of language; however, through its cyclical structure and inability to provide closure or explanation of the events that have haunted Harun through his whole life, the novel concedes the ultimate impotence of speech and even the literature that communicates it.
Despite his initial lack of formal education, Harun recognizes and admires language as a powerful tool. Harun openly acknowledges that Meursault (representing Camus) is a brilliant writer; he points out that it’s his ability control language, and especially the language of a dominant European power, that allows him to deny Musa a name and a narrative, flaunting his murder to the world while also escaping punishment. Less artistic forms of language are also integral in mediating Harun’s experience of Musa’s death. For example, the newspaper clippings describing the murder to which Mama clings become almost a stand-in for her lost son, as they are the only documents that prove he once existed. At the same time, they obscure the actual circumstances of his death and exculpate Meursault; they are at once emblems of truth and falsity. Even the names Daoud give his characters emphasize the importance of communicating through language. Musa is the Arabic equivalent to “Moses,” while Harun is “Aaron.” In the biblical story of exodus from Egypt, Moses is the leader and hero, but he’s shy and unable to speak for himself; Aaron’s ability to wield language makes him, if only temporarily, the more powerful brother. Similarly, while Musa is a hero and martyr to Harun, Harun’s control of their shared narrative means that he has power over his venerated elder brother.
Harun’s mastery of French gives him a measure of personal liberation and the limited ability to reclaim Musa’s narrative for himself. Eventually, Harun is able to enroll in school, where he learns to read French and then can read the newspaper clippings out loud to Mama. Although they contain only the most basic information, to satisfy her he pretends that they include long stories about Musa. His ability to interpret and explain language makes him more powerful than Mama and allows him to push back against what he perceives as the overweening control she wields over him.
Harun’s real education arrives through Meriem, a graduate student studying Meursault’s book who has tracked down his victim’s family. She introduces Harun to The Stranger and many other works, and as their friendship deepens he falls in love with her. Falling in love is Harun’s first step away from his mother and the first time he’s able to forget Musa’s death. By mixing the experiences of education, love, and freedom, the novel endows language with an almost sensual force and argues for its ability to expand Harun’s inner life, even after his affair with Meriem abruptly ends. Ultimately, it’s Harun’s mastery of French and knowledge of literature that allows him to push back against Meursault’s narrative, transforming Musa from a nameless victim to a man with his own story. Since the novel is narrated as Harun’s monologue (originally in French), it gives the sense that he’s only able to refute The Stranger by wielding language and literature against it.
However, while the novel is in some ways an ode to language, it’s also conscious of the limits of storytelling. As a young man, Harun frequently expects revelations about Musa’s death to occur as his grasp of French improves, but this never actually occurs. When he’s able to read the newspaper articles for the first time, he also loses faith in their potency as he realizes how little information they contain. Similarly, while he’s initially excited to hear that Meursault has written a book that might provide more information about Musa, on first reading the novel and seeing how dismissively it portrays his brother he feels like an “idiot.” Here, language reminds him of his own powerlessness, rather than freeing him. Despite his education and his abilities as a storyteller, at the end of the novel Harun is a solitary and garrulous drunk, desperately wanting someone to listen to him and thrilled when a young student expresses interest in his story. His ability to tell Musa’s story hasn’t really freed him from the legacy of his brother’s death or allowed him to gain closure.
At the end of the novel, Harun invites another bar-goer, to whom he refers as “the ghost,” to join him and his interlocutor. He accuses the ghost of trying to eavesdrop on his story, but the man turns out to be both deaf and mute. His inability to hear or understand the story, even if he wanted to, argues that no matter how much and how well Harun speaks, many people will still be unwilling or unable to interact with his story. The act of crafting a story—both Harun’s construction of his monologue and Daoud’s construction of a novel—reflects a faith in the inherent value and power of language. However, by ultimately emphasizing the fundamental difficulty of communication, the novel meditates uneasily on the very craft it represents.
Language and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Language and Storytelling 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.
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 learned to read, not because I wanted to talk like the others but because I wanted to find a murderer, though I didn’t admit that to myself in the beginning.
“Everything was written!” Mama blurted out, and I was surprised by the involuntary aptness of her words. Written, yes, but in the form of a book, and not by some God. Did we feel ashamed of our stupidity? Did we contain and irrepressible urge to laugh like foods, us, the ridiculous pair stationed in the wings of a masterpiece we didn’t even know existed?
At one and the same time, I felt insulted and revealed to myself. I spent the whole night reading that book. My heart was pounding, I was about to suffocate, it was like reading a book written by God himself. A veritable shock, that’s what it was. Everything was there except the essential thing: Musa’s name.
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.”