In case you haven’t already heard, it’s probably important to start by explaining that The Mersault Investigation works as a kind of retelling of The Outsider, Albert Camus’s classic novel from 1942. Rather than a retelling as it’s been billed, though, I would call it more of a counterargument. Its author appears to have some serious issues with The Outsider, particularly in the way that it reduces its murder victim to nothing more than ‘the Arab’ and glorifies this murder with its powerful prose and elegant delivery. Mersault is the murderer in the original, and the narrator of this counter piece often speaks of him in highly bitter tones.
That narrator is Harun, the brother of the unnamed Arab in The Outsider. One of the main reasons Harun has decided to offer this reply, seventy years after the event, is to finally give a name to his lost sibling. That name is Musa. And it is with the memory of Musa in mind that Harun decides to talk to an interviewer who has come to hear his story. We learn much of how the ancient crime affected his family, how the assumptions of The Outsider’s readers were wrong, and how Harun himself has led a solitary life because of what was taken away from him.
Kamel Daoud’s mission in writing this novel is an admirable one. Taking a much-admired story that made murder of an Arab by an outsider seem okay and justified, and showing the contradictions that engenders, is a bold and interesting idea. Making this also stand as an investigation into Arab identity and a comment on colonialism is also impressive. But, unfortunately, none of these commendable intentions are any kind of guarantee of a great read. And in the case of The Mersault Investigation, what we have is whole host of worthy ideas trampling all over the story until it becomes something of a difficult task to get through. It struggles to really get going, meanders between disparate plot points, and never really tells a coherent story. It’s a shame, because the premise is great.
Any Cop?: Don’t just listen to me on this one. The book won the Prix des Cinq Continents, the Prix Francois Mauriac, and the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. There is already a film planned for 2017. And there’s an argument to say that reading it directly after reading The Outsider might somewhat enhance your experience. But, for me, it shouldn’t be a requirement to reread an old book to enjoy a new one. And even if I had, I don’t believe it would have eradicated my issues. And who are you going to trust – me or a load of judging panels and filmmakers? Well – okay, maybe see for yourself on this occasion.