I first read The Outsider by Albert Camus when I was an angsty teenager and understood close to none of it. I knew the book was famous and expected it to A) assert definite truths about the world, and B) be very long. As it fulfilled neither of these expectations I felt it had failed me, not the other way around, and didn’t bother with it again for years. I reread it recently as an angsty adult and, while I still don’t fully understand it, I now want to.
The Mersault Investigation seems like it was written from a similar desire to understand. The story is told by the brother of the nameless Arab killed by Mersault in The Outsider. The narrator, Haroun, tells his story to ‘you’, a young student (or the reader) whose replies are omitted from the book, a reversal of the situation in The Outsider, where the Arabs are voiceless. Every night over drinks, Haroun tells the student about his brother’s life and murder and how it affected Haroun and his mother. He tells him about their discovery of The Outsider, here written by Mersault and not Camus (though Camus makes an appearance as ‘the ghost’, a patron of the bar in which the narration takes place), and his outrage at realising that the murderer was famous, but because he hadn’t named the victim, his brother was not. Haroun names him twice, first by suggesting that Mersault could have at least called him Zujj, as it means ‘two’ in Algerian Arabic and is significant to his life and death, then by the name Haroun knew him by, Musa. He names the barman Musa, too, he calls the person sitting next to them in the bar ‘the ghost’ (“he’s young, I think, maybe around forty. He seems intelligent, but at odds with the certitudes of his time.” Camus died at 46), he refers to Mersault as el-roumi (‘the foreigner’ or ‘the stranger’ in Algerian Arabic), he learns French in order to re-name the world for himself in a language his mother doesn’t understand; the only character in the book he doesn’t name is the student, the one who idolises The Outsider.
the book works as a kind of sequel that devours the original; it assumes the same universe while questioning it.
Gradually, it becomes clear that Haroun has repeated the events of The Outsider in his own life, but always with a twist. Haroun has also killed a man out of boredom, but a Frenchman, Joseph. As Mersault is executed “for not crying at his mother’s funeral,” Haroun is accused of having killed the Frenchman “at the wrong time,” because he didn’t kill him during the fight for independence. Haroun is not executed for this, but set free in the hopes that he will be judged and cast out by his peers for not joining the fight for independence. He has a relationship with a woman, but while Marie in The Outsider wanted to marry an indifferent Mersault, here Meriem is indifferent to Haroun while he wants to marry her. Mersault yells at a priest, Haroun yells at an imam. The similarities are too many to name exhaustively here, they even include direct quotes. Basically, the book is thick with references both to The Outsider and Camus’ other work, most notably the idea of the absurd. The events that appear in both books are also told in the same manner; for instance, the focus on the sun and heat when Haroun recounts a visit to the beach where his brother was shot, the same hallucinatory feel.
Like Mersault, our narrator is an unreliable one—old, drunk, and a self-confessed compulsive liar who has been mythologising his brother since his death—and repeatedly draws attention to his unreliability: “I’m lying to you about that, just as for a long time I lied to myself.” Like most drunks, he seems to struggle with wanting to remain an enigma and wanting to be recognised as an oracle. This results in a style of narration that alternates between being cryptic and overly explanatory. I normally detest having the obvious explained to me, but here it works well because it fits the character (likewise with his misogyny). He sows doubt about almost everything that happens in The Outsider—Musa’s body was never found, Mersault’s mother’s grave was never found, Musa didn’t have a sister, etc.—but also everything that happens in The Mersault Investigation: “This story takes place somewhere in someone’s head, in mine and in yours and in the heads of people like you. In a sort of beyond. Don’t do any geographical searching—that’s the point I’m trying to make. You’ll get a better grasp on my version of the facts if you accept the idea that this story is like an origin myth.”
Like most drunks, he seems to struggle with wanting to remain an enigma and wanting to be recognised as an oracle.
Haroun seems to both admire and despise The Outsider. He acknowledges Mersault’s superior skill as a writer and refers to the book as “a mirror held up to my soul and to what would become of me in this country, between Allah and ennui”. But he also feels destined to commit the same crimes and come to the same unpleasant realisations as Mersault; yet another Sisyphus. His lucid ruminations and repeated ramblings evoke the image of an old man grasping for insight and justice in an absurd universe, and that of an eager devotee trying to understand Camus’ work and philosophy.
As mentioned above, even though Camus is never referred to directly, he does appear in the book as a ghost. Because the fictional Mersault is credited as the author here, the book works as a kind of sequel that devours the original; it assumes the same universe while questioning it. It tells one story twice: that of a pointless death. First Musa’s, then Joseph’s.
A compelling book that, like its predecessor, deserves to be read again.