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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Musa" by Kamel Daoud

Issue: April 6, 2015

Story: "Musa" by Kamel Daoud

Rating: $

Review: Full disclosure here..."Musa" is an excerpt from Daoud's 2013 novel The Meursault Investigation, which, if you were paying attention in high school literature you probably remember is a reference to Albert Camus' 1942 classic absurdist/existentialist novel, The Stranger. I'm relieved to find that out after reading this story, because I'm glad this isn't just a classic "gimmick" story and that it, instead, is part of a larger and more meaningful work.

In The Stranger, the main character Meursault, kills a nameless, faceless Arab on the beach outside Algiers on a sunny day, eventually gets convicted of the crime, goes to jail, and gets executed (spoiler, sorry, but it's been out for 70 years...). In "Musa" the main character narrates the time in his life when he found out about his brother's death and in which he and his mother endure the hardship of having lost the family's breadwinner and protector (as the father had vanished years before). He also gets into the ways that the mother-son relationship becomes tighter and more fraught with anger and expectation and guilt in the wake of Musa's disappearance.

At first, Daoud's sort of circular narrative was making me a little dizzy. He tends to give information all at once, and over and over again, while traveling back and forth in time at will. For example, we know Musa is going to die very very early in this story, and we flash back and forth to times both before and after his death, we flash to the narrator's adulthood, his mother's old age, then back to his childhood, all the while immersed in a close first-person narration. It's an interesting technique that, if you think about it, more closely mirrors the workings of the human mind and the nature of memory than does the classic Beginning, Middle, End story structure.

Insert witty caption here.
Once I got comfortable with Daoud's style and grasped the basic conceit, I read this story with much more interest and vigor. Daoud's is a voice laden with philosophy and emotional perspective and, even in the few pages we have here, he writes as if he's determined to make a connection with the reader, but he's not desperate to do so. Evidence of which can be found in these sorts of emotional tongue-twisters which will leave you wistfully gazing out the window while your tea gets cold:

The last day of a man's life doesn't exist. Outside of storybooks, there is no hope, nothing but soap bubbles bursting. That's the best proof of our absurd existence, my dear friend: no one is granted a final day, only an accidental interruption of life.

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