Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Albert Camus - The Outsider

 ‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure’.

This is the sort of opening line which is discussed, torn apart and chewed at in creative writing workshops. And it is just the beginning of this bizarre novel.

The Outsider, also known by the title – The Stranger, is an unusual piece of work. And Meursault, the protagonist, is a very unusual sort of man. You’ll either dismiss him as a jackass or become his huge fan, strictly depending on your age. To me he came across as a callous young man who is completely indifferent to everything in his life be it love, sex, death, murder, or injustice.

I was appalled at his casual attitude towards his mother’s death. How can a man be cold and indifferent at his own mother’s burial? He’s either naive or brutally honest and as the book progressed I realized he was a bit of both. As other characters entered the story in quick succession it became obvious that this lack of interest is directed towards everyone and everything. At certain points, especially with regard to his job, he comes across as a rebel; a man not bound to any relationship, personal or professional. Had I been younger and a boy, I might just have idolized him.

There’s his girlfriend, Marie, who he actually starts dating the very next day of his mother’s funeral. A heartless bastard and that, too, both towards the dead and the living. ‘Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn't mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married. Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing - but I supposed I didn’t.’

At work, Meursault turned down a chance to leave Algiers and work in Paris. ‘I told him I was quite prepared to go; but really I didn’t care much one way or the other. He then asked if a ‘change of life’, as he called it didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed one’s real life; anyhow, one life was as good as another and my present one suited me quite well.’ So much for ambition!

I found hints of another rebel, Darashikoh Shezad (Moth Smoke), in Meursault. Both of them reach the same end but in different ways.

Another character is the pimp Raymond, his neighbour, with whom he strikes an unusual friendship. Meursault might be crazy but he’s not a crook and a liar, while Raymond reeks of crime. When Raymond asks Meursault to help him punish his two timing mistress, he agrees, ‘I wanted to satisfy Raymond, as I’d no reason not to satisfy him.’

Reading this book made me realize how we tend to ignore the consequences of our actions. No matter what we do or say, with whatever intention, it can be used against us anywhere and not necessarily in a court of law. The main theme of the novel is conformity. Meursault refused to conform to the norms of the society; he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, he didn’t want a promotion, he didn’t regret his crime. He was an outlaw. Society feels threatened by a person who doesn’t follow their established rules and standards. And such a person is either banished, or executed.

Death, execution, and religion are the dominating themes as Meursault comes to term with the consequences of his action. He is an outsider at his mother’s funeral, at his trial and remains one till the end. 

‘It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.’ 

This has to be the most absurd book I've ever read. Ever. 

Image: Google