Have you ever felt like you don’t fit in? Perhaps you’ve been upset at yourself or the world around you for not being on the same wavelength. I sure have felt this way in our small campus-centric society. But ultimately, I found solace through the thinkings of Camus. The French-Algerian absurdist Albert Camus might not be appealing at first glance. His philosophy is based on the notion that it is ultimately impossible to obtain an inherent meaning from this world, and this renders our search for such a meaning absurd. If Camus the philosopher sounds boring to you, perhaps Camus the Nobel Prize-winning writer might change your mind.
The Stranger (L’Étranger) by Albert Camus was his first novel, published in 1942. Although the book delves deep into Camus’ ideas, it does not follow the dry and rambling rhetoric one might expect from a philosophical book. Instead, you follow the earnestly written thoughts of the emotionally detached protagonist Mersault. In just over a hundred pages, Mersault describes the events that unravel in front of him with a startling straightforwardness. This uncanny voice often makes it seem like our hero is just as much a spectator as we readers are. It is only in the antepenultimate page of the book that he truly takes on an active role to achieve understanding of a world that — much like him — is indifferent.
From the very first sentence, Mersault is immediately launched into a world of misfortune. “Maman died today.” He is immediately inundated by the unfamiliar social interactions that rise from attending a mother’s funeral. Everyone he meets expects a certain type of interaction with him, but he does not know how to satisfy them. The characters that surround Mersault are taken aback at his apparent apathy during her funeral. He thinks he will get used to his new circumstances as he usually does. However, Mersault ultimately pays the price for his aberrant behavior when he is sentenced to death for a bizarre murder.
To inspect Mersault is similar to observing a cat. He is drawn to ideas that he finds interesting, rather than those that he is expected to be. Rather than doing the humanistic act of lamenting, he would rather find comfort in immediate gratification such as cigarettes, sexual activities, or companionship. His moral code is as minimalist. He simply finds no reason to sympathize for an abused dog or to refuse to partake in a friend’s scheme of vengeance. Just as a cat would not stop violence, Mersault feels no obligation to rectify the behavior of others. Such an amoral characterization clashes with his clearly immoral act of shooting a man. While the reader might ponder on this, it is of little concern to the jury. To them, the more pertinent evidence to judge Mersault on is his failure to look sufficiently upset during Maman’s funeral.
“Maman died today.”
Here is Matthew Ward’s attempt in translating the iconic starting line. He rejects the more commonly cited “Mother died today,” claiming this removes the childlike connotation of the word “Maman”. The distinction better hints at the profound effect the death has on our protagonist. I prefer this translation because I detect a danger that some readers may view Mersault as the jury does: as an emotionless killer. The impact is there, even though Mersault (and possibly the less careful reader) does not consciously realize it. Throughout the book, Mersault is tormented by the searing heat of Algiers. Mersault falsely blames this suffocating heat whenever he cannot explain his own unhappiness or irrationality. This very heat is also the only rationalization that Mersault can come up with to explain why he pulled the trigger.
Reading The Stranger was a deeply personal experience for me. Moving back into a highly conformist Korean society as a young boy had made me familiar with the ostracization that awaits those who fail to express emotions in the accepted conventions. Ironically, the consequence of this struggle was that it had made me detached and inexpressive of my feelings. Although not as extreme in magnitude, I view the world and passing experiences very much like Mersault would. His terse perception of reality maintains a sense of familiarity even as it illuminates absurdist concepts.
I expect that readers of this review, as fellow members or visitors of this rigorous society, may feel the same sympathy for Mersault as I do. As Mersault demonstrates in his final chapter, “embracing the absurd” is a solution that can free us from the destructive constraints we did not even know was there the whole time. My hope is that even readers that do not share such an outlook can still reach an enlightening effect through Camus’ prose.