We now enter Africa via Algeria. With the Sahara desert making up 90% of its area, it’s the largest country in Africa and the Arab world. The modern history is dominated by French colonization with a strong pied-noir presence. Currently the country is ruled by an authoritarian regime and the population is predominantly Arab and Berber.
Algerian literature comprises of a rich body of work in Arab and French Algerian branches. Many works from both languages have been widely translated into English.
The most renowned author to figure out of Algeria is Albert Camus, famous for his absurdist philosophy pondering over the nature of life and validity of murder. A winner of the Nobel prize, reading Camus seems a right of passage of sorts into the Algerian literature.
Of Camus’s work the most obvious pick for me is The Stranger. While other works like The Myth of Sysyphus, which examines the philosophical connotations of suicide and The Plague, which questions human destiny are also popular, The Stranger although a short read, has struck a cord with many a thinker. It has found mentions in pop culture like the TV shows D-Sopranos, Mad Men and Ang Lee’s super hit movie, Life of Pi. I have been meaning to get to it for a while now and a review follows.
My first introduction to Camus’s work was through his long essay, The Rebel, where he meditates over the nature of revolution. My reading of The Stranger reminded me of his ability to pack eternal meaning in every phrase. A novel which reinvents itself with time, as proven by subsequent translations.
It’s a simple read, in two parts. The first one starts with the famous opening line “Mother died yesterday” (Stuart Gilbert’s translation from French).
This part is mostly about the protagonist Meersault’s attendance of his mother’s funeral. He is a guy who doesn’t need much and is happy with the simple life he leads. He lives alone in Algiers, has few friends and fewer words. While he comes- off as a decent human being, he inexplicably is kind to the violent acts of a neighbor towards a woman. Only when the woman’s brother and his friends enter into the picture do we learn that she is Arab while her abuser is French, as is Meersault. This racial discrepancy, the colonial supremacy and guilt are extremenly subtle and never explicit. Even more inexplicably Meersault ends up killing the Arab man who may or may not have been there to hurt his friend. The ensuing trial makes up the second part of the book.
The tone of the trail is that of a foregone conclusion. Nobody doubts Meersault’s guilt. The only question seems to be if this was a one-time offense or there are signs of sociopathic nature. Then his apparent indifference or inability to show socially appropriate reaction during his Mother’s funeral becomes all important. None of the people sitting judge seem to be able to consider the possibility that each man deals with his sorrow in his own way or the crime committed itself may be a manifestation of his grief.
Meersault is fantastic in his utter indifference to the allegations against him, his inability to gauge the seriousness of the offense or the fact that he is a criminal now, the consequences he might have to face or his puzzling expectation of kindness from the people sitting trial on him. To quote,
“For the first time I realized how all these people loather me“.
“its common knowledge that life isn’t worth living anyhow.”
The victim of the murder is utterly inconsequential to the entire story, although – we have a hunch – not to the author, who is saying a thousand words by not saying anything about the abused woman, the dead Arab or the presence of violence in daily life. His more apparent interest is in questioning the process of judgement itself, which extrapolates its morality to everyone around and the validity of death penalty, which is much more cruel than the crime itself. In Camus’s own words,
“the fact that the verdict was read out at eight P.M. rather than at five, the fact that it might have been quite different, that it was given by men who change their underclothes, and was credited to so vague an entity as “the French people” – for that matter why not to the Chinese or the German people? – all these facts seemed to deprive the court’s decision of much of its gravity“
When the novel, published in 1942, is read today, Meersault doesn’t look so bizarre. Although he claims “the universe is like myself” in its “benign indifference“, we have a hard time agreeing since, completely indifferent people do not feel desperately lonely on Sundays like he does. Some Freudian theories to interpret his behavior naturally come to mind. All in all, The Stranger is arguably one of the best novels of our times.
Other Options from Algeria:
A struggle of two sisters to fight the social oppression.
Four men in love with a woman, allegorical for Algeria itself.