Book review: Albert Camus’s “L’Etranger”

The Outsider? The Foreigner? The Stranger? One would expect more consensus regarding the translation of the title work of a Nobel prize-winning author. However, just the title of Albert Camus’s 1942 classic novel, L’Etranger, provokes reflection, as does every page of his terse prose, which – as Mário Vargas Llosa points out in the epilogue of the Spanish version I read – is reminiscent of Hemmingway.  It is, but there are passages much more lyrical. Moreover, whereas Hemmingway was a master storyteller, Camus was a philosopher, his work unashamedly serves as a backdrop for his Absurdism: how humanity confronts the conflict the arises when searching for meaning to life when encountering the purposeless, chaotic and irrational universe.

The story of Meursault begins with one of the most famous lines in global literature: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas” orMother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know”, beginning a story of a French-Algerian man of alarming indifference – much like author himself – who cannot find meaning in his work, his food, his girlfriend, and not even his mother. In the days following his mother’s death, Meursault seems afloat in a world that leads him back to his girlfriend, who is in love with the stoic man in spite of himself, as well as to an encounter with new friends, neighbors he observes as if from afar: an old man who laments the loss of a dog he had always treated horribly, and a strapping and predatorial young man prone to street fighting and beating women. The encounter with the latter develops into an unsubstantiated friendship between lonely men and the misfortune of involving Meursault in a murder he commits without really comprehending why. Although the crime was largely in self-defense, his trial becomes convoluted into a persecution of his sheer indifference to the world and his dedication to the truth, from which he refuses to veer in order to successfully, maybe easily, defend himself in a court battle that suspiciously escalates.  Camus refers to Meursault as “a man who… agrees to die for the truth”. Llosa comments that such a character, dedicated to truth and refusing to play the roles expected of him from society – including shedding a tear for his mother – becomes a threat and a target for society.

The darkness of the novella means that it was not necessarily enjoyable, nor was it ever intended to be. Readers of novels will undoubtedly find something flawed, hanging on the text to discover some motivations for Meursault’s strange behavior: Had something happened between him and his mother? Why does he often express a love for the city of Algiers so poetically and yet not for the people around him? The answers won’t be found, and indeed they cannot be, because Camus’s mission to make one contemplate the absurdity of life would be surrendered to storytelling.  The concise prose is lurid, masterfully describing all that Meursault sees and the little he feels, and it will keep you with him until the end of the book – including people like me, who have an acute aversion to stories with courtroom battles.

I confess I was having an inevitable philosophical battle with the book, looking through the lens of an Eastern perspective of non-duality, in which the Universe is under no circumstances an “other”, and it might be called anything except for purposeless, chaotic and irrational. Just as I have often found a certain Western confusion between the concepts of love and passion, the novel led me to further contemplate the lack of comprehension regarding the very Eastern concept of “non-attachment”, and how it differs from “indifference”. They are not the same, as the great Urdu poet Ghalib apparently said in one of his remarkable ghazals, which might have contemplated by another in which he refers to indifference as worse than enmity.

Non-attachment is in fact the greatest form of love; it is the love that asks nothing and accepts oneself and others as an indivisible part of the Universe, without the endless need to possess or to avoid people and objects in search of an elusive satisfaction. Non-attachment is described as part of the very mission of life, according to the Vedic tradition. Indifference, on the other hand, is the absence of “taste” – liking or disliking – objects and the results of action. I couldn’t help but to hope I would find in Meursault a hero of non-attachment; I think I encountered a champion of indifference, unguided and abruptly interrupted on his lonely way to non-attachment. In fact, I might even add “The Loner” to the translation debate of this remarkable work.

L’Etranger was part of many books stranded on my shelf for years, without any real excuse as to why I hadn’t bothered to pick it up — which in itself might be a poignant example of Camus’s Absurdism.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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