Monday, May 24, 2010
The Outsider - Albert Camus
Nobel Prize for literature. 118 pages. A really small book and easy read.
It’s a book that I read twice. Because, the first time I read it, I did not find anything remarkable about it. Puzzled? Don’t be.
By now I am used to it; picking up an award winning book expecting to be blown away, searching for that X factor until the last page and finally putting the book down with a question mark in my mind, on my face and around me for some time-Do I know how to read a book? Am I missing something that the rest of the world appreciated?
Gradually I have come to terms with the peculiar plainness of such books. Now I know what to look for and where to look – which layer and how deep, in order to find the point of the book.
In a world where there is a preponderance of sensation, thrill, the out-of-ordinary, the spectacular and the mind blowing, He who presents the bare simple truths of life gets a standing ovation.
The Outsider is the story (rather, no story) of a character, Meursault.
The story begins with Mr. Meursault preparing to attend his mother’s funeral. He visits the old age home where her body lay in a coffin and watches over it all night. He refuses to see her body, does not cry, attends her funeral mechanically, returns home and rests.
The next day, he meets his girlfriend in a swimming pool and has sex with her. He gets back to work, cooks, eats at a restaurant, meets his neighbor and his dog, and the rest of the routine...
Without much thinking, by the way, he agrees to write a nasty letter to his neighbour’s girlfriend when requested to do so by the neighbor, Raymond.
When Raymond was arrested by the police for beating his girlfriend, Meursault agrees to act as Raymond’s witness in the court, again, without much thinking and by the way.
One weekend while visiting a friend’s cottage on the beach, Raymond and Meursault are followed by a group of Arabs, one of whom was Raymond’s girlfriend’s brother. Raymond is hurt in the brawl that followed and they all return to the cottage. Meursault, by the way, returns to the beach for a walk, where he finds the Arabs resting. The heat of the sun makes him impatient. When the Arab flashes a knife at him, he fires 5 shots at the Arab and kills him, by the way. He is arrested. When asked whether he regretted what he had done, Meursault says he is more annoyed.
The prosecutor proves that Meursault is a monster by pointing out that he did not cry at his mother’s funeral.
Meursault is given capital punishment.
That’s the story. And that’s no story.
And when I sat down to write a book review, I didn’t have much to say.
Having a foreknowledge of the Nobel Prize that this book won, I read it a second time determined to discover what lay beneath the banality. And I must say I found something (you always find what you are looking for)
There is really nothing to say about language, style, story or any of those parameters on which I have in the past evaluated books - meaningful insights, plot, historical facts, ability to make impact…, beauty, sweetness, nothing…
The only thing about the book is the character.
The character the author has created is a non-descript, dispassionate, unemotional, ordinary fellow who is in no way remarkable, intriguing or impressive and does not have much to say or do. He is one of those that you will forget the day after meeting.
In fact, he is someone you would be inclined to dislike. For various reasons; but all of them having one thing in common. He is different.
For instance when his mother dies, he does not feel great sorrow. Hence he does not display any sorrow.
Contrary to people’s thinking and expectation that he should be mournful, he goes about his routine as before – his office, his girlfriend, his cooking, his food, his neighbour, neighbour’s dog – without being embarrassed about it.
He is wooden. In general, he goes about everything unmoved, untouched and quite detached.
His truths are not interesting but he has no lies either.
“I probably loved mother quite a lot, but that didn’t mean anything. To a certain extent, all normal people sometimes wished their loved ones were dead.”
“He (Lawyer) asked me whether I regretted what I had done. I thought it over and said that rather than true regret I felt a kind of annoyance.”
When his girlfriend Mary asks him to marry her he agrees, but when she asks him if he loves her, he says ‘probably not’.
When arrested by the police, he refuses to engage a lawyer, beg for mercy or feign repentance. He simply admits his crime and when questioned by lawyers, gives honest replies.
When he says something, he means what he says. He does not pretend to be someone else, gives no thought to political correctness and lives by his instincts.
He expresses what he feels - and he feels nothing in particular - neither too much joy, nor too much pain, neither too much passion, nor too much hatred, neither anger nor disgust, nor love.
And he does not pretend for the sake of society or political correctness. He is someone who lives in the mid frequencies neither riding the crest nor sinking into the trough.
He is somewhat like an animal. Sincere, impulsive and primitive.
AND YET, HE IS NOT GUILTY. JUST DIFFERENT. And that, is the point of this book.
In the beginning, you, the reader, see Meursault as an ‘Outsider’.
You feel both angry and pity for the protagonist because of the apparent futility of his existence. He goes through his life without dwelling upon his surroundings without being aware of his feelings for other people, noticing nothing and just going on. It is only after his arrest and during his trial that, for the first time, he recollects his happiness, the summer evening, the chirping of birds, cries of newspaper sellers, shouts of sandwich sellers, moaning of trams, murmuring of the sky before darkness, etc… Alas, too late…
You feel annoyance, pity and disgust for our man who only feels the morning heat and dizziness when the prosecutor is calling him a monster and asking the court to give him capital punishment.
You feel some more anger and pity for him who makes no attempt to defend himself whatsoever…
“He wanted to know whether I was quite sure about that and I said I had no reason for asking myself that question; it didn’t seem to matter.”…until his capital punishment is announced and then starts thinking, imagining, wishing, waiting, worrying…
But in the end, you feel sympathy for him. Not because you think he is innocent - you know he is accused of a criminal offence, and you still sympathize with him. And that again, is the point of this book.
Narration & The Point
One can be outrageously, blatantly, unconventional and yet as innocent as anyone else. But unfortunately, perceptions about who we are matter more than who we actually are.
This is the story of a person who is judged to be guilty not because of the wrong that he committed but because he was unconventional - he did not cry at his mother’s funeral. In the court, the prosecutor talks less about the actual crime and extensively about Meursault’s cold behaviour at his mother’s funeral to send him to the guillotine.
All Meursault did was refuse to pretend. How many men really feel pained, hurt at their mother’s death? Surely not everyone does. There are many of them who don’t. But all of them pretend that they do. And if one man refuses to feign hurt, to pretend, he is not forgiven. He is judged and condemned for not pretending.
The story is narrated by the character, protagonist himself. As a result, there is no explicit attempt at character sketching. The character unfolds, by the way.
That author has portrayed a character that is very unconventional, apparently hard hearted and offers no explanation for the way he is.
The author neither justifies the oddness of Meursault nor criticizes/condemns it. The author narrates the incidents in the character’s life matter-of-factly, perhaps implying that people who are different need not explain or justify themselves and it is not up to others to judge them. Everyone has a right to BE who they want to BE.
The author drops a hint now and then that Meursault has a heart, and deep down, a soft spot.
For instance, the author shows Meursault to be thinking of his mother, recollecting things she used to say…
“It was an idea of mother’s and she often used to repeat it that you ended up getting used to everything.”
“Mother often used to say that you’re never altogether unhappy.” But the author does not fully reveal that spot or that softer aspect of Meursault to the reader. All the same, he gives no explanation either for his coldness, even as the reader searches for one and hopes to find in the end.
The fact that the author has given no explanation whatsoever – even as the reader searches for one – for the character’s hard –heartedness - such as a deep rooted psychological wound, an incident of childhood that hardened him, etc. – is significant.
By this, the author is perhaps trying to say that no explanation should be expected and that even without such an explanation one should be able to refrain from judging the man guilty for his unconventionality and simply allow him to be unconventional, accept him and respect him that way.
“In what way, does Meursault not play the game? The answer is simple: he refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn’t true. It is also in fact especially, saying more than is true, and in the case of human heart, saying more than one feels”.
With some exaggeration, Meursault is a character that all of us must strive to become and yet reject and banish outright. That, is the point of the book.
The book shows to what extent we are buried behind masks and pretenses; such an extent that we forget that there is a true self behind that mask, that image and with time, become those images.
It’s like this. When you utter a lie a thousand times it becomes the truth.
Likewise when you project an image of yourself to the outer world for a long time, you start believing that you are that image. The line between your image and your true self becomes blurred and finally disappears.
There are many among us who would not feel grief when their mother died. But all of us believe that we feel grief, because our minds have become conditioned by the society and its norms to believe that it’s natural for all to feel grief when their mother dies.
So even if we don’t feel grief deep down, we believe that we feel grief and we cry.
Also, when we find in our midst someone who is unmasked and unpretentious, somebody who is himself, we don’t let him alone. We seize him, tell him to become one among us or perish.
Apart from that, the story makes you see the narrowness and shallowness of the system of justice – the ludicrousness of modern law, the hilarious absurdity of law practitioners, and the poignantly amazing position of the accused; two practitioners of law engage in a battle of words, perhaps use the opportunity to show their prowess, deliver a lot of rhetorical speeches, a third person passes judgment and the one whom it all concerns does not even have a say. The extent of guilt of a person in the dock depends heavily on the capacity of the lawyers to argue.
Justice is justice merely in letter and not in spirit.
There was still the same dazzling red glare. The little waves were lapping restlessly at the sand as the stifled sea gasped for breath.
I fired four more times at a lifeless body and the bullets sank in without leaving a mark. And it was like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.
The prosecutor retorted that chance already had a number of misdemeanours on its conscience in this affair.