A Postcolonial Reading of Albert Camus

Camus_84x84 Michael Azar in Eurozine:

One of the issues the author examines in his essay on Sisyphus – “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal is all that interests me,” – gets its acid test in The Stranger, a literary portrayal of the obsessions of the French-Algerian Meursault. We accompany him from the days surrounding his mother's death to the day before his execution. It is Meursault himself who tells the story, oscillating between insightful indifference and moments of sensual pleasure. He knows that life itself offers no compelling reason for either the one or the other; only chance, sensuality and spontaneous impulse are able to guide a life led without any higher meaning. A man can cry or not cry at his mother's funeral, shoot or not shoot an Arab on the beach, marry or not marry a woman who declares her love for him. When all is said and done, everything is equal and people are essentially innocent when dealing with the absurd vicissitudes of life. “As if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent,” says Meursault. In Camus' preface to the US edition, the young Franco-Algerian is described as a martyr for the absurd. He is a man who refuses to cheat. Neither Church, State nor morality can persuade him to give up the truths of the heart. He is at once a Raskolnikov and a Josef K, but with the important difference that he never seeks to do penance. Meursault feel no remorse, nor does he try to convince anyone that he does. He does not speak unless he has something to say. Those who keep their thoughts to themselves are not swayed by public opinion.

Ultimately, it is Meursault's indifference that leads to his downfall. According to the prosecutor, he “[buried] his mother with a crime in his heart”, and anyone who has killed his mother – morally speaking – is cut off from human society in the same way as someone who strikes his own father down with a killer's hand. If such a callous soul goes free, then an abyss opens up that can swallow society whole. The fate of Meursault depicts the anatomy of existential alienation through the image of a lucid, absurd man who is sentenced to the guillotine “in the name of the French people” in order to protect the national community against the most dangerous crime of all: patricide.

So much, then, for the narrative's purely existential and universal human themes. But in the margins, a different story is playing out. It makes itself heard in a number of disturbing questions: Why does Meursault fire four more shots at an already lifeless body (“flooded with joy”, as Camus puts it in an earlier draft of the novel)? Why are there no Arabs present at the trial? Why are so many of them in jail and why are they all nameless? And why is a Frenchman – who has just killed an Arab in Algeria – sentenced to death by the French colonial authorities for not weeping at his mother's funeral? What kind of social order has Meursault struck out against?