Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Stranger

Who better than Albert Camus has written of the instinctive stranger, l'étranger, who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral (because he doesn't feel much like crying), who takes up with an old girlfriend the very next day, who notices the black band of mourning still on his coat sleeve, who is noncommittal when she asks him, after they make love, if he loves her, or who tells a judge that that he shot an Arab on a beach "because of the sun"? Meursault, the protagonist of L'Étranger, is a man who refuses to lie.

Camus knew the bitterness of exile during the war years (1940-44) that he was forced to spend in France, far from his beloved Algeria. He wrote at length of what it was like for him in Nazi-occupied Paris, of the loss of liberty, of the suspicion, the intolerable checking of one's papers by police, of the rumors and lies, of the incremental little victories and sudden catastrophic defeats, of the Resistance. It was a darkness that lasted too long, and its lessons were bitter and unedifying.

In his 1947 novel, The Plague, Camus wrote about people trapped in the quarantined city of Oran during an outbreak of the plague. But the novel was also an allegory for living under the Nazis. At the onset of the quarantine, Camus described the perambulation of the people trapped in the city, the interminable walking around its outskirts, silent and alone.

"In the general exile they [the travelers] were the most exiled... These were the people whom one often saw wandering forlornly in the dusty town at all hours of the day, silently invoking nightfalls known to them alone and the daysprings of their happier land. And they fed their despondency with fleeting intimations, messages as disconcerting as a flight of swallows, a dew-fall at sundown, or those queer glints the sun sometimes dapples on empty streets. As for that outside world, which can always offer an escape from everything, they shut their eyes to it, bent as they were on cherishing the all-too-real phantoms of their imagination and conjuring up with all their might pictures of a land where a special play of light, two or three hills, a favorite tree, a woman's smile, composed for them a world that nothing could replace." (1)

I have written so much about exile only because my own has lasted too long. It is especially here, in the provinces of a backward Asian country, that a foreigner feels his foreignness most acutely. He cannot walk down the street without being gawked at, attracting looks of surprise, pleasure or hostility. Philip Larkin, home from his life in Belfast, missed being the stranger:

The Importance of Elsewhere

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch.

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

13 June 1955

Perhaps that is the fate of the preternatural stranger, always wanting to be elsewhere. But what eventually overcomes the traveler is the desire to be a stranger no longer, to cease being gawked at by children, to hearing whispers when he walks by, to always standing out in a crowd, to being an obligatory fifth wheel or thirteenth man at table. After so many years abroad, what he longs for most is to be invisible again, to disappear in a crowd, to be a nobody. Even if in his heart he knows he doesn't belong anywhere.

(1) Albert Camus, The Plague, Stuart Gilbert translation. (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).
(2) Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (London: Faber and Faber, 1964).

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