Title: Exile and the Kingdom
Author: Albert Camus
Published: 1974, Penguin
This book is amongst the best short story collections I’ve ever read. I read it over a couple of evenings a month or so back and I will probably try to re-read this before the year is out. Throughout its pages I experienced panic, anxiety, sadness, desperation, claustrophobia and isolation. The style and the subject matter of the text struck me as soon as I started to read, and it has stayed with me – much like The Outsider did when I first read it fifteen years ago.
The stories, mostly set in Algeria, all exist in a purgatorial “exile”: the characters often find themselves in the middle-ground between French and Arabian culture (though some of the stories expand this concept of exile or division to a more general opposition of concepts – science/religion, faith/fanaticism, isolation/community). We read about the lives and trials of the primary characters who are caught between two opposing ideals or situations, and their consequent ordeals in enduring (or overcoming?) them. The “Kingdom” then could concievably be the collection of protagonists which drive the six stories in this collection. The characters in these six, unconnected stories, range from a redemptive engineer in Brazil, to a crazed renegade solider/missionary prowling the desert, to the eponymous, adulterous woman of the first story.
Yet throughout these stories you can often find hope, or at least the promise of hope, even in the mire of alienation or loneliness. As we read of each character’s struggle with their surroundings, both familiar and foreign, we see Camus begin to introduce suggestions of liberation, of deliverance, even of salvation. Despite the sense of suffocation and exclusion that permeates each of these stories, you will start to sense the protagonists are receiving an offering of transcendence from their exile.
Camus’ tendency towards clear, unhurried prose can be seen here as an oddly insidious way of introducing you to these characters’ personal trials or torments, save for a sudden change in style for the second story, The Renegade, where Camus adopts a more erratic and nonchronological technique to mirror the protagonist’s mindset. This gave me a sense of unease when reading the rest of the book – unsure whether my enjoyment of Camus’ writing would suddenly cease, or increase, due to dramatic tonal shifts, or due to the calm, clear way that a character’s alienation would be unfolded and presented before the reader.
Story summaries and observations
The Adulterous Woman
A woman begins to consider her marriage whilst on a business trip with her husband to a small arab village. The story presents the increasingly-differing values of the husband and wife, and the reader experiences the wife’s paranoia, sadness and ultimate liberation. I found Camus’ conclusion to this story to be very beautiful, as the author embraces the romanticism and mystery of alienation and nature, whilst steering clear of triteness and cliche.
A soldier clutching a rifle squats beneath the sun in an arabian desert, as he recounts the story of how he came to be there. The soldier details his faith and fanaticism, his crazed spiritual devotion, and finally, his supposed religious purpose on earth. I found this story to be the most effective and affective to me personally, due mostly to Camus’ unsettling style, presentation and subject matter. The author’s descriptions of the horrific situations the solder finds himself in whilst working as a missionary are particularly jarring and horrific.
The Silent Men
A once-close community of workers and their employer becomes fractured after a failed worker’s strike. This story deals mostly with the mundanity of working life, and the sadness of losing the precious moments of day-to-day work – namely the division between worker and employer after an amicable refusal of union demands. This story, for me, was filled with sadness – sadness of the loss of friendship, of the loss of youth through constant work, and of the loss of life through means that lie beyond friendship and loyalty.
A solitary schoolmaster is presented with an Arab prisoner who is to be delivered to the police station. The schoolmaster must make the decision to deliver the criminal to the police or to free him. This story is an exploration of the French-Algerian war of the 1950s and 1960s, and an examination of whether one person can remain truly neutral in the face of conflict. I’m regrettably ignorant of the French-Algerian war so I suspect much of this story was lost on me. However, I did feel as though there were hints of a supernatural or gothic element within it, especially regarding the protagonist’s (absent) pupils, the vast expanses outside the schoolrooms and the cavernous, supposedly-empty schoolhouse itself.
Jonas, or the Artist at Work
An artist with an affluent background finds himself in fortuituous circimstances as he begins to embrace the life of a painter. As he becomes increasingly famous, he finds himself surrounded by acquaintances, hangers-on, critics and aspiring artists, who all eventually begin to obscure his family and close friends. Of all the stories in this collection I found this one to be closest in tone to The Outsider, my only other point of reference for Camus, given that the artist is presented as an indifferent person who attributes his good fortune to an idea outside his scope of influence. The artist’s indifference is present throughout the story, even up to inappropriate and harmful behaviour near the conclusion. I found the climax of the tale to be slightly unsettling, despite it’s supposed positive(?) suggestions. The story is an exploration of the idea of familial closeness falling prey to the sometimes predatory wider community.
The Growing Stone
An engineer visits a Brazilian town to consult on the construction of a sea-wall for the villagers. He meets the dignitaries of the town, including a drunk police chief, as well as encountering the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the town’s slums, along with their belief systems and the mysterious, titular holy stone. I found this story to be the least effective in this collection, but it’s hard to explain why. Perhaps because I enjoyed the other stories so much. There are various themes interwoven in this tale, primarily the observation of two, possibly-opposing belief systems, and the rituals and ceremonies that come along with them, as well as the idea of the importance of charity, possibly at one’s own mental and physical expense.