Albert Camus leyendo el periódico.

It was the year 1940 when a young Albert Camus sketched out the first ideas for his first novel, hitherto tentatively titled a happy death and with a protagonist named Meursault. At that time, he was based in Oran, a city located in the northwest of Algeria and close to the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Unknowingly, he was about to embark on an excursion that would define the course of a literary classic, which is preserved as such to this day.

It all started on a quiet Sunday morning. Camus went for a walk on Baousseville beach with a few friends, including Pierre Galindo and Raoul Bensoussan. The course of the day indicated that it would be an ordinary day: while some were playing football – one of the writer’s favorite sports –, others were content to simply contemplate the landscape.

Albert Camus

However, the peace was disturbed when Raoul Bensoussan reached out in shock to ask for his brother’s support. He had quarreled with Arabs and wanted to settle accounts. When they found them, the Bensoussans engaged in a fist-and-fist fight. The climax of the confrontation came when one of the rivals pulled out a knife with which Raoul was injured in the arm and the corner of his mouth.

Things could have ended there, but the victim had no intention of sitting idly by. That same afternoon, Bensoussan and Galindo returned to the scene to take revenge. And this time they were armed with a gun. Fortunately, the young Arab did not react to the provocation and preferred to flee, thus avoiding a much bloodier outcome.

This violent Sunday setback deeply marked Camus and was decisive for his novel, published 80 years ago, in 1942. Thus, a happy death turned into the strangerand the turning point in the story of Meursault refers to said beach battle which the author had watched some time ago. The difference is that the protagonist of his story pulled the trigger.

Overtime, the stranger it only reaffirmed its position as one of the most important literary works of the 20th century. For its part, the murder scene has been recorded as one of the most famous in contemporary literature, breaking the barriers of academy to anchor itself in pop culture through film, plays and even a British hit The Cure.

“I can turn around and walk away/ Or I can shoot the gun/ Stare at the sky/ Stare at the sun/ Anything I choose/ Means the same thing/ Absolutely nothing.” This is how one of the stanzas of Kill an Arab, the single with which The Cure debuted in December 1978, amid the period of strikes and widespread discontent known in the UK as the “Winter of Discontent”and which had a particular impact on British youth.

The song was included in the band’s debut album, where there are also big hits like Boys don’t cry which gives its name to the album. But kill an arab It was a particularly controversial case. His explicit lyrics were misinterpreted by various anti-Semitic groups as incitement to attack Arabs, while on the other hand, the Arab community lashed out at singer Robert Smith.

Indeed, not everyone realized that what was expressed in the song was a literary reference to the stranger, precisely when Meursault fired five shots at the Arab who had wounded a friend of his earlier, thus destroying “the balance of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where he had been happy”.

Smith himself clarified in 1991 that the lyrics “were a brief poetic attempt to condense my impression of key moments from the 1942 novel. The Stranger (the stranger) by Albert Camus”. Even so, the edition marketed in the United States of standing on a beach, compilation album of singles released by the band through 1986, should have included a sticker warning listeners of the misuse some bands were making of the song, while also stating that the band was against any racist expression.

Cover of Starring at the sea, singles album by The Cure.  In the lower right corner, the stamp where the group clarified its position on the extremist interpretations of Killing an Arab.
Cover of Starring at the sea, singles album by The Cure. In the lower right corner, the stamp where the group clarified its position on the extremist interpretations of Killing an Arab.

Over time, the band chose to change parts of the lyrics in their live performances: their chorus could vary in adaptations such as “kill another” –killing another- and even “kissing an Arab” –kiss an arab.

The Cure’s tribute isn’t the only one that drew inspiration from the novel. Another great example dates back to 1967, seven years after Camus’ untimely death in a car accident, when Italian director Luchino Visconti brought the story to the big screen, in a film where Marcello Mastroianni played the apathetic Meursault. This, not to mention the adaptations to the theater and even a version adapted to the comic strip illustrated by Jacques Ferrández.

Articulated in fairly short, direct sentences and with a character detached from everything that is happening around him, the stranger it is considered by many to be the cornerstone of the thought developed by Camus in his later works, rooted in the philosophy of the absurd and existentialism, although he never felt he belonged to the latter current. And although his philosophical position has been developed much more explicitly in texts like rebellious man, it also permeates his first novel transversally.

Patricio Arriagada, Doctor of History and Academic of the Pontifical Catholic University, recalls that, “as Camus himself affirmed in August 1942, ‘the foreigner describes the nudity of man in the face of the absurd’. The most important thing is that this nakedness of man in the face of what cannot be understood or assimilated is a characteristic that Camus identifies in reality: the world is absurd. That is to say, it is not just a subjective appreciation of a character, an author or a group, but its appeal calls for recognizing that the link with the absurd makes part of human existence as a relation to reality itself”.

In this sense, Arriagada explains that both in the stranger as in Plague –another of the fictions written by Camus– we can appreciate an important element of his intellectual heritage: “Recognition of the absurdity of the world would force us to abandon the search for answers that go beyond our historicity to focus on the urgencies of the Present” .

Roberto Ángel, Doctor of Literature and Literary Criticism, also indicates that part of the historical relevance of the book has a lot to do with the philosophical content slipped by its author. “Camus repeats, through this novel, the terrible question of whether life is worth living.. We have all asked ourselves the question at some point, consciously or unconsciously, and through reading we recreate this type of archetypes that hallucinate us when we dream”, he explains.

However, the writer, poet and literary critic for La Tercera, Matías Rivasis closer to the idea of ​​removing Camus and the stranger of the absurd label, arguing that the condition of the protagonist can also be apprehended outside certain philosophical currents: “When you read certain books by Camus, I find it much more realistic than absurd. There are many people who kill for very small reasons. It’s not that it’s something magical or a metaphor, I think it happens in reality. And it happens all the time.”

“To live with this feeling of contempt for humanity, of boredom, is something that exists, it is not written to teach a lesson, but rather it is something that you see in person. Perhaps the case of this character (Meursault) who kills is a little exaggerated, but it is sometimes seen, for example, in a gang of individuals beating up a beggar in the street. And we say ‘why’. It happens every day,” he adds.

Rivas and Ángel agree that one of the most remarkable elements of the stranger relapse into the singular personality of its protagonist. “It’s a book that poses a problem from a psychological point of view, and which is very interesting, how much (Meursault) is a psychopath; more than an absurd or philosophical subject, a patient. You are left with this ambiguity and, in a way, it can be given many interpretations”, argues the critic of The third.

“Furthermore, it’s very well written, with short sentences, it’s fast, the events that occur are few but there is a constant tension. This is the great grace of the book, the narrative capacity that Camus has to keep us tense with a subject, let’s put it like that, unattractive. How to seduce us with life and with the existence of someone who is sick, deranged, closer to the side of evil or devastated by his emotions rather than by what he is able to rationally justify” , concludes Rivas .

For his part, Ángel maintains that, according to him, the most attractive thing “lies in the indolence of the protagonist in the face of the situations he lives. He is a nihilistic character, who believes in nothing, and for whom existence does not have much meaning. He’s an anti-hero, who has no goals or desires”.

Regarding history in general, Arriagada points out that it is “one of the important works of Western literature of the twentieth century and, personally, I believe this is due to a force that emanates from both the author and the text itself and that the two cannot be separated. On the one hand, Camus, from a precarious social and cultural background, who was able to impose his own mark on the traditional figure of the committed French intellectual (by balancing the ethical and political dimensions), and whose literature has always been the product of an agonistic and honest with your time.

The historian adds that the stranger is the most representative work of the first stage of Camus, “the one that can be located in time during the decade of the forties and which was characterized by a very good reading of the feeling of boredom and cultural disaffection of an entire generation vis-à-vis its environment and to embody an ethical and political intellectual commitment closely aligned with the values ​​of the time.

Regarding the cultural legacy that makes this novel remain contingent to this day, Ángel states that “the greatest legacy of this book and of Camus’s work, I think, refers to the deepening of the philosophy absurd and existentialism. Through his texts, Camus tells us, finally, that life has a meaning. Who? The one with the trip. That is why it is fitting that Sisyphus carries the stone to the top of the mountain again and again. In other words, gives us hope”.

“All of this, without a doubt, is still valid today. Our world, for some time, has been moving at an exorbitant speed. The vast majority of us have to get up early, run to fulfill our responsibilities, be connected to social media, among other obligations unique to our times. Sometimes, because of all this maelstrom, we lose our north, the meaning of our actions. Reviewing these universal works gives us the opportunity to return to Earth“, he concludes.

While Rivas does not hesitate to point out that It is Camus’ best-executed work. “If I had to choose one of all his books, I would stay by far with the strangerbecause it has this ambiguity, because of its storytelling ability, and because it always maintains the tension. It is still alive from the point of view of the emotions it generates as a text”.

The Stranger, by Albert Camus.  Edition Editorial Alliance.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus. Edition Editorial Alliance.

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