Camus Revisited, How The Stranger Speaks To Our Troubled Era

Albert Camus's iconic novel is a relevant today as it was when it first hit bookstores, in 1942.

The Stranger is the second most-read French book in the world
The Stranger is the second most-read French book in the world
Mathieu Laine


PARIS — Popularity isn't the only indicator of a book's power. There's also the question of how well the work stands the test of time—its universal plasticity—and its ability not only to put readers in touch with human truths but to inspire them to interpret their own reality via personal experiences the author knew nothing about.

The Stranger, first published in 1942, is still the second most-read French book in the world after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. That's because it's one of those rare works that are human and supple enough to be appropriated by anyone who reads it. For us here in France, rereading Albert Camus's pivotal work in light of the growing appeal, in the West, of populist thinking, offers some useful and unexpected insights.

The Brexit shook up the British elite severely. Trump took an arrogant U.S. ruling class by surprise. Italian voters punished the parties of the center-right and center-left. Germany saw the resurgence of a far-right party — the AFD — while Austria, Hungary, and Poland agreed to illiberal demands (the Poles have seen the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression recede). France looks like an exception, for now at least. But if nothing is done to stop the spread, it too could catch the populist fever in the next presidential election, four years and a few months from now.

So what does Camus have to tell us about all this? That we shouldn't be so pedantic; that we shouldn't summarily judge — from so high — those who appear to think so differently from us; that we mustn't fall into the trap of thinking others deserve nothing but contempt, rejection, or the electoral or social guillotine.

Ignoring conventions

Meursault, the well-known hero of Camus's remarkable work of humanity, was initially perceived as a prince of the "absurd sensibility," that of the Myth of Sisyphus. His disinterest regarding the death of his mother ("Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know") and the crime he committed (he blames the sun) is disarming. And it's for that reason — because of his disconcerting behavior, his obvious strangeness — that the court condemns him to death. The crime itself, the fact that he killed "the Arab," is secondary.

In this hellish spiral, there are neither winners nor good guys.

This denunciation of the social mechanics, this deviation of meaning, this exaggerated and atrociously arbitrary gratuitousness is Kafkaesque. This character, the colonial over-interpretation of which still hasn't been digested in Algeria — as writer Kamel Daoud poetically and powerfully analyzed in The Meursault Investigation — has also appeared as a champion of truth, of true-talking, of authentic sincerity, ignoring conventions, refusing hypocrisy.

Meursault is unable to lie, to hide his most puzzling thoughts, to hide behind a socially protective appearance. He's a Randian hero in that sense — like Howard Roark — an architect who is both visionary and totally unsuited to the needs of the community in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead. Except it's even more complex than that because Meursault is not an inventor. His life is unremarkable. And behind the valorizing figure of ontological truth, the multiplication of Meursault acting solely by instinct, killing because of a ray of sunshine and marrying because he was asked, would plunge us into the night of a world without rules, a world where the superego is banished.

This is where The Stranger ties into the helter-skelter toward which social democracy — and perhaps even Western democracy itself — are now being pushed. There's the faint confrontation between an increasingly important part of the population that is enraged with disappointment, won over by the aggregation of fears (of migrants, of loss of identity, of downgrading, of unemployment), and eaten away by envy (refusal of inequalities), and an elite that is largely blind to these calls and keeps burying its head in the sand by demonizing all extremes while refusing to fully address the underlying anxieties. All of that is part of the book's dialectic.

French-Algerian author Albert Camus — Photo: UPI/Library of Congress

Our contemporary Meursault is the non-voter who is comfortable with the fact that he doesn't care about our common future. But he's also the populist party voter. In the voting booth, the latter hesitates less and less to own up to his choice and vote for a form of disintegration of democracy. The examining magistrate, the prosecutor, and even the priest — whose inflexibility and inhumanity is based on the class certainty of acting for the common good — are all representative of the current elite on the road to ruin, as they continue to use more or less the same recipes and to provide too few satisfactory answers to the silent cries of the dizzying growth of radical votes.

As in Camus's novel, this tragic circumstance eludes any form of Manichaeism. In this hellish spiral, there are neither winners nor good guys. Everyone loses, both the Meursaults and the institutions. The Meursaults of this world head toward a suicidal negation of democracy, as argued by the young Harvard professor Yascha Mounk in his very lucid essay The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Institutions are failing because of their technocratic atavism and refusal to make meaningful reforms to both the more and less fortunate. They have demonstrated their inability to effectively respond to the human difficulties they are supposed to address,

This is what is at stake for French President Emmanuel Macron, who's been in office for almost a year. In my opinion, he should soon initiate new and more protective reforms, particularly on the toxic issue of migrants. This would profoundly transform us and break the populist wave, with a power unequaled in the Western world. Either that, or we can wait for the wave to crash down on us.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!