Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1770
First published: L’Exil et le royaume, 1957 (English translation, 1958)
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Type of work: Short stories
Locale: North Africa; Paris, France; and Brazil
When Albert Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, there was some surprise that the award had gone to so young an author and one whose ultimate direction was still uncertain; but there were few dissenting voices. The reason is clear. Even though his meanings may not be easily grasped, Camus was obviously an important writer in the European tradition of the man of letters. As novelist, playwright, political and moral pamphleteer, and short-story writer, he had from the beginning of his career addressed himself to a program of literary activity which, according to the citation of the Swedish Academy, “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.” If his preoccupation with the larger concepts of man’s fate—war, guilt, God, love, and death—on occasion clouded with abstract argument the simple fables he chose to enclose them, he nevertheless demonstrated the working of a poised and sincere intelligence in his attempt to reconcile the evidence of history with the idea of life as value. His importance is revealed in the imaginative treatment he gave to the political and the moral decay which underlie the special terror of the twentieth century.
Each age creates its own shapes of fantasy and terror. Roderick Usher gives place to Dorian Gray. The terrors of the Grand Guignol have their sea change in Faulkner’s Jefferson or on the rocky beach at Carmel. The outcasts of Dostoevski echo in the troubled ghosts of Koestler and Silone. The twentieth century has found its agonized image in the psychology of the irrational and its meaning in themes of guilt and expiation. Dostoevski’s Raskolnikov and Mitya, Conrad’s Razumov and Lord Jim, Mann’s Krull, Kafka’s K., and Camus’ Meursault mark the line of its succession. This literature represents an accumulation of suffering in terms of grief, guilt, and loss. Today, however, the whole impact of disaster and doom is no further away than the news broadcast or the headlines of the daily papers. Everyone has a part in the nightmare of history and wonders at what point man was betrayed. Somewhere in the past, in the unconscious reservoir of memory and dream, man should have been prepared for this age of wars, regimented societies, and threats of mass annihilation.
Most contemporary serious writers must commit themselves, in some degree, to this literature of terror. They cannot transcend the world; they can only describe it. Crime, for example, loses much of its moral significance when it becomes political and impersonal; murder may be virtuous and treachery noble. The earlier writer could take his world for granted. The characters of Fyodor Dostoevski and Charles Dickens are everywhere surrounded by a society that rested upon recognizable moral value; readers measure the enormity of their guilt by the intellectual, social, religious, or domestic beliefs of the society from which they stand apart. The modern writer has no such vista. He uses the immediate nightmare to explore the lies, perversions, brutalities, and fears which threaten man’s responsibility through morality or reason; and if he is nimble enough, he may reclaim the human atom from the processes of annihilation and death.
In the nihilistic world of Albert Camus, salvation is neither easy nor consoling, for his people achieve at best a sense of identity and a mere glimpse of fulfillment. As he wrote in THE REBEL (1951), those who cannot accept God or the evidence of history must live for others who, like themselves, are unable to live fully; they must live for the humiliated. This is the theme running through all of his books, though it becomes more explicit in his later work, his brilliant short novel, THE FALL (1956), and the six short stories in EXILE AND THE KINGDOM.
It is clear that, out of the confusion of the time, Camus was able to formulate for himself a strategy of moral advantage—a series of strategies, rather, which began with the view of the absurd, carried him through the philosophy of revolt, and then uncovered the Greek ideal of measure seen behind his later literary position. These shifts in attitude and insight help to explain the fact that the total body of his writing suggests an area of greater significance than he presented in any single work. Furthermore, they account for the complementary nature of his books and the fact that each seems to answer a question previously raised, so that THE PLAGUE (1947) may be read as an answer to THE STRANGER (1942), THE FALL as a response to THE PLAGUE, and all three interpreted as responses to questions raised in THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS (1942) and THE REBEL.
This interrelated aspect of his work gives EXILE AND THE KINGDOM its qualities of relevance and depth. All are, in effect, parables that rely on symbolism and philosophical consideration of the outsider’s plight to convey meanings implied but never clearly stated. One of the most perplexing stories is “The Adulterous Woman.” The middle-aged heroine, Janine, has joined her dull, complacent salesman husband on a business trip to North Africa. Her encounter with the Arabs and the desert awaken her to a realization of the barrenness and waste in her own life, much like this arid land which she thinks of as a strange kingdom where since earliest times men have walked in poverty and sadness but free, serving no one. She feels that this is the kingdom promised her but unattainable. One night she attempts to come into her kingdom—to escape the slow misery of living and dying—by going out on the city wall to experience a brief sense of mystical union, almost sexual in its intensity, with the desert and the night, only to return to her hotel bedroom and weep at the sight of her stupid, sleep-dazed husband, the image of her bondage and exile.
“The Renegade” gains its effectiveness through horror and atrocity. A young missionary priest who mistakes his will to power for a martyr’s zeal has gone to minister to a Bedouin tribe living in a strange city of salt. The savage tribesmen have subjected him to unspeakable cruelties. Half-crazed, his tongue torn out, he has rejected his faith to worship the monstrous fetish of his captors. In this tale, in the form of a monologue, the narrator proclaims that only the reign of evil, of absolute power, is without flaw. When the opportunity comes, he determines to kill another missionary who is being sent to the city. Apparently, for the sequence is never clear, the wild tribesmen seize and torture him again. In his agony, he hears a voice promising forgiveness if he will die for hatred and power. He is unable to tell whether he hears God’s voice or that of the other man unwilling to die at his feet. The symbolism of aridity and torment is again introduced at the end of the story; the mouth of a slave is filled with salt.
In contrast to these clouded tales, “The Guest” is comparatively simple in outline. In a remote schoolhouse on a high Algerian plateau, the teacher, a young man with no sense of exile in this world of mountain and desert, is preparing to stay out a sudden snowstorm. Two travelers take refuge in the schoolhouse, a gendarme and his prisoner, an Arab murderer. Because the gendarme has other duties, the authorities have requested that the schoolteacher conduct the prisoner to the nearest village. The teacher, caught between his disgust with the crime committed and his aversion to turning a man over to the law, sets out with the prisoner, but at a place where the roads branch he turns the Arab loose to decide between the path to prison or the path to freedom. To his surprise, the Arab takes the road to prison. On his return to the schoolhouse, the teacher finds a threatening message from the murderer’s kin scrawled on his blackboard. Another story of restrained effect, though less successful, is “The Silent Men,” which tells of a coopers’ strike that has failed. Returning to the factory, the workmen preserve passive silence when their employer tries to gain their goodwill. The men understand their employer’s dilemma and intentions but are unable to speak the word that will restore a universe of sympathy and understanding.
“The Artist at Work,” the only story of French background, is a pointed satire of the artist’s dilemma in modern society. For years, Gilbert Jonas, a holy innocent of the creative spirit, has followed his “star” in his painting. When he is finally discovered and becomes a great success, he pays the price in loss of privacy and increasing demands on his time. Unable to work, he begins to drink, neglects his family, and realizes that he has lost his star. At last, he retreats to an attic cubbyhole, which he never leaves. He is supposed to be painting his masterpiece. When he finally collapses from exhaustion, a friend climbs up to his roost and finds only an empty canvas containing a single word, almost indecipherable, which is either “solitary” or “solidary.”
The theme of isolation and solidarity is repeated in “The Growing Stone.” The central figure is D’Arrast, a French engineer who has gone to Brazil to build a bridge. In a native village he encounters a former ship’s cook who, after a narrow escape from death at sea, has vowed to march in a religious procession with a hundred-pound stone on his head. The native, however, wears himself out dancing the macumba on the night before the ceremony and collapses under the weight of his burden. D’Arrast picks up the stone and carries it for his friend, not to the church, however, but to the native’s hovel. There he throws the stone into the fire as a gesture of solidarity with the outcast and the poor.
These stories show Camus dominated by the spectacle of man’s suffering, humiliation, and sense of solitude; they are legends of the exile’s attempt to enter the kingdom which history has denied him. Camus was never glib, never irresponsible. The intelligence of the man and the integrity of the artist gave his work its air of the portentous as well as its compulsive utterance of truth. He has been called a framer of questions, but his questions are those that need to be asked if one is to understand the answers already apparent in life.