A man receives a telegram. From it, he learns his mother has died. The telegram requests that he travel to a nursing home 50 miles away to attend to the details of her burial. Reluctantly, spitefully, he makes the trip, then returns home as quickly as he can to spend time with his girlfriend, for whom he has no feeling.
Thus opens Albert Camus’ debut novel, The Stranger (1942), a book that exemplifies that old saw about idle hands and the devil’s work. Meursault, a young French Algerian, lives, works and loves without passion or sensation. He does not care about anything, but he is curious enough about that lack of caring to kill another young man, an Arab, as an intellectual exercise: Can he kill a stranger without anger?
Meursault is arrested for the crime, and during the novel’s long courtroom sequence, he hardly bothers to defend himself. He explains to the jurors that what he feels in the place of regret is mere annoyance at the inconvenience of having to stand before them. He is condemned to die, not for killing an Arab in colonial Algeria, but to honor Camus’ thesis, as he wrote in his 1955 preface to the novel, that “in our society, any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.”
The Stranger was first published in an underground edition during the Nazi occupation of France, while Camus edited the Resistance newspaper Combat, while millions of Meursaults killed without anger or remorse. It profoundly shocked its earliest readers—Jean-Paul Sartre, for one, who admired the novel but called it “unjustified and unjustifiable.” For many French readers, then and now, Meursault lay bare their country’s notorious accommodation to fascism and anti-Semitism and, several years later, its ugly role in the Algerian civil war of 1954–61, during which some half a million Arabs were killed.
Camus, whose centenary is today, made enemies over his book and his other philosophically charged novels, such as The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1956). Right-wing French politicians scourged him as a traitor, priests as an atheist, and communists as a subtle but deeply effective critic of totalitarianism. (Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, was one of the writers who denounced him.) When Camus died in an auto accident on a frigid January day in 1960, just two years after being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and just 46 years old, some suggested that it was no accident at all. Czech writer Jan Zábrana claimed that he had heard that the KGB had arranged for Camus’ death in revenge for his criticism of the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: “They damaged a tire on the car using a sophisticated piece of equipment that cut or made a hole in the wheel at speed.”
“I had tried to draw in my character the only Christ we deserve,” Camus reflected in his 1955 preface. We are still owed nothing better, and for that reason, Camus’ pessimistic novel endures as a portrait of the evil that surrounds us and that altogether too many of us simply try to ignore.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.