Many years later, my mother told me that I had changed as a person at the age of 17, the day I finished reading Albert Camus’ The Outsider. She may have been biased. After all, the novel begins with these lines: ‘My mother died yesterday. Or it may have been the day before. The telegram came today.’
As a young man, I read almost everything I could find written by Camus available in English translation. Over the years, his grave, quiet voice, his ‘limpid language’ (words that the back cover blurbs of the Penguin books used to carry), his imagination and, above all, his seemingly cynical but actually liberating philosophy have kept me going. Yes, I suppose my mother is right.
The Outsider is an intimate study of alienation, about a man who kills someone he doesn’t even know because there was something in the harsh sunlight pouring down on an Algerian beach. It may be his most famous book, but it’s not my favourite Camus novel. Among his novels, I find The Plague the most stunning, in terms of the questions it asks. A remote Algerian town is struck by the plague, and is quarantined off from the rest of the world. While the story is gripping, the subtext is about the irrationality of life, how, as human beings, we have no control over our destinies. Dr Rieux, the principal character, battles the plague tirelessly, but he has no cure for the disease. Therefore, if his patients are all at the whim and mercy of—for the absence of a better word—God, what is Dr Rieux’s role? What power does he have? What is he fighting for? Why at all is he fighting? Dr Rieux’s liberation comes from his decision to continue to try to heal, even though he has no chance of success.
The characters in The Plague are fascinating. Grand is a lowly clerk who has been writing a novel for years. It is later revealed that all he has been working on till now is an opening sentence about a girl who comes riding on a horse on a cobblestoned road through an early morning mist. Every sentence has to be perfect in his novel. But Grand finds his inner heroism and salvation in treating plague victims with Dr Rieux. Tarrou is a vacationer who has got stuck in town because of the quarantine. He seems to be a man with no past and no emotions. ‘I understand everything,’ he tells Dr Rieux. ‘So I judge no one.’ He is the last person to die of the plague.
The day after the plague ends, Dr Rieux gets to know that his wife, who was convalescing from an illness at a sanatorium in another town, has just passed away.
The absurdity of the universe was the first assumption on which Camus based his worldview (‘The only question that matters in life,’ he wrote, ‘is why we should not commit suicide’). His seminal philosophical text, The Myth of Sisyphus, is built on this. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the cleverest man on earth and repeatedly tricked the gods. Finally, he was cursed by the gods to roll a huge boulder up a steep mountain till eternity. Every time he reaches the peak, the gods roll the boulder down again. Sisyphus has to climb down and roll it up again. Camus saw Sisyphus as the perfect symbol of the human condition. And, he saw Sisyphus as triumphing over the gods every time they have to resort to trickery and roll the boulder down. Sisyphus’ spirit remains indomitable: every time the gods cheat, he rolls the boulder up again, daring them to play dirty with him.
Philosophers are glum people. Most end up questioning the meaning of existence and so on. Camus starts from where they end; he begins with the presumption that there is no meaning. And it’s the most liberating way of looking at the world and how to deal with it that I have been exposed to. ‘There is no fate,’ he wrote, ‘that cannot be defeated by scorn.’ Sisyphus embodies scorn at the randomness and injustice of the universe. He keeps rolling the boulder up.