Exile and the Kingdom

Author: Albert Camus

Translator: Justin O’Brien

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 1957

I read it: November 2016

exile

I read The Stranger because it was a short one to check off the list, and then around the same time I found Exile and the Kingdom in the closest Little Free Library to hour house. The battered paperback was all too attractive (that yellowed smell) and it comes in right around 200 pages.

The collection is six short stories, all centered around isolation, foreignness, responsibility, and home. In “The Adulterous Woman,” the title character does not commit conventional adultery but rather steps out of her hotel room and into the night to have a spiritual experience with the universe itself. Unsure of her place and purpose, she reflects on the nomads she observes.

Homeless, cut off from the world, they were a handful wandering over the vast territory she could see, which however was but a paltry part of an even greater expanse. … Since the beginning of time, on the dry earth of this limitless land scraped to the bone, a few men had been ceaselessly trudging, possessing nothing but serving no one, poverty-stricken but free lords of a strange kingdom.

“The Renegade” is a loopy, stream-of-consciousness account of a man hiding along a trail and waiting to kill another man. He is a former missionary, at one time caught up in all the possibilities of his work (“I dreamed of absolute power, the kind that makes people kneel down, that forces the adversary to capitulate”). Instead, he is overwhelmed by the crazy cult that he thought he’d be able to convert, and then becomes so enamored with their effectiveness he becomes one of them before striking out to take action into his own hands. Frightening.

The workers in “The Silent Men” are much more recognizable. They are part of the working class, bending steel and shaping wood to make barrels, and their strike has just failed. The humanity is palpable, and even the boss comes across as identifiable. The men themselves are a sad sight as they try to grapple with their unchanged existence.

Yvars now felt only his fatigue and his still heavy heart. He would have liked to talk. But he had nothing to say, nor did the others. On their uncommunicative faces could be read merely sorrow and a sort of obstinacy.

No rest for the weary. The person coming to rest in “The Guest” is a foreign prisoner handed off at a schoolhouse temporarily shut down due to snow, though the schoolteacher still resides there. The schoolteacher must decide whether to let the prisoner go or turn him in, to trust him or fear him, as it is just those two in the schoolhouse for one night. The ethical implications are intriguing, but thankfully this story is not too harsh on its characters.

The artist in “The Artist at Work” has it kind of rough, though the story feels very specific to a certain kind of French art culture and way of life. The main painter’s followers are humorously obsessed with him, “remaining faithful to his esthetic” even though he himself “had only a very vague idea of his own esthetic.” If anything, the story is accessible in its depiction of a busy husband and father feeling claustrophobic and without aim. (It must be mentioned that his wife is a valiant character who does all the real work.)

“The Artist at Work” and the final piece, “The Growing Stone,” together make up about half the book. This final story, about an engineer sent to a remote village to redirect water, wasn’t the most interesting to me. It deals with culture clash, expectation, and the history and mystery of a place.

It seemed to him that he would have liked to spew forth this whole country, the melancholy of its vast expanses, the glaucous light of its forests, and the nocturnal lapping of its big deserted rivers. This land was too vast, blood and seasons mingled here, and time liquefied. Life here was flush with the soil, and, to identify with it, one had to lie down and sleep for years on the muddy or dried-up ground itself.

Six pieces, related by theme, often bleak but with streaks of humanity throughout: this book is a precursor to Black Mirror. There’s definitely a lot of ourselves to look at in Camus’ collection. The title seems all too appropriate, in these gray days when we contemplate our own kingdom, what may come of it, and who might be forced to go where. We have a long way to go before we figure out how to reckon with the strange ways of time and place.

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