Monday, February 12, 2007

book of books - Exile and the Kingdom

This collection of six stories by Albert Camus covers different moods and locations from the Algerian desert to the rivers of Brazil but all apart from the Artist at Work, which is more satirical, have a haunting quality.

But if I was only allowed to have read two of them then The Guest and The Growing Stone would be the choices because the first leaves you hanging metaphorically on a cliff edge and the second leaves you wondering just what happens next and what is the promised fulfilled.

At the risk of doing the entire plot summaries - please track back through the blog – I will only post those for the two stories mentioned above.

The Guest
A schoolmaster is living in a remote classroom at the top of a mountain pass, which has been made almost inaccessible by snow. For three days none of the pupils have made it to the classroom so he is alone. Then a policeman with an Arab prisoner approach and the teacher is told that he has to look after the prisoner and take him to the next town, something he refuses to do. That night there is minimal conversation but the teacher is adamant that he will not take the man to the town. In the morning the Arab has not tried to escape. The teacher gives him food and money and tells him the way to avoid the route to prison but discovers the Arab is going that way anyway. Once he gets back to the classroom there is a message telling him that he has betrayed an Arab brother and they will come and get him making him feel al alone.

The Growing Stone
A French engineer arrives in a Brazilian village with responsibility for building a pier that is going to stop the river flooding the poorest part of town. As he wanders round the town he makes an acquaintance with one of the residents of the shack housing on the rivers edge. The man explains that he was a cook on a boat but there was an accidental fire and as a result he promised Jesus that if he lived he would carry a 100-pound stone at the procession to celebrate Jesus day. He goes out the night before and dances all-night, even though the engineer warns him to stop and reserve his energy for the stone. On the day of the procession the engineer is able to watch from invited prime positions but in between seeing the start of the procession and getting into place for the arrival at the church the stone carrier drops his load. The engineer picks it up and carries it past the church and the awestruck pilgrims down into the poor quarter and drops it in the middle of the house where the original carrier lives.
There has been a key exchange where the man carrying the stone explains his promise and the engineer says that something not too dissimilar happened to him. The man replies that in that case he is carrying the stone for both of them. But when it falls to the engineer to take the load afterwards he feels released and that would only happen as a result of fulfilling a promise he had not consciously made.

Is it well written?
You can taste the salt on your lips and feel the sand brushing against your cheek in some stories and see the slippery mud road down to the shacks in another. He has a power of description that is much more subtle than you first imagine. The ability to carve out a deep character quickly and in such a short space of words is also something else that you have to admire. There is also an expectation that the reader is going to work with these stories so it is not all handed over on a plate and you have to work with the information provided to create the full picture. Making the reader work is something that not all writers manage to do as well as this and you end up being happy engaging with the stories.

Should it be read?
The blurb on the back of the book talks about the Nobel Prize handed out to Camus and mentions that it was for writing of this quality he received it. That is one reason for reading it but the other more fundamental one is that in these six short stories you can travel to different worlds, meet some pretty desperate people and see it all in front of you. The reader can choose to engage or skim but if you do the former than this book can be like taking a holiday with every chapter.

Version read – Penguin paperback

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