Monday, 25 November 2019

The Stranger (L’étranger) by Albert Camus – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up (translated / paraphrased as necessary):

‘When the bell rang again, when the door opened, the silence in the room approaching towards me, the silence, and this strange feeling I had when I notice the young journalist before turning my eyes away. I didn’t look towards Marie. I did not have the time because the president had told me in a strange way that my head would be guillotined in a public place on behalf of the French people…’

Note: I read the book in French

I had come to know that The Stranger is a classic in French from Albert Camus from the owner of a bookstore in a lovely small town in Côte d’Azur where I bought this book. Unfortunately, I had never heard of this book or the writer but I found the subject and the plot to be interesting when I had heard it.

Our society has a lot of rules, some of them unwritten and very often, a person ends up on the wrong side of the society if these rules are not followed. The plot concerns Meursault, a person who is very different from the average person in the society. This did not affect his life till the day he needed to face the law.

The story starts with the death of his mother who is in an asylum. However, what concerned Meursault more than his mother’s death was whether it would be appropriate to smoke a cigarette in front of his mother’s corpse and was simply annoyed that most guests around were old. He returned to normalcy immediately after the funeral, be it his work, his relationship with his new girlfriend, etc. He then accepts to be a witness to testify against an Arab girlfriend of his neighbour Raymond following a discord between the two. Following these events, Meursault eventually ends up committing a murder, and problems over his attitude and indifference in general start to become a problem in front of the judge.

The author has created an interesting character in Meursault, who is an anti-hero with whom the reader does not share much sympathies from the outset. Even if he is not like the other people in the society (for example, he doesn’t cry for his mother’s death), one can only think if it is a reason good enough to be condemned, especially where a lot of people think that his indifference is an even bigger issue than the murder he had committed. The author made me think on this aspect, and of course, I did find the attitude of Meursault bizarre but at the same time, not following a societal convention the violation of which harms nobody else should not lead to condemnation – and I found it very interesting that these aspects made me regain sympathy for Meursault during the course of the plot which he had lost immediately after the start.

I liked the manner in which the author brought out how Meursault’s detached himself from every dire situation, and what had in fact helped was his indifference with people and the world at large. He remained complex as much as he was indifferent, he was not someone who could be termed a misanthrope either. Much as he was a character very well created by the author, he was also the only character and no other character in the book had even a reasonable level of depth.

The plot took place in Algeria, before its independence and even though the Arabs have a rather important role in the plot, I did not like the manner in which the author had dehumanised them – none of the Arab characters had names, no witness was an Arab (which I found to be odd), etc. One could argue that perhaps that was not the intention of the author, considering the second part was narrated by Meursault, it merely brings about the divide between the native population and the French settlers. However, I struggle to arrive at giving a benefit of doubt to the author in this case. I understand that there is a novel from Kamel Daoud – ‘The Meursault Investigation’ – where the author has given a character to each of the Arabs in the plot of The Stranger and retells the plot, and right now, I am inclined to try out this novel. Coming back to the location of the plot, much as it was in the city of Algiers, whether it was Algiers or any other city in the world, there would have hardly been a difference to the plot as the author hardly used any facets of the city in his plot.

To conclude, it is a deep and interesting novel, I am sure that a person with an excellent level of French (unlike the pidgin French I muster) might enjoy Meursault’s defence of his positions and views better. I hope it is not lost in translation in the English edition. On that note, I award the book a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – Book Review

‘100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, palaeontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?

Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power ... and our future.’

Based on the material I have read so far (Richard Dawkins in particular), the human species is around 200,000 years old. However, we have very little data the history of our species beyond 10,000 years (which is a very generous estimate). In this book, Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and professor tries to explain the history of our species – from the time homo sapiens coexisted with other human species till the era as we know today.

The book is split into four parts – the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the unification of humankind, the scientific revolution and a conclusion with the author’s insights into the future. Through these phases, the author explores how the species evolved, how we learned to cooperate, and more importantly, how they learnt to adapt to different conditions and scale up our abilities without any significant modifications to the DNA structure. The author challenges several traditionally held views – such as ‘agriculture being the greatest invention of humanity’, how myths are essential for the survival of the society as it is today (eg – for instance, we all believe that a piece of paper printed by an authority has a value, the moment people stop dissociating themselves with the myth, the society as of today would collapse), inter alia.

Much as this is a book discussing a scientific topic, the author has not used technical terms and has written in simple language. I took a week to complete this book (with most of my reading being during transits from home to work and vice versa) and that is perhaps that’s a personal record for me when it comes to completing a non-fiction work of this size (almost 500 pages). I liked the fact that the author strictly maintained the sequence and at several points – regardless of whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, religious or an atheist, the validity of your firmly held convictions would be strongly challenged by the author. It was interesting as to how I was initially shocked at some of the statements but when we think of it deeply, it was true; and still we come to the conclusion that these are very necessary inventions. I’d quote one such instance which challenges some of my strong convictions on equality and human rights

‘Advocates of quality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reason. Their response is likely to be “we know that people are not equal in biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society’. I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by by “imagined order”. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.’

-          Page 123

With that said, there were also instances where I felt his arguments were a little shallow, where he argues how a lot of principles we have today, be it equality or respecting individual freedoms is a revamped version of monotheist conventions (that all are equal before god) (page 258); which seems an extreme conclusion to infer. This is arising from the idea that individuals cannot arrive at the same idea independently; and it contradicts with one of the very findings of the author’s – where he explained how different communities developed similar agricultural societies without ever contacting each other. Just to quote my own example, much as I hold strong views on equality, I am an atheist and was neither raised nor been associated with any monotheistic religion in anyway.

The other highlights of the book included how the author established differences between humans and other animals – especially since the cognitive revolution. He also makes the case as to how our ancestors were in peace with nature to be a myth and in fact, what we have today is one of the best times in the history of humankind (contradicting the ‘good old days of our ancestors’ argument).

I cannot comment on the technical aspects of the book and from what I understand, most academicians do not have a very positive view on the book, but as always, if you can either satisfy the scholars or the public at large but impossible to satisfy all at once. On that note, I would award the book a rating of eight on ten. It is a book that would make you think, and thus, one could say that the author's manner of narration is the greatest highlight of the book. 

Rating – 8/10

Have a nice day,

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