Tuesday, 2 April 2013

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus - One Chapter per day | Day nine


Chapter three covers one day, from seven in the morning until the evening. It is the first day of Meursault's trial. He is taken from the prison in a police van and is surprised to find the courtroom crowded when he gets inside. It is summer time and the room is stifling. By the end of the day the judges, the jury, the legal teams and the journalists will all be issued with straw fans. Spectators fan themselves with newspapers. Before the trial begins one of the reporters tells Meursault that they've blown his case up a bit. Meursault notices that the policemen who brought him into the courtroom, the journalists and the legal teams are all very friendly towards each other and Meursault gets the impression that they are all in some kind of club together. As the trial is starting, he notices one of the journalists is different to the others, he is younger and instead of picking up his pen he looks right at Meursault. The names of the witnesses are called out, none of them are Arabs but all European Algerians, people from the home and Meursault's friends. He notices the strange robotic woman from the restaurant sitting next to Céleste. The presiding Judge sets the tone of the trial when he immediately asks Meursault about his relationship with his mother. Meursault is confused by the proceedings and is taken back to the prison when the session breaks for lunch. When he returns that afternoon, he hears the witnesses testimonies. Meursault is greatly moved by Céleste's attempt to paint him in a positive light. The warden and the caretaker from the home are encouraged by the prosecutor to say damning things about Meursault's behaviour and the accounts his friends give of him are torn apart. The lawyer for Meursault puts up a feeble defence. The hearing is adjourned and Meursault is packed into the van and driven back to prison. On the way he hears the familiar sounds of the town he loves at a time of day he used to feel happy.

“I said to the policeman, 'What a lot of people!' He replied that it was because of the papers and he pointed to a group standing by the table under the jury-box. He said, 'That's them.'”

Meursault's trial is supposed to be a small affair that will be cleared away quickly, according to his lawyer. The next case up is a parricide and that's going to be a big one. However, the papers must be publishing some intriguing stuff about Meursault, more than the simple story we'd expect, ‘Arab killed in fight with European on the beach’. In 1930s Algiers, this wouldn't be too sensational a story. So how is Meursault's case being presented in the papers to draw such a crowd? We don’t know because Meursault doesn’t know.

“... the journalist turned to me and smiled. He told me that he hoped everything would go well for me. I thanked him and he added, 'you know we've blown your case up a bit.'"

Meursault doesn't know, he hasn't been given the papers to read. The journalist appears a bit two-faced, he's smiling and wishing Meursault good luck but has probably written some sensational, and damning, articles about him. Note that the journalist is playing the game, it is summer silly season with no good news stories, so the papers just have to make them up.

The special correspondent from the Paris papers

He's in Algiers to cover the parricide but has now been asked to send a report on Meursault's trial too. A fight on the beach between a pied-noir and an Arab in Algeria is not going to interest Parisian readers. Meursault's case must have really be sensationalized for the Paris papers to become interested.

The friendly club house atmosphere

Meursault remarks on the friendly way the policeman, reporters and lawyers treat each other. They all seem to be members of the same club, all “happy to find themselves in a familiar world.” Is it all just fun and games for them?

“And I had the peculiar impression of being watched by myself.”

Camus writes a little cameo for himself. He was a court reporter and was younger than the other journalists. He also wore a blue flannel suit. Camus would take the side of the defendant and expose court corruption when he saw it. In The Stranger Camus writes himself as different to the other reporters. They all have pens poised, his is left lying in front of him as he looks at Meursault.

The strange robotic woman

She's at the trial too, watching Meursault. He will be conscious of her, and the young reporter, watching him throughout the trial.

The warden's testimony

He tells the court that Meursault's mother had reproached her son for sending her to a home. He had just said that the residents would often complain about their relatives but when the judge asks him to be specific about Meursault's mother reproaching him he just says 'yes' without repeating the further detail that all residents make similar complaints. He says that Meursault hadn't wanted to see his mother, but we know that he did ask to see her straight away but was told by the caretaker that he had to see the warden first. The warden goes on to give other details such as Meursault not crying or knowing his mother's exact age.

“... for the first time in years, I stupidly felt like crying because I could tell much all these people hated me.”

An emotional response from a previously unemotional Meursault. Feelings must be running pretty high in the courtroom for Meursault to feel this hate so keenly. If Meursault believes nothing matters and everything is pointless then why does what others think of him upset him?

The caretaker and Pérez

The caretaker provides more details about Meursault's behaviour at the funeral. He talks about the coffee and cigarettes and this is used against Meursault. His lawyer tries to suggest that since the caretaker offered the coffee and also smoked that Meursault can't be blamed but the prosecutor merely points out that the caretaker was not the deceased son and doesn't have the same duty towards her. Why does Meursault's lawyer play the prosecutor's game; instead of quibbling why not reject this line of questioning as irrelevant and absurd?

“Here we have the epitome of this trial. Everything is true and yet nothing is true!”

Meursault's lawyer is right. None of what has been said is untrue but none of it concerns the truth they are here to ascertain, what exactly Meursault is guilty of and his proper punishment. The lawyer is protesting the prosecutor’s approach but is not being active himself.

Meursault's friends
It is a testament to Mersault that he has friends who are willing to try and speak up for him. Everyone we have been introduced to, except for Emmanuel and Meursault's boss are present in court. Emmanuel means ‘God is with us’ – is his absence Camus’ way of saying God is not with them? Céleste, who is Camus' favourite character, tries to speak up for Meursault and tells the court that the killing was a mishap. Marie is made to say the truth that she met Meursault the day after the funeral, saw a comedy and when back to his apartment but tearfully attempts to convince the jury that the picture being painted by these brute facts is distorted. Her testimony is quite damaging to Meursault and the people don't pay attention to Masson, who says Meursault is honest and decent, or to Salamano who tries to correct the distorted image of Meursault's behaviour towards his mother. Raymond is used by the prosecutor to damn Meursault by association. It's surprising that Meursault's lawyer doesn't use Raymond's testimony to establish that the Arab was armed, dangerous and had already violently attacked one of Meursault's friends, slashing him in the face.

“But after all, is he being accused of burying his mother or of killing a man?”

The lawyer draws attention to the absurdity of the trial and people laugh, like they laughed when he pointed out that if Pérez hadn't noticed Meursault cry he hadn't noticed him not cry either. But it's not enough. The prosecutor manages to quickly swing the room back round to his way of thinking.

“As if a familiar journey under a summer sky could as easily end in prison as in innocent sleep.”

As he leaves to court to the sounds and smells of the town Meursault loves are all familiar to him. They are the same as they were long ago when he was traveling home to go to bed and fall into an easy sleep. But this time he is going back to his cell, to spend the night before returning the court the next day. He used to be happy during these summer evenings but although this summer evening is no different to those previous ones, Meursault is not happy now. Why can't Meursault be happy now? Is it just because he is locked in the police van, could he be happy if they let him walk back to the prison, through the town? Could we then imagine Meursault happy as Camus asks us to imagine Sisyphus happy as he walks back down the mountain to pick up his rock?

Tomorrow - Day 10

[Text by Simon Lea]

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