Book Club: The Outsider

This weekend I read The Outsider by Albert Camus. While I read the book, the title resonated with me as it reminded me of how people are bounded by the standards and expectations of society, standards that are set by peers and family alike. When people don’t follow certain standards, they are immediately cast aside as ‘outsiders’. The book focuses on the theme of individual vs society, the power struggles between the two for supremacy, a theme that is prevalent in other novels. In my mind, I find the book to be similar to The Great Gatsby where Jay purposely hosts such large parties, just to find Daisy and tempt her to have another life with him – he seems to be courting society not because society is important to him but because he wants to build a life with Daisy away from society. It is also similar to A Clockwork Orange where Alex rapes and kills a woman with his friends without any remorse and refuses to accept the carnal nature of his crimes. His only connection with society or humanity was Beethoven’s music, but eventually, in the psychiatric ward he was placed in, music was taken away from him and that is what devastates him. Another representation of straying away from society’s expectations is Marlow from Heart of Darkness who ventures further into the African heartland towards a more primitive society, where he finally finds himself. However, what is common between all of these characters (except maybe Gatsby) is that by the end of their trials with society, they always find a reason to convince themselves that what they are doing is right –  for example, Alex holds onto his music which essentially allows him to think of vulgar deeds just as Meursault at the end consoles himself with the thought, “For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.”


Something I found fascinating in this book is how absurd society really is. I found it threatening that we think of ourselves as members of our society, yet we cannot live in one that behaves absurdly. We find it difficult to live up to the norms because we create these norms in accordance with social standards that are different from our individual preferences. The society is a collective, a sort of cooperative that cannot accommodate the quirks and idiosyncrasies of each individual. Consequently, there is a distance between the individual and society, much like what happens to Meursault. 


Just in the first scene, Meursault finds himself to be unresponsive to his mother’s death, “Mother passed away. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” The same insensitivity is at work during one of his dates with his girlfriend, Marie, ” A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her that it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so. She looked sad.”  He appears even more sadistic in the pivotal scene when he shoots the Arab who abused his friend, Raymond’s mistress, “And fired four more times at a lifeless body and bullets sank in without leaving a mark.” The world that Camus portrays is actually our world, where relationships are meaningless, humanity is dead and society doesn’t hold any standards. Where the only positive is the honesty with which Meursault clings onto his insensitivity. That’s the only trait that redeems this character and the society he lives in. 

Book Club: Memoirs of my Melancholy Whores

This afternoon I decided to read Memoirs of my Melancholy Whores by Columbian author Gabriel García Márquez. Interestingly, he wrote this when he was 77, obviously at a ripe old age by when he had got to see quite a bit of life. A book of a mere 115 pages, shorter than an anthology of poems, the book really stirred me up. Firstly, it did not traumatize me as I had expected, a book on the relationship between a 91-year-old and a 14-year-old would. I just seemed to get it. Secondly, I felt the book is not at all about the two main characters – the scholar/maestro/narrator and the young girl who he calls Delgadina but, it is his comment about the concept of love and its boundaries. Thirdly, it’s the narrative style which reads almost like a college student’s diary, without the dates but with enough details to explain the chronology. It’s an easy read like maybe a John Green and yet it tells a story that verges on a fantasy. A story of finding love between the ages of 90 and 100, somewhere in strife-torn Columbia. 


Very early on in the book, its the narrator’s 90th birthday and he wants to gift himself a night of love with a virgin and sets about looking for a box of treasures and says, “No old man forgets where he has hidden his treasure.” The treasure that he refers to is his book full of the names and addresses of the prostitutes he has slept with in his past life. Although I felt I should be shocked, I wasn’t. Instead, I realized that “treasure” could actually refer to anything – a gift, something personal, an expensive inheritance but in this case, it’s a list of whores which means that illicit/paid relationships can also be precious. The narrator is a man who seeks a paid night out as a way to feel the power that he doesn’t have as a low-wage, aged journalist who is obviously at the end of his career and life. This is why Rosa, the brothel manager asks, “What are you trying to prove?”. Frankly, it is slightly pathetic that on his 90th birthday the only thing that appears “magical” to him is the idea of having paid sex with a young virginal girl. And the ironical part of it is, he decides to call her Delgadina which refers to a Mexican folk song about a young lady who disobeys her father’s wish to be his wife, ending with her tragic death. This implies that he is aware of the drastic age difference and the perversion of it all. And yet, he falls inexplicably and obsessively in love with her. But despite his love, does he really get over his solitude? He says on page 71, when they are quite deeply involved in the relationship, “Dear girl, we’re alone in the world.”  This could work in both ways – he could be referring to the fact that society would ostracise them for their illicit love but also that despite the love and a relationship, every individual remains alone. Whereas the narrator puts in so much effort into the relationship and takes so much care of Delgadina, she just seems to sleep through it all. Even on the day of her birthday when he visits her, he describes her beauty in sleep. It seems just as the narrator does not want to know her real name, he doesn’t want to get to really know her either. Maybe, he doesn’t want her to lose her innocence and maybe he is more in love with the idea of love than he is with her. By the end of the 10 years though, he is finally ready for death, having experienced love, “It was, at last, real life, with my heart safe and condemned to die of happy love in the joyful agony of any day after my hundredth birthday” 


I liked the book because it cancelled every stereotype that I could think of. While in Lolita which I had read last year, the author Vladimir Nabokov seeks to create a new stereotype of a pedophile with a love interest in his own stepdaughter, in this book, Garcia Márquez is actually destroying every hierarchy and archetype that controls our mind. This includes age boundaries, society’s perception of prostitutes, the whole idea of not living your life till it is too late and the play of power between genders – whereas the narrator is the one with the power as Delgadina’s customer, it is actually she who has the power as he is almost willing to do anything to keep her in his life.