Exile and the Kingdom – Albert Camus

Albert Camus, the Nobel Award winning author from Algeria, explores isolation and character’s intense revelations  with a series of 6 short stories in Exile and the Kingdom.  Each of the stories have a character who seems to be lost or isolated from a part of their society and each finds a way to connect with themselves or those around them in the muck of what is playing out around them.

The first story is ‘The Adulterous Woman,’ in which a wife accompanies her long-time husband to rebuild his dry-goods business after a war.  She contemplated why they were still together after so many years- was it because he loved her or because she needed to feel loved? A stop in a desert town with so much foreign to the couple, the woman finally finds an answer, but perhaps not the one she had been looking for.

‘The Renegade’ is the second story.  A young man from the outskirts of the Catholic Kingdom joins the church to become the greatest missionary.  His hubris broke himself from order of the church to go to a Christian’s forbidden area.  A desert land of other gods and deities. He believed his strength would hold out, but after torturous days and nights, he falls to the dark side, and makes a decision to defend his god.

The next story, called ‘The Silent Men,’ a shop of coopers return to barrel-making after several weeks of striking for higher wages.  Mixed feelings spread throughout the shop, the boss was sour that his workers walked out on him, the workers were upset that the boss was not so understanding of their situation, and ugly words  from the boss did not help the resolution.  The main character, Yvars, lived each day to come home to his wife and a glass of anisette to enjoy the sunset over the sea.  That was his kingdom.  While at work, he felt undervalued, but could understand the boss’s view.  A tragedy of the boss’s family on the first day back to work still could not overpower the silence in the shop, and Yvars ends up watching the sunset in reflection that night.

The fourth story, ‘The Guest,’ is a tale about a school teacher living alone on the top of a mesa.  As the first big snow fell over the plateau, he knew the small group of students would have their own struggles surviving the winter.  He watched two men ride horses up the mesa and welcomed an old acquaintance, a lawman, transporting a prisoner.  The lawman quickly delivers the prisoner to the objecting teacher and leaves to continue preparing for his duties back in the city.  The teacher was to continue the transport to a city a small distance away.  The prisoner had killed his cousin to help feed his family, the family had hidden the man and it took a while for the law to catch up.  A war was forming at their home and the lawmen could not take care of all of their duties themselves.  The teacher disagreed with the transport and hurt the lawman’s feelings when he said he would take the prisoner but had no intentions of delivering him to the prison in the other city.  The lawman left and the teacher and prisoner spent a night together in the schoolhouse.  Did he need his gun?  Did he lock it up?  Would he continue the transport?  What will happen if he released the prisoner?  Many questions ran through his mind as the sun rose and  dawned on a new day.  What ever happened to that prisoner?  Were the choices the teacher made the best he could have made?

The fifth story was called ‘The Artist At Work.’  A man with special artistic ability was grateful for his abilities and had never asked for more.  Early in his career he knew he had talent and graciously accepted the first contract given to him.  There were no major complaints and he soon found love.  The years passed, the family grew, and the artist’s work also grew, but he remained humble.  Many followers visited the house daily at all hours, and the artist was grateful for friends and critics.  An architect he was friends with from childhood also came often and gave him honest opinions of art, and life. As the years went by the artist’s fame waned and he realized he needed to rekindle the creativity.  Weeks went by and he turned to alcohol, then women, and his work continued to fall behind.  Finally he builds himself a loft to paint in and he believes this will bring everything back, but a change may not be enough to bring an artist back to relevance.

The final story, ‘The Growing Stone,’ is about an engineer who is hired to construct a jetty to protect a small village on a large river delta in South America.  The man is touted as a hero before he even proposes an idea.  The man meets many of the locals and joins in a Christian festival, but it follows many of the local customs and seems to be a mix of the new and old religions.  The following day, he joins the judge and chief of police to watch a parade, in which his new friend, a chef has volunteered to carry a large stone on his head to show his gratitude in Jesus for saving him from a sinking ship.  After the parade has finished, the engineer has not seen the chef, so he runs to the street and finds him struggling to carry the stone.  The engineer takes the stone and quickly walks it to the church himself, but he does not stop there, he continues on to the chef’s hut and drops the stone onto the floor inside.  The struggles between new and old were all around in this story, and as the engineer drops the stone, he shows his respect for the people and their ways instead of taking the stone to the church where it was intended to be taken.

Each of the stories were entertaining alone, but altogether they form a great theme of realization and reverence.  Characters come to respect their own callings and others around them.  Much like his more popular work, The Stranger, the internal struggles of the characters are apparent and central.  A nice read for thinking and personal self-reflection.

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Once There Was a War – John Steinbeck

The Nobel Award winning author, John Steinbeck often created themes of domestic economic struggle with such titles as East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath, but in the very center of his career, he took his pen to the European Theater of World War II as a war correspondent.  Later in his life, Steinbeck looked back at his time during the war and compiled several of the newspaper pieces he wrote into a book called Once There Was a War.

Steinbeck’s introduction started as nearly a paradox by saying the most famous war was mostly forgotten by the men who fought it.  He explains that the trauma, the urgency, the peril was experienced and acted on with instincts of war, and a fighter might not remember exactly how many barrels of the enemy were trained at them as they ran across fields, but perhaps, they also might forget at times, due to the fear that grips them as each step the soldier took was escaping death, while many of the comrades were not so lucky.

Steinbeck also adds that during times of war, many of the media are censored.  Partly because the soldier’s missions are treated as top-secret, any news the enemy might receive of an upcoming attack, or position of the allies could put many men in danger.  With somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Steinbeck adds that any news of less successful missions might reflect on commanding officers, so to protect their egos (and the correspondents), the failures, and the officers names were often struck from the record by censorship.  With America’s values of freedom of speech, someone today might think that the censorship then was unfair, but the correspondents did their best to follow the rules- nobody wanted to lose a shot a nice job in journalism after the war, and least of all, none of them wanted to be blamed for losing the war.

Steinbeck joined the war in 1943 and spent about a year in the action.  Through the book, the reader gets a first hand account of sailing from the US to England on a troopship, life at a bomber squadron in England, life in Tunisia, and missions to Italy.  The correspondent’s accounts give the reader, the ups and downs, the little-known pieces of war life, not known to someone living 75 years after the event.

My favorite pieces in the book were about a private named Big Train Mulligan.  Big Train was a driver in the army, he was a smart man and the soldier life suited him. He would do anything that was asked of him, but he also decided he loved his position as  driver in England better than any other option.  He loved it enough that he seemed to always mess up details when he was in line for a promotion, but not quite enough to lose the job.  That was the kind of guy he was.  He could have gone far in the army, he could have been an officer and led many men, but Big Train wasn’t interested in being responsible for other men, he just wanted to do his job.  He drove officers to and from appointments, and waited for them at the car until they required a ride to the next place.  Big Train somehow always attracted women as he waited at the cars, and he kept a big address book where he wrote each woman’s information into it.  When he drove the officers to a cramped house with tattered sheets and stiff beds, Big Train always had a woman from his book nearby where he would stay in a soft and comfortable bed and have a home cooked meal.  The women would stop at the car and talk to Big Train and he would reach into the officer’s belongings and pull a pack of cigarettes out for the girl, sometimes chocolate. The ladies loved the guy for this.  When the officers returned from the meeting to find their personal cigarettes or chocolates gone, Big Train would just explain that the woman was there and it seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do to offer her whatever he could find, and the officer agreed completely and no feelings were hurt.

Whether you’re a fan of WWII, Steinbeck, or just want a good book to read, this one fits the bill.  There was a nice range of emotion- fear, disgust, sadness, joy- this has it all. As we lose many WWII veterans to time, it is nice that we have these accounts Steinbeck has left us. Stories like these and from the veterans I’ve spoken to always send a chill down my spine and remind me of the enormous amount of respect these men and women earn.
Twitter- @blookworm