This paper will examine how the two literary works The Stranger by Albert Camus and Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy challenge or reinforce misconceptions of the East or the so-called “Third World”, using Edward Said’s Orientalism and Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth as a backdrop to interpret and analyze the two literary texts. While we (readers) are prone to read The Stranger as being universal and revolving around the human condition, such universality could merely be a “superstructure” (Said, p. 214) covering the historical and political reality of Algeria at that time. This reading could be inferred even by simply taking the text at face value and without having to revise Camus political stances outside fiction or situating him in his political times (which Edward Said does in Culture and Imperialism). In doing so, Edward Said was able to be even harsher in criticizing Camus’ work. As for Hadji Murat, the sympathetic portrayal of the orient swings between understanding, idealization and downright use/exploitation as in orientalist colonial literature.
The Stranger: a universal façade
While Camus was celebrated for successfully representing the ‘Western Consciousness’ and preserving humanist values during the difficult times of the Cold War (O’Brien 1970), his consciousness in fact arises from and can be seen as an extension of an imperial French discourse on Algeria. At the onset, Algeria appears merely as an empty stage where European characters can act out their lives. It seems that identity and historical reality of the colonized natives are erased, which should make us wonder how seriously we should take the universal troubled questioning that the novel seems to promote.
More precisely, only three Arabs make appearance in the novel, of which none has a name or was made to speak. The main Arab character was shot by Mersault. It is as if Arabs are only there so that Mersault is be able to venture in his anguished reflections; the Arab must die so that the central European figure can engage in philosophical thinking. Similarly, the prosecutor condemns Meursault saying “I accuse the prisoner of behaving at his mother’s funeral in a way that showed he was already a criminal at heart” (Camus, p. 60) and for being so callous and alienated from humanity that he cannot be left free to contaminate the rest of the society. The prosecutor’s stance is to the advantage of the text’s existential and humanitarian themes. Nonetheless, why was Mersault prosecuted by French authorities not for killing the Arab per se but because he did not weep or show enough emotion at his mother’s funeral? The answer could be that the social order and justice being served here is not that of the Arabs or Algeria, but the French, which is only concerned by the inhumane psyche of Mersault. We should note that at the trial, no Arabs were seen and those in the jail did not have names. Clearly, there are two stories at play here.
In the first story, Meursault contemplates the absurd and appears a puppet played by the sun! Mere coincidence leads him to do certain things (it could be any one else and not him), and to murder someone (he could have killed any other person) and to be prosecuted and sentenced to death by a prosecutor who could have been “German or Chinese” (Camus, p.68) and the throbbing was what drove him to kill the Arab. Asked about his motives, Meursault responds “Because of the sun” (Camus, p.64).
Whereas the first story was about Meursault alienation, the second story (the hidden one) is about Algerian alienation. The dead body on the beach is no longer just the manifestation of the European absurdity and fatality but a political entity; the colonized Algerian native. Meursault is no longer the absurd tragic hero but a French colonizer whose presence rests on violence (he is the French who murders the Arab), military prevalence (Meursault’s gun wins the Arab’s knife), and an unjust legal system (concentrating on the dead French mother not the killed native). In spite of Meursault’s apparent indifference, we are right in charging his actions with colonial/imperial motifs and attitudes. Meursault might think of his actions as disconnected and swarming in a random existence. In return, we might think of him not merely as the absurd stranger but as a symbol of violent colonial machinery.
Hadji Murat: sympathetic contradictions
Leo Tolstoy poses a harder challenge for the reader since he was known for his hatred to the violent Russian state and corrupt government promoting capitalist economy. In Hadji Murat, Tolstoy Recounts Russian nuances and sins being torn between east and west and he tries to criticize orientalism representations. In Hadji Murat, we indeed see sympathetic and positive image of the orient in a complex and developed narrative where the author does not make the mistake of subjectively romanticize and identifies with the orient as in other works during the late 19th century (Heier, p. 327). Even though Tolstoy gives a negative assessment of Russian civilization in the text, he remains careful not to mystify or idealize the mountaineers (Chechen). Whether this point should be taken to his credit (not idealizing the orient) or against him (reluctant to paint the orient in a better portrait) is up to the readers’ interpretation. Whether the absence of redemption and the lack of any redeemable character is seen as a declaration by Tolstoy that the east might be just as worse as the west or seen as maturity by author away from simple moral preaching, is also up to the readers’ interpretation. Nonetheless, let us examine specific elements in the text hoping they may shed some light in this regard.
Butler, the ‘Tolstoyan’ narrator, is self-serving and naïve. He has poetic ideas about the war where he subjects “himself to danger, to the possibility of death, and thereby earning awards and the respect of his comrades here and of his friends in Russia” (Tolstoy, p.78). It is worth noting that Butler’s care for how his “friends in Russia” see him is synonymous with Russian own consciousness of its difficult position between east and west. By conquering the Chechen, Russia was trying to merge with the western, euro imperialist world (Woodward, p. 873). Still, Butler returns to his fantasies about “the special energetic poetry of the mountaineers life” (Tolstoy, p. 90) and about the “arrival of Hadji Murat”; clearly a trace of idealizing and contrasting the “other” orient.
Similarly, we could read the Tsar Nicholas I to be a reflection of Russia’s concern about its image to the point where moral judgment is hindered. Nicholas derives his grandiose from the “constant obvious flattery, contrary to all evidence, of the people around him” that “he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer conformed his actions and words to reality, logic, or even simple common sense” (Tolstoy, p. 70). The tsar embodies all the hypocrisy of the Russian state that Tolstoy hated. Yet again, resorting to an ideal orient, Tolstoy contrasts the lively-looking severed head of the eastern Hadji Murat, with its “childish, good-natured” expression to the dead head of the still-breathing Tsar Nicholas I with its “lifeless gaze” and “dead eyes” (Tolstoy, p. 73). Such contrast could be read in two ways. Tolstoy is overturning notions of ‘eastern barbarity” in Hadji Murat by implying that Russia was now in charge of beheading its enemies and that Hadji Murat’s dead head was way more worthy than Nicholas lively one (Wachtel, p. 286). Alternatively, Tolstoy could be seen as contradicting himself since “Hadji Murat is unquestionably violent and shares with Nicholas an unhealthy desire for worldly power”. Tolstoy himself writes “If he’d been born in Europe, he might have been a new Napoleon” (Tolstoy, p. 43). Despite Hadji Murat’s sins and imperfections, he is made to retain a streak of childlike innocence and to remain connected to the world of humanity and love. Adding to Tolstoy’s contradicting narrative is the fact that he did not care if Hadji Murat was not any good for the story if it wasn’t for his betrayal. The “child-like” innocent Hadji Murat deserted the Caucasus to the Russian side because he was serving his personal interest; to gain Russian support so that he can reach power positions to conquer Shamyl’s domains, “which ultimately proved stronger than his loyalty to the cause of Caucasian nationalism” (Woodward, p. 873). It is seems that Tolstoy did not mind the implications this has for Hadji Murat as a nationalist guerilla fighter. Hadji Murat was merely used to contrast Tolstoy’s disdain for modern Russian violent bureaucracy, albeit with more maturity.
Let us wrap up but putting the two authors in perspective. For Camus, who consistently used the word “Arab” but never Algerian, there was no such thing as an “Algerian people”. He therefore implies that Algerian demand for national independence is politically naïve and might as well be the result of nothing but the manipulation of Nasser’s/Soviet forces. Camus saw France as “the best possible future for the Arab people” (Camus & King, 1983), so it is no wonder that his fictions erase the identity, and even the presence, of colonized native people. From this colonial/imperial-lese, The Stranger is not so much promoting a universal philosophy as much as it is continuing the racist colonial sentiment of imperial France. In other words, the colonial power that alienates Algerian people from their historical realities and geographies now dominates and predates the philosophical struggle (the anti-hero’s alienation before the absurd) (Said, p. 210)
For Tolstoy, his moral condemnation of power is apparent is many of his works. Yet, Tolstoy put characters in position of power other than Tsar Nicholas but intentionally made them admirable. While Shamil forces Murat’s son to send a letter to his father telling him wither he surrenders or Shamil puts put his son’s eyes, the readers are not driven to see Shamil as more evil than Nicholas. In fact, it seems that Tolstoy prepares us to like Shamil (Dworsky, p. 143), dressing him beautifully and attributing many of the stereotypical ‘noble savage’ characteristics to him. But if Shamil is made to be admired while exhibiting the same demeanor as Nicholas, then what is this is so much to making Shamil look as merely acting with an acceptable cultural context of his; meaning that savagery is acceptable for the orient and eastern Shamil but not from the Christian Nicholas … So much for typifying and normalizing orient behavior and making his violent behavior a “performance for his ritual duties as a Muslim” (qtd in Tolstoy, p. xiii).