Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Albert Camus’ “The Guest,” an idealistic teacher—possibly very much like Camus himself—has chosen a teaching post in the Algerian desert as an escape from the pressures of urban life. His school—which is also his home—has become an important center of village activities; even in the winter, when it is too cold for the students to come to school, Daru continues to serve as the custodian of the grain provided by the government to relieve last summer’s drought, doling it out to those who need it. He lives simply but happily, content with little.
This voluntary simplicity and self-imposed isolation on the part of the protagonist is important. Camus believed that we are all ultimately alone with our decisions, and in fact that is the best way to be. It is significant to note that the motif of the grain establishes him as both a respected and a compassionate man. He has been entrusted with a saving mission, and he delights in carrying out its requirements.
However, politics intrudes into the midst of this scene. A soldier with whom Daru is acquainted, Balducci, rides up with an Arab prisoner trailing on foot. Balducci has some official papers which will transfer custody of the prisoner from himself to Daru; it will then be Daru’s obligation to take the prisoner to the jail in Tinguit, several miles away. Surprised and shocked, Daru refuses. He sees no reason to get involved; he does not want to play God. But Balducci insists; regardless of what Daru chooses to do with the prisoner afterwards, Balducci is leaving the Arab with Daru, and Daru will have to deal with the consequences if he fails to follow through on the government orders.
On the other hand, Daru recognizes that he will have to deal with his own conscience if he does. Daru sees as well as Balducci does that the case of this Arab—a man who killed a cousin in a family feud—is not a case for the French colonial courts. This is something that could be settled perfectly well—if, possibly, bloodily—by the families involved. This particular Arab is fated to serve as a political example, and all three of them know it. His fate will not be pretty, and he may well wish he had stayed in his village and risked the wrath of his rivals. As it is, he is to be hauled into Tinguit, subjected to a travesty of a trial and an all-too-real fate.
And with this Daru refuses to cooperate, because he will not assume the awesome responsibility of casting dies for other people’s lives. Even before Balducci leaves, Daru unties the prisoner’s bonds and makes him tea, treating him more like a guest than either a prisoner or even an imposition. Balducci had assured Daru that the prisoner spoke no French, but Daru discovers that he most certainly does; and from conversing with him Daru learns that learns that the man is terrified. Daru’s feeding of him has established some sort of bond between the two men, which is simple charity on Daru’s part but which the Arab takes as a sign of political solidarity, the food symbolizing the exchange of life between them. “Come with us,” the Arab implores him. But Daru does not want to go with anyone, he wants to stay in the little desert schoolhouse where he lives; he does not want to fall into any political camp, that of the French or that of the Arabs.
The next morning Daru again tends to his guest’s needs, supplies him with food, money, and provisions, and then sets him back on the road. First he points to the east. “There’s the way to Tinguit,” he tells him. “You have a two-hour walk. At Tinguit are the administration and the police. They are expecting you.”
He then points to the south. “There’s the trail across the plateau. In a day’s walk from here you’ll find pasturelands and the first nomads. They’ll take you in and shelter you according to their law.”
In other words, the schoolteacher makes no attempt to influence the prisoner that one course might be honorable or even just, but is suicide; or that the other, less honorable, could mean freedom. He simply points out that there were two choices, and what they are. The prisoner starts off in the direction of the east and prison, and this seemingly bizarre decision Daru also does not judge.
In this story, Daru the Existentialist resents having his own life directed by outside forces, whether they be the loyalty of friendship or the pressures of politics, and similarly refuses to direct the life choices of anyone else. It is ironic at the end of the story that the townspeople believe that despite the fact that Daru really did not make a choice—despite the fact that he simply relocated the burden of choosing back onto the person most affected by the ramifications of the decision—that he “turned over [their] brother.” Camus would argue, however, that because Daru refused to intrude on the Arab’s free will, it was Daru—and not the townspeople—who really acted as a brother.
“The Guest” can be found in the collection Exile and the Kingdom, available from Amazon here.
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