A last walk in Marengo

A response to Camus’ L’Etranger and Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

Choose a character, persona or speaker from ONE prescribed text that you have studied in Module C. Express the thought processes of this character, persona or speaker by exploring a moment of tension in the text from an alternative point of view. (It’s not Module C, but I enjoyed reading this pair of Module A texts).


I died today. Or perhaps it was yesterday; I can’t be sure. Apart from a slightly greater physical restriction than I’ve had in the last few years, nothing much has changed. You spend a lifetime wondering what your last journey will be. The sheer scale of the thought frightens you into behaving well for your entire life – and it turns out to be a walk along the same road you went down with a friend just the other day, only this time you’re being carried. If I’d known it was going to be so prosaic, I’d have misbehaved more.

On the whole, I’m not sorry to have died. Life was generally hard and tiring, although it became a lot more pleasant when we left France and returned to Algeria. Before money became too tight for his studies, I used to listen to my son talking about the philosophy he was reading, different theories about the value of life, how you’re supposed to live it, the obligations you have to others living it and so on. Men can afford to see life in these theoretical terms; for women, a great deal of this life is taken up with how long socks take to dry. No, even in warm Algiers life was anxiety, exhaustion, and finally sun, heat and a permanent doze which surpassed boredom. It was marriage, a son, widowhood, poverty, a few brief affairs to pass the time, and then the realization that Henri wished me gone from the apartment, and my own inability to think of a single reason not to oblige him.

Don’t get me wrong, I did things that other people would call misbehaving. Everyone does; it’s how we bring ourselves to disapprove of other people. We don’t disapprove of what they’ve done, but that they’ve been careless enough to make it common knowledge. Immorality is nobody’s business. It’s between you and God, if you believe in that kind of thing – but carelessness is. That shows that you don’t bother with the illusions which prop other people up and which, indirectly, keep society humming along.

I doubt that my dalliances with old Salamano or my irritation with the priest who visited the Home at Marengo, really bothered anyone but why risk a peaceful existence just to affront people who matter as little as you do? And wasn’t just fear of rejection that made me discrete, or a love of the unwritten rules for their own sake, but a selfish appreciation of what the machine oiled by those rules gets you. I liked fresh bread, fish on Fridays, cafés on the esplanade – all owned by people who experience the same boredom and anxiety as me. They manage it because it’s not being shoved in their face that I spent a warm afternoon making love to my upstairs neighbor, or laughed in the face of the priest whose logic is as kinked as his hair. We can put up with a great deal – that is to say, we can keep producing bread, and coffee, and fish, and cleaning other people’s houses, and serving them in shops – if we believe that we’re all suffering under the same restrictions.

This, of course, will be my son’s problem. He’s young and self-sufficient now and can afford to ignore the fact that the world runs like an intricate clock, where every spring balances a load of spite and exhaustion. It takes only a day’s failure to wind it and the whole thing stops and turns against you.

Guillaume understood. Both of us were stuck in Marengo by children we shouldn’t have had, who were now impatient of our age and weakness. I cried a bit when Henri brought me here, more to see what it would achieve, but I didn’t really mind. It’s fine in the sun; the staff are pleasant enough, and any amount of bad behaviour is excused as old age and tiredness.

I can hear Guillaume, somewhere at the back of my little procession, dragging his bad leg. We tried to make love once, in the limited privacy allowed to the old, but neither of us were really interested. It’s the kind of exercise that makes you co-ordinate manners and actions and appearance, like successful dancing. In the end we lay still and held hands and watched the shadows of the geraniums dance on the wall. We talked about the others at the Home and laughed. That’s the secret – find someone with whom you can laugh at the rest of the world, and the rest of the time just stay silent. Silence, particularly for women, is a wonderful respite – any amount of scorn, loathing, confusion, and desire can be felt without consequence if you just stay silent.

No, I’m not sorry to have died, because it was all becoming draining, what with having to pretend and prop up everyone else’s beliefs all the time. When you realize you’re dying there’s a brief, momentary panic, but you shrug it off when you consider that it’s already happening and it hasn’t been so bad yet. You cling on to life more from boredom and a kind of politeness – you don’t want to make your friends feel you’re fleeing the very condition they think is worth so much. But at the last minute, when the breath is rattling in your chest like broken glass in a bucket, you’re quite glad to let it go and jettison the condition to which you’ve always felt something of an outsider.

(c) http://www.divingbelleducation.com

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