The Guest (L'Hôte) by Albert Camus, 1957

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by Albert Camus, 1957

"The Guest" ("L'Hôte") is one of the six short stories comprising the collection Exile and the Kingdom (L'Exil et le royaume), the last major work that Nobel prize-winning novelist, dramatist, and essayist Albert Camus completed before his death. Written in the laconic style of a classic short story with a conclusion that comes with brutal suddenness to make a lasting impression on the reader, "The Guest" brings into focus many of the themes that obsessed Camus throughout his life.

The story is set in Algeria, the country in which Camus was born. The time is the era of the postwar anticolonial protests that demanded so much of the attention not only of the large numbers of French settlers in North Africa but also of the general public in France. "The Guest" explores the theme of the loneliness of individuals forced to make their own moral choices without reference to transcendental principles or convictions; the consequence is an anguished conscience, and the sense of isolation is increased when it turns out that decisions and actions are misunderstood.

In the story it is midwinter and very cold up in the inhospitable mountains inland from the North African coast, where Duru, who was born in these parts, lives in the spartan schoolhouse. As a teacher he holds a postition of considerable significance: lay education, it seems, had an important moral role to play in the colonies by introducing French ideas to the native people. Because of the time of year classes have been suspended, and Duru has little to do but ensure that certain supplies of grain are doled out to the local population when starvation threatens. Apart from that he does nothing but sit and wait alone with his thoughts. Then one day he sees two figures coming toward him up the steep and stony slope. One of them, riding on a horse, is Balducci, an old gendarme from Corsica; behind the officer, with his hands tied, his prisoner comes stumbling along. He is an Arab, and, as Balducci explains, in trouble for the crime of killing a cousin in a quarrel.

Duru and Balducci have known one another for a long time, but their relationship is not cordial. The old gendarme, as might be expected, takes a conservative view of things, expecting nothing good to come from anticolonial protests, and he has little sympathy for his captive. Balducci does not take long telling Duru that he is now entrusting him with the duty of seeing that the Arab is taken to the next settlement and handed over to the authorities. Duru, who has not agreed with much in Balducci's words or attitudes, does not relish assuming this responsibility either, but he has no choice in matter.

Duru is left with the Arab, and the fact that his name is not given symbolizes neatly the difficulty of making any human contact with him. Duru shares his own meager rations with the prisoner and tries to make him as comfortable as possible when he beds down in the schoolroom, but the atmosphere remains tense as the schoolmaster worries about his own safety and wonders whether the Arab will try to escape. In a way Duru would have welcomed that, for it would take the responsibility off his shoulders if the Arab ran away. But he does not, and Duru seems to have no alternative but to obey instructions, walk over the hills to the settlement with the Arab, and deliver his captive to the authorities.

At a point where the road forks Duru stops, however, and makes clear to the Arab that by turning in one direction he will be able to walk away from a future of punishment and captivity and live in freedom with his own people. Duru gives him the choice, but to his chagrin he sees that the Arab prefers, for what reason is not made clear, the path to prison. Anxious and disappointed but unwilling to interfere further, Duru returns to the school only to discover that on the blackboard an unknown hand has scrawled the words: "You handed over our brother. You will pay for that!" The imperatives of current politics cut crudely across the doubts and worries of the sensitive Duru, leaving him feeling more alone in his actual and metaphorical solitude than ever. Rich in observed detail, full of human compassion, scarred by the horrors of the end of the colonial period in North Africa, "The Guest" is a fine brief summary of Camus's vision of the bleakness of the human condition.

—Christopher Smith