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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

Le Malentendu

Le Malentendu - Pierre-Louis Rey, Albert Camus We saw a poster for this play last week, and when I noticed it on sale next day at a local bookshop I figured I'd buy it. One of those classics I'd somehow never got around to reading. I wondered why I couldn't even recall what the plot was, or what it was called in English.

Well, having read it, I'm prepared to hazard a blasphemous guess: the reason it's comparatively unknown is that it's not very good. Even geniuses like Camus have their off-days. The plot is simple. A mother runs a guest-house with her daughter, and they make a habit of killing the occasional guest in order to steal their money. One day, her son arrives, twenty years after leaving to seek his fortune. He's heard they're in trouble and wants to help them. But they don't recognize him and kill him. The mother finds out what's happened and kills herself too. The daughter shows no remorse at all.

It's not so much the plot though: it's the way it's written, mostly very dry and disengaged. The only sympathetic character is the son's wife, who comes across as a warm, loving person who knows instinctively that something terrible is going to happen but is unable to prevent it. Perhaps this is the point, that people like this are rare and generally have no influence on the world around them. But I didn't really feel it worked.

The title, Le Malentendu, is usually translated as "The Misunderstanding". Maybe it's a private joke, and Camus wanted to indicate that there was a misunderstanding about what he actually wanted to say, compared to what he actually ended up saying? I definitely felt I'd missed something. As one of the other reviewers says, WTF.


As the French Wikipedia article points out, the story is very similar to one mentioned in L'Etranger. This somehow strengthens my feeling that some kind of private joke is involved. Here's the passage in question:
Entre ma paillasse et la planche du lit, j'avais trouvé, en effet, un vieux morceau de journal presque collé à l'étoffe, jauni et transparent. Il relatait un fait divers dont le début manquait, mais qui avait dû se passer en Tchécoslovaquie. Un homme était parti d'un village tchèque pour faire fortune. Au bout de vingt-cinq ans, riche, il était revenu avec une femme et un enfant. Sa mère tenait un hôtel avec sa sœur dans son village natal. Pour les surprendre, il avait laissé sa femme et son enfant dans un autre établissement, était allé chez sa mère qui ne l'avait pas reconnu quand il était entré. Par plaisanterie, il avait eu l'idée de prendre une chambre. Il avait montré son argent. Dans la nuit, sa mère et sa sœur l'avaient assassiné à coups de marteau pour le voler et avaient jeté son corps dans la rivière. Le matin, la femme était venue, avait révélé sans le savoir l'identité du voyageur. La mère s'était pendue. La sœur s'était jetée dans un puits. J'ai dû lire cette histoire des milliers de fois. D'un côté, elle était invraisemblable. D'un autre, elle était naturelle. De toute façon, je trouvais que le voyageur l'avait un peu mérité et qu'il ne faut jamais jouer.
They kill him and discover his identity in slightly different ways, he has no child, and it's not clear that the sister also ends up committing suicide. Otherwise, it's pretty much the same.