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Novel Cited by Chan Often Misunderstood, Teachers Say

August 09, 1994|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The award-winning novel Robert Chan blames for his brutal slaying of a fellow honor student is widely read but often misunderstood by bright young people, Orange County educators said Monday.

Albert Camus' "The Stranger," a 123-page book with simple language and straightforward narrative covering complex, dense philosophical concepts, commonly serves as an introduction to existentialism for high school and college students. It is routinely among the first French novels assigned to students of the language, while others read English translations in advanced high school or beginning college courses in literature or philosophy.

Chan, 19, was sentenced Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the New Year's Eve, 1992, slaying of Stuart A. Tay. He said in court papers that he read "The Stranger" nine months before killing Tay and determined that "everything was meaningless and nothing matters because we are all going to die."

The book's narrator, Meursault, shows indifference to his mother's death, kills a stranger and remains unmoved by his own impending decapitation. The story expresses the existential philosophy that there are no objective values, only rules people make for themselves.

Camus, a Frenchman from Algiers who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, published half a dozen novels, two volumes of "Notebooks," a trilogy of plays and a book of essays before his death in 1960. But his most famous work was his first, "The Stranger."

The Cure, a rock band both Chan and Tay loved, even based the 1979 song "Killing An Arab" on the novel.

"Bright students who are introduced to existential ideas are often fascinated by them. That is not unusual," said Joan Kasper, a Foothill High English teacher who had Tay as a student several years ago. "The extent of the fascination and the duration of the fascination depends on the individual student."

" 'The Stranger,' " Kasper added, is "a difficult book to understand."

Published in 1946, the story is set in Algiers and told in two parts. The first is an 18-day chronicle in which Meursault, an insignificant French clerk, attends his mother's funeral, has a love affair and kills an Arab on a beach. The second section is a yearlong chronicle of Meursault's time in jail, his trial and his ultimate execution.

Perhaps most famous is the novel's opening lines: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure." The matter-of-fact narrator continues to move through what seems a meaningless life, enjoying physical pleasures such as swimming, smoking and sex, but seeing little purpose in people's actions.

"The ideas that Camus tries to exhibit in his literature is that human beings are in the strange position of being valuing and purposeful creatures, but they find themselves in a world where reality has no match for this--there aren't purposes in the world," explained Amy Thomasson, a philosopher who is teaching a course on existentialism at UCI this summer.

"There isn't meaning in the world, there isn't value in the world; that's the awkward situation of humanity according to Camus," Thomasson said. "He argues that there is no intrinsic meaning in the world apart from what human beings project onto it."

The book's climax comes during a seaside holiday, when Meursault encounters the Arab and determines that it does not matter whether he fires the revolver he is holding. Later, almost by accident, he kills the man, then pumps four more bullets into his corpse.

In jail for 11 months, Meursault misses smoking and sex but is not absolutely unhappy. He admits the murder, but the judge and jury are more upset with his indifference to his mother's death, and thus sentence him to decapitation in a public place.

Meursault decides that life is profoundly absurd, and faces his death in peace.

Matthew Potolsky, a UCI instructor in comparative literature, said "The Stranger" is famous for its exploration of "the gratuitous act."

"If there's no meaning in the world then this one act can just sort of occur," Potolsky explained. Meursault "just accepts the consequences of that act, he doesn't really feel remorse, he doesn't rue the fact that he did it. . . . He doesn't feel he acted wrongly because the act had no meaning."

According to letters Chan wrote the court and the Tay family before his sentencing, his reading of Camus in March, 1992, led him down a trail of deterioration that ended in Tay's death. Chan said he stopped brushing his teeth, abandoned socks and tried wearing the same clothes for a week to see if anyone noticed. No one did.

But unlike Meursault, Chan said he does feel remorse for the murder.

"My shame and guilt will never cease to torment me," Chan wrote. "As I talked to my family, I felt their incredible grief and sorrow overwhelmingly in waves and pressing down upon my conscience with an unbearable weight. . . . My heart was truly broken when my mother cried in front of me. I could not face her."

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this report.

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