Albert Camus beautiful prose takes us on a magical ride deep inside the depths of Brazil. The setting of the story, is unlike any other found in the book Exile and The Kingdom. The location has many advantages to Albert Camus, in helping him get his psychological points illustrated to the reader through the use of wonderful fiction in the depth of nature. There are two main themes dealt with within the story.
- Finding a bond and kinship with a new community, while at the same time having a feeling of exile due to one’s past.
- The negative effect of mass religion and politics on people .
The story starts with a french engineer (d’Arrast) and his driver (Socrates), as they are traveling through the dark night. d’Arrast has been hired to begin preparations for a dam, that will control the river and prevent flooding in a remote town. After a long drive through the night, they arrive. Next morning, once in the remote establishment, d’Arrast is very little interested in building the dam, and, more interested in discovering the culture of the locals. His first interest is in seeing a local hut, so that he may satisfy his curiosity on how these people survive in such living conditions. The hut is bare, besides a huge fire pit in the center of the hut that is used for cooking and to keep warm and, a small mattress on a broken frame with a table next to it. The hut peeks his interest, as it grows with every new experience on this journey.
“He was waiting as if the work he had come here to do were merely a pretext, the occasion for a surprise or an encounter he could not even imagine, but that had been waiting for him, patiently at the end of the world”
After the visit to a locals hut, Socrates the person responsible for leading d’Arrast on this journey of self discovery, tells him the story of the growing stone. The locals found a floating statue of Jesus Christ in the river. They brought it to safety and placed it inside a cave to work on its restoration. The statue once removed, left a stone for ever in that cave, the said stone now always grows ( Hence the name for the story The Growing Stone) . It’s considered a miracle by the locals. During the holidays the locals brake of a piece of stone for blessing. The growing stone sounds like propaganda the local missionaries would use to convert a tribe to Christianity, but d’Arrast goes with it. He visits the growing stone.
Next d’Arrast is introduced to a local ship cook, who Socrates calls “The Champion”. At this point the reader hears a personal account of an experience with God, from a local of the land. We hear how the ship cook’s vessel caught fire, to no fault of his own. The fire engulfs large ship on the river, and the cook must jump unto a lifeboat. During the night the life boat overturns. While drowning the cook makes a promise to Jesus. That if he was saved he would carry a 50 kilos (110 lbs) stone on his back during the religious ceremonies to take place in town. The frenchman gets a chuckle out of the story. It’s clear that d’Arrast is an atheist and finds the promise silly. But agrees with the cook that once a promise is made it must be carried out. A man of principle, our french engineer.
The cook than begs for d’Arrast to join him at night during the ceremonies, so that the frenchman may help him keep his promise. The cook is in fear that he may get carried away by the dancing and be put in a trance. d’Arrast is asked to attend the ceremony and ensure that they leave at a respectable time so that the cook may get rest before the task promised. This annoys d’Arrast, an atheist he feels now responsible for this stranger. He can’t understand how this villager could bestow such a responsibility on him, a man he barely knows. But his fascinations, with the lifestyle and practices continue to grow, and he accepts. d’Arrast is rewarded with a life changing experience.
That night d’Arrast takes part in an out of this world experience. He witnesses the dancing ceremonies of the tribal townspeople devoted to god. This passage of the event is by far the best part of the work, for the vivid images it implants in the reader’s head, and, all the senses the words touch. The writer makes you feel, hear, and smell in his description of the ceremonies.
- Feel - “In the reddish, uncertain light a stifling dust was rising from the ground thickening the already heavy air that clung to the skin, D’arrast felt gradually overcome by fatigue; it was harder and harder for him to breathe.”
- Smell – “The heat, the dust, the smoke of the cigars, the smell of human bodies was making the air completely unbreathable”
- Hear-”At the same time, everyone began to howl, without letup, a long collective, toneless howl, as if their bodies were entirely knotted together, muscles and nerves, in a single powerful outburst that at last gave voice in each of them to a being which had been absolutely silent.
The leader of the ceremony is described to us as a tall black man wearing a fitted red tunic with a necklace of colored teeth. An image all together different then you’d expect to see in a leader found at a place of warship. The ceremony is also nothing like you’d expect in the house of god. There is dancing, screaming, smoking. Pain and pleasure seem to intertwine. It’s more like exorcism than a religious service. But it attracts our frenchmen, the wild smells, the wild dancing, the yells, it captivates not just the reader but our hero. Until he is kicked out.
“They’re going to dance all night, but they don’t want you to stay now”
Here we run into a theme that runs deep through all the stories found in the book. The theme of exile. Even though d’Arrast is in love with the events, the people and the town, he has overstayed his welcome in a sense. It’s as if d’Arrast may partake in everyday activities, but when things get personal, he is after all an outsider, and asked to leave. d’Arrast realizes this
“Life here was at ground level, and to be a part of it one had to lie down and sleep for years on the muddy or parched earth”
On the next day, d’Arrast is invited to experience the religious festival from the balcony of the judges house. Through out the events d’Arrast is on the look out for the cook. As he takes in the view, hears the firecrackers that echo through the town and disturb the birds from their calm rest, the image of the cook evades him. d’Arrast through the friendship with the cook, has developed an attachment to the community. This attachment traps the frenchman between the old and the new. The old he finds no affinity for, and the new that he can never call his own, or fit in with. d’Arrast is trapped.
“Again he wanted to flee this country, and at the same time he was thinking about the enormous stone; he would have liked this trial to be over”
d’Arrast can’t leave because he is entranced by the villagers, from the stories he hears, the rituals he witnesses, and, the sights he takes in. It pulls him in. This echos what Albert Camus must have felt returning to his homeland of Algeria, after spending so many years living in France.
When d’Arrast finally sees the cook carrying the stone on his head, he runs out into the middle of the street. The cook is utilizing all the strength remaining in his body and feeding from the energy of encouragement supplied by the villagers, that surround him. As he takes his final steps with the stone placed on his head, the cook, is described as, having his muscles perturbing in anguish from his bones. The image painted through words is of a broken down man who has spent every conceivable ounce of energy, carrying this burden. A man who can no longer continue. A man defeated, bleeding and collapsed. I keep asking my self is the stone symbolic of something bigger? Is this society burdened by the western laws and religious practices? It seems like d’Arrast realizes this as he picks up the dropped stone and carries it not to the designated destination of a Christian church, but to the Hut of the cook. The final message here is to bring it all back to the basics. To give the people back their freedom, to respect their practices, to let them practice their own history. We find Albert Camus in this main character. A man who wanted his people to be left alone, to be free in their own land, without the imposed laws and politics of the French government.