This short book is a monologue by a Paris barrister, who used to be very successful in his professional and sexual exploits. He seemed to be the epitome of good citizenship and decent behaviour – for instance he likes to defend the weaker members of society in court and he likes to assist blind people across the road. However, at the opening of the book he is hanging around in an Amsterdam bar close to the foggy waterfront, having thrown over his career and exiled himself from his circle of society.
Now he inhabits an innermost circle of hell, echoing Dante’s ‘Inferno’. The canals of Amsterdam around him are the circles of hell. He has fallen from his high and blessed condition, echoing Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. He notes that part of the city’s wealth was built on the slave trade, but also suggests that all of us in modern society are enslaved in some sense. He takes a melancholy pleasure in his surroundings: “I like the breath of stagnant waters, the smell of dead leaves soaking in the canal, and the funeral scent rising from the barges loaded with flowers”.
Why did he fall from his ‘Eden’ of Paris, and why does he describe himself as a ‘Judge Penitent’? This is the complex theme of the monologues to a stranger he met in the waterfront bar. The reasons grow out of his growing sense of his own hypocrisy, and reflect an existentialist ‘nausea’ (to use Sartre’s word). The explanation is the drama of the book, and its epigrammatic style its beauty. Camus artfully draws of the legacy of Franz Kafka and Oscar Wilde. The book has many echoes of the themes of ‘The outsider’, especially in the protagonist’s desire to be judged and desecrated.
The theme of judgement reaches a climax when he asks his listener to open a cupboard, to reveal the original painting of ‘The just judges’. This panel from the Van Eyck altarpiece ‘The adoration of the Lamb’ was stolen from the Cathedral in Ghent in 1934, and never recovered. Camus cleverly and smoothly inserts this real event into his story. This painting embodies the falseness that is an obsession of the book. Visitors to the Cathedral would never know that the replica replacement is not original. So the ‘Just’ judges are the ‘false’ judges. Who has a right to judge others and condemn them? First we have to judge and condemn ourselves.
Camus injects much of his own tortured thoughts about life into the book, but does it in an elegant and controlled manner. It is a book of philosophy, in literary form. It also appears to me to be a strangely, deeply religious book.