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Albert Camus; Alice Kaplan (ed.), Arthur Goldhammer (trans.)
Harvard Belknap, $21.95 (cloth)
Sixty years ago, in the decade following the Second World War, the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus was an international cultural hero. The Nazis and the atomic bomb had destroyed the historic illusion that there were limits to the damage civilized human beings could or would inflict on one another. Humanity, as an enterprise, had never seemed a more desolating proposition than at this moment. Postwar Europe produced a multitude of writers who reflected the mood of the times, but none spoke more directly to it than Camus.
He was born into an uneducated, working-class family in French Algeria in 1913 and grew up in near-poverty. Due to the efforts of a perceptive grade school teacher, the young Albert made it to the lycée and went on to study at the University of Algiers, from which he emerged a man of the left, intent on the dismaying conditions of life that the colonial regime had visited upon his native land. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, was associated with a number of revolutionary groups, and for a few years wrote for left-wing newspapers. At 25, having been blacklisted because of his anti-colonial journalism, Camus left Algeria for France against his will, and all the years he lived there felt himself to be in exile. Yet when the Germans marched into Paris, he joined the Resistance and soon became the editor of Combat, one of its clandestine newspapers.
Camus’s editorials, both before and after the liberation, revealed a man who, as the conflict wore on, had become more and more sobered by the great paradox of life: namely, that human beings are compelled to seek meaning in a world where meaning is not to be found. For Camus the situation was absurd. After all, what could be more absurd than a war that daily was destroying every belief—moral, spiritual, philosophical—that anyone had ever held about the ability of human beings to see themselves mirrored in one another? For a nihilist, mass suicide might have seemed a reasonable response. But Camus was not a nihilist. It was not suicide that was wanted, he said, it was struggle.
In the middle of the war he published two of his most important works, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. Both books exemplify what was by then being called the principle of the absurd. Both books were motivated by a philosophical concern with revolt against the dilemma of the absurd. And the message that each delivered was this: it is our obligation as individuals to value the life within us for its very own sake; in fact, it is our obligation as individuals to embody that value. The essay on Sisyphus—who is destined to roll up a mountain a stone that, no sooner than it reaches the top, rolls right down again—concludes, “The struggle itself . . . is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
This high-mindedness was politically neutralizing and in 1945 was anathema to many European intellectuals, especially those in France who were actively on the left. In the ’50s, as various countries in the Eastern Bloc mounted nationalist uprisings, Camus stood with the rebels in opposition to Soviet domination; famously, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who had remained communists, fell out with him.
Camus could not accept that between the Arabs and the French colonials there could be no rapprochement.
When the Algerian independence movement became serious in 1954, Camus drew fire from everyone involved—the freedom fighters, the right-wing colonists, the French government itself—because he once again seemed to stand above the fray. Horrified by the barbarism being practiced on all sides in Algeria—both the French and the Arabs were steadily dealing death to the civilian population—Camus pleaded daily for a civil truce before Algeria became a social wasteland. “We know nothing of the human heart,” he said at the time, “if we imagine that the Algerian French can now forget the [Arab] massacres. And it is another form of madness to imagine that repression can make the Arab masses feel confidence and esteem for France.”
Neither group, he went on, could hope to eliminate the other. The “dream of a sudden disappearance of France [in Algeria],” he said, “is childish.” On the other hand, the hope of French Algerians that they could “cancel out, silence and subjugate” nine million Muslims was, realistically speaking, gone with the wind. Camus wanted a confederation of sorts that would permit all the peoples of Algeria to live together in an arrangement that honored coexistence.
This was talk that filled everyone’s head with blood. Both the rebels and the colonists felt their noses being rubbed in the irritating intervention of a holy fool. Fifty years after the war ended in independence for the Algerian Arabs, the French have forgiven Camus for a conciliatory stance that had proved inflammatory, but the Algerians have not. In Algeria today, his books are not read, much less is he claimed with pride as a native writer who won the Nobel Prize. For the most part he is considered an enemy in the country from which he once said he had never “recovered.”
Algerian Chronicles, the only work of Camus’s never before translated into English, is a collection of articles, speeches, and letters to the editor that comprises everything Camus wrote on Algeria. It begins in 1939, at a time, as he says in the preface, “when almost no one in France was interested in the country” and ends in 1958, at a time “when everyone is talking about it.”
The first section of the book is composed of a series of articles Camus wrote in 1939 on Kabylia, a mountainous region in the north of Algeria inhabited for centuries by the Kabyle people, a subset of the Berbers. They had fought French colonization long and hard in the late 19th century. By the 1930s they were a defeated population living in ignorance, unemployment, and near starvation. “In a country where sky and land are invitations to happiness,” Camus wrote, “millions of people are suffering from hunger[.] On every road one sees haggard people in rags.” Not only were they in rags, they lived on a diet of bread and thistles: children died regularly of eating poisonous roots they mistook for edible ones. Those few who went to school, arrived “naked and covered with lice” having walked miles from their villages, eating a fig, an onion, a rare barley cake.
Early on in the series, Camus writes:
I would like to dispose of certain arguments often heard in Algeria, arguments that use the supposed Kabyle ‘mentality’ to excuse the current situation. These arguments are beneath contempt. It is despicable, for example, to say that these people can adapt to anything. . . . When it comes to clinging to life, there is something in a man capable of overcoming the most abject miseries. It is despicable to say that these people don’t have the same needs we do.
A discovery that really shocked him was the inequality of the government’s distribution of grain, vital in a country such as Algeria, between the natives and the Europeans. In approximation, the grain distributed to a family of five natives for two weeks would have fed a French family of three for two days.
A handout of 12 liters of grain every two or three months to families [of natives] with four or five children is the equivalent of spitting in the ocean. Millions are spent every year, and those millions do no good. . . . in some cases the results of charity are useless.
What was needed was a constructive social policy. That policy would have to consist of state-supported projects that would put people to work. As it was, there were none, and people picked up work that brought in starvation wages. “I had been alerted to the fact that wages in Kabylia were insufficient,” Camus writes, “I did not know that they were insulting. I had been told that the working day exceeded the legal limit. I did not know that it was close to twice that long.” In short: life here was slavery.
The hopelessness of the situation turned on the question of education. The natives knew that education was the road to emancipation—the Kabyle “thirst for learning and taste for study have become legendary,” we are told—but the region boasted only a tiny number of schools. “A shortage of schools is the educational issue in Kabylia today.”
“When I look at my notes,” Camus goes on, “I see twice as many equally revolting realities, and I despair of ever being able to convey them all.” But mark them well, he urges his readers. “Imagine the lives of hopelessness and desperation that lie behind them. If you find this normal, then say so. But if you find it repellent, take action. And if you find it unbelievable, then please, go and see for yourself.”
Less than twenty years after Camus wrote these words the Algerian freedom movement would pluck from among the Kabyle people some of its most steadfast leaders.
Camus’s writing on Kabylia is a marvel of eloquence. His sympathy for the people, his critique of the colonial regime, his pain over the injustices that he witnesses—all thrilling. Seventy years after he wrote these pieces the reader is still penetrated by their literary beauty.
But at no time in Algerian Chronicles are we listening to the speaking voice of a revolutionary. It is the voice of a despairing citizen who does not want his country’s government overthrown; he wants it to do better by its people. He wants France to remain in Algeria, but to honor its own founding myths of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
The pieces in Algerian Chronicles that were written years later in France, during the war for independence, are repetitive pleas for each side to stop demonizing the other, for human decency to prevail:
Not all the French in Algeria are bloodthirsty brutes, and not all Arabs are fanatical mass killers.
Bloodshed has driven people apart. Let us not make things worse through stupidity and blindness.
Reparations must be made to eight million Arabs who have hitherto lived under a particular form of repression.
At the same time it must be understood that “some 1,200,000 French natives of Algeria have a right to live in their homeland.”
These pieces read as though a white southern liberal in 1960s America is urging his fellow citizens to bring segregation to an end. But the comparison between more than a hundred years of French rule in Algeria and Jim Crow in Alabama is only mildly applicable.
By 1958, when Algerian Chronicles was published, Camus had exhausted French interest in his call for a civil truce in a conflict that had daily grown more intransigent. Indeed the book received almost no attention. Today, however, it is peculiarly moving to read these pieces because, while they register Camus’s abiding emotional connection to Algeria and his mounting despair as the war raged on, they also reveal the pathos of his position. Namely, his inability to grasp the deepest meaning of empire; namely, the unyielding murder in the hearts of all concerned—oppressed and oppressor alike—once the rebellion begins. Yes, it is freedom and justice that are being called for, but it is murder that is wanted. It isn’t even revenge; it is simply murder. An unholy alliance has prevailed for too long; too many people have done too many unspeakable things to one another. No one, absolutely no one, can any longer believe that those on the other side are human.
In his celebrated essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell laid out the penalties of empire with remarkable clarity. Orwell, the decent truth speaker in the piece, tells us that when he worked as a policeman in Burma in the 1930s, he saw the horrors of empire up close and came to hate the British regime viscerally. At the same time, living among a people who hated and mocked and subverted him daily, he came to feel (also daily) that his greatest satisfaction would come from sticking a knife into the belly of the nearest Buddhist priest.
Humiliation, said Chekhov, is the worst thing that one human can inflict on another. It ruins the souls of those who act and those who are acted upon. The native peoples of Algeria had lived for a hundred years under the rule of the French, who despised, tormented, and, above all, humiliated them. Generations of natives were born into an inherited fear and hatred of those who had thus undone not only them but their parents and grandparents as well. For that accumulated insult: the fire next time.
In a way the tragedy of empire is to be found here, in Camus himself. With all the psychological intelligence at his disposal, he still could not permit himself to realize that between the Arabs and the French colonials there could be no rapprochement. Unlike Orwell, a loyal Englishman able to assume the undivided position of the honest dissenter, Camus was akin to the Anglo-Indian who is torn apart by his divided loyalties: on the one hand, the cause of his native countrymen moved him; on the other, he yearned helplessly toward the European culture that had formed him.
It was precisely this internal division in millions of people who grew up under colonial rule that empire was most guilty of fomenting and most adept at exploiting. It induced the kind of emotional paralysis that inevitably makes the successful revolt against foreign oppression take forever to cohere. Somewhere within himself, I am certain, Camus knew this to be the case with him. Nothing else can account for the longing and sorrow with which Algerian Chronicles is written.
Photograph: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Vivian Gornick’s books include The Odd Woman and the City, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love, The Men In My Life, and Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. She teaches writing at The New School.
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