Stranger in His Own Land
By Albert Camus
Edited by Alice Kaplan & translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press 224pp £16.95)
For a long time, the accepted wisdom on Albert Camus's response to the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) has been that he was a coward. This was the view first promulgated by his former friend and rival Jean-Paul Sartre, who accused Camus of having the 'morality of a boy scout' for refusing to praise the terrorist actions of the Algerian nationalists, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1957, Camus famously stated: 'People are now planting bombs on the tramway of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.' Since then this impassioned statement has been held up by generations of anti-colonialists and academic post-colonialist theorists - including the likes of Edward Said - as proof of Camus's weak-mindedness and vacillating nature and, by extension, colonial arrogance towards Algeria, the land where he was born and grew up in the poorest kind of pied-noir family (pied-noir, 'blackfoot', was the term used to describe French settlers in Algeria on the grounds that they wore 'black shoes').
Yet, as Alice Kaplan points out in her scholarly and insightful introduction to this collection of Camus's writings on Algeria, Camus was not at all the 'sentimental egoist' that his enemies wanted him to be. He was in fact convulsed in agony over the war that was tearing Algeria apart. Behind the scenes, he had lobbied to spare Algerian nationalists the death penalty and publicly advocated a federal Algeria where Arabs, Berbers, Jews and colons (settlers) could cohabit. This was perhaps a utopian vision but it was grounded in the reality of the Algeria in which Camus had come to maturity - a collage of pan-Mediterranean languages, races and religions. The fatal flaw in this imagining of Algeria is of course that, for all its friendly overtures to the 'Muslim' or the 'Arab', it is still an overwhelmingly European view of Algeria as a neoclassical pagan Paradise. This is the Algeria described by Camus with loving attention to the scenery and the light and with a powerful nostalgia for a lost (European) antiquity.
The singular importance of Algerian Chronicles is that it brings together for the first time in English all of Camus's writings on Algeria, ranging over his early journalism covering the famine in Kabyle in 1939 to his appeals for reason and justice in Algeria in 1958. Beautifully translated by Arthur Goldhammer, they reveal Camus not so much as a philosopher (or 'ponderous metaphysician' as Said called him) but as something like a French George Orwell. Certainly, in all these essays he demonstrates a most un-Parisian aversion for abstraction and a taste for the concrete detail that reveals the reality of a situation.
In the weeks before the 1955 massacre at Philippeville (now Skikda, a port in northeast Algeria), which was a veritable orgy of slaughter on both sides and a turning point in the war, Camus published two articles in the left-leaning journal L'Express outlining his thoughts on terrorism and repression. He argued that since the elections in recent years had been falsified, the Muslims lived with 'no future and in humiliation'. He did not excuse terror as a weapon of war but he did understand that, as he put it, 'in Algeria, as elsewhere, terrorism can be explained by a lack of hope'. Even at this late stage, Camus wished for a compromise solution in Algeria which would encourage settlers and Muslims to return to the relatively peaceful innocence that Camus had known there in the 1930s. The extreme nature of the violence in Philippeville, however, changed everything. The poet Jean Amrouche, like Camus a child of Algeria, wrote that Camus's idealism and liberalism were finished: 'The evil is too profound ... No agreement is possible between the natives and French of Algeria ... I no longer believe in French Algeria.'
Camus desperately tried to argue against this view. After Philippeville, the French and Algerian communities waited for him to propose a way out of the impasse. But Camus was now exhausted: 'My days are poisoned,' he wrote to a friend, 'but Arabs and Frenchmen must find a way to live together.' However, he was also depressed about the possibility of this happening: 'Algeria is not France,' he wrote again in L'Express, 'it isn't even Algeria, it is that unknown land which a cloud of blood hides.'
Eventually Camus decided to go to Algeria. He hoped to begin a dialogue between the warring sides, even perhaps initiate a truce. At a series of public meetings he tried to engage his audience with the idea of 'humanising the war' - stating that the FLN should abandon terrorism against civilians. He had, however, severely underestimated the climate of hate. He was denounced by the FLN for referring to 'Arabs' and not 'Algerians'. By the end of his stay he was receiving death threats and was a target for kidnapping. FLN supporters tried to infiltrate his remaining meetings. At his final talk, in a hall near the Place du Gouvernement, thousands of French Algerians gathered outside the lecture theatre to chant 'Death to Camus!' His audience was visibly moved by his plea that all men should be free 'not to employ or submit to terror'. Political leaders on all sides admired Camus's argument for a truce but did not see how it could work.
Camus returned to Paris in despair, describing the situation in Algeria as a 'Munich of the Left-Wing', meaning that the French Left was reaching compromises with a political force - the FLN - which had no stake in the universal values of the left. The French Left was indeed generally sympathetic to the Algerian cause and many intellectuals developed the position that the only proper response was to participate actively in the struggle. Most notably, the philosophy teacher Francis Jeanson, an intimate of Sartre, organised a support network for the FLN in Paris, which led to his arrest and trial in 1960. A campaign orchestrated by Jean-Paul Sartre produced the famous 'Manifesto of the 121', a petition against the Algerian War signed by prominent intellectuals of the day. The wider argument ran that the French in Algeria were now acting like the Nazis had done twenty years earlier in France. As allegations of torture and murder perpetrated by the French army became widely known and corroborated it was hard even for moderates to justify the war in Algeria.
Camus was, however, almost alone among his contemporaries in understanding that the revolution which the FLN craved was not on the model of the Enlightenment ideals of the French Revolution but something else altogether: a return to the 'Islamic Empire', a religious totality that Camus could no more embrace than communism or Nazism. He told his old teacher Jean Grenier that the Muslims 'are making insane demands for an independent Algerian government, where the French will be considered as foreigners unless they want to convert to Islam. War is inevitable.'
For his part, Camus explicitly condemned torture, not only as an ineffective weapon, creating in its wake more rebels as a response, but also as a moral degradation of the torturer and the power he represents. There is no way of turning back or recovering from this position. 'It is better to suffer certain injustices than to commit them,' he wrote. 'Such fine deeds would lead to the demoralization of France and the loss of Algeria.' Camus's nuanced observation soon became a prophecy.
As Alice Kaplan again insightfully points out, after years of treating him with neglect and derision, many Algerian intellectuals are now beginning to return to Camus. The trigger for this was the 'black decade' of the 1990s, when the Algerian government fought a shadowy civil war against Islamist insurgents. Tens of thousands of Algerians lost their lives in this bloody conflict. On my last visit to Algiers I also spoke with middle-class Algerian intellectuals who had been targeted by Islamists precisely for their 'anti-Islamic', pro-European ways. At last, rather than despising Albert Camus as a coward, there is a new generation of readers in Algeria who are beginning to understand how he felt: torn between opposing forms of terror, neither of which promised justice or redemption. Algerian Chronicles is a beautiful and significant illustration of the complexities of that dilemma.
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Andrew Hussey is currently writing a book called The French Intifada for Granta.