Book review: Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus

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ALBERT Camus was that rare kind of writer who enjoyed a celebrity usually reserved for rock stars, even while being taken seriously as an artist and intellectual.

Algerian Chronicles

Albert Camus, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, edited by Alice Kaplan

Harvard University Press, £16.95

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature at the age of just 44, when he was killed in a car crash three years later, people mourned all over the world.

Born into a French family that had settled in Algeria generations earlier, he was devastated when the Algerian war for independence broke out in 1954. For years he had voiced strong criticism of French colonial policy in Algeria, and was forced to leave the country in 1940 after the authorities shut down the newspaper where he had published his most critical articles.

A passionate believer in justice for all, he supported Arab aspirations for political rights but could not give up his own love of, and claim to, Algeria. Above all, he felt outrage and horror at the blood being shed on both sides. In 1955, his “Letter to an Algerian Militant” showed both his hopeful vision for the country and his growing awareness that it was becoming unrealisable. Here the letter appears in its entirety for the first time in English, expertly translated by Arthur Goldhammer.

But Camus’s position in “no man’s land” left him increasingly isolated: hated by the right for his condemnation of government policies, scorned by the left for his inability to imagine an independent Algeria from which the French would be absent.

Alice Kaplan’s introduction traces the evolution of Camus’s positions on the Algerian conflict, as well as the ups and downs of critics’ judgments. While Camus’s first readers saw him as a philosopher concerned with universal questions of human existence, some influential critics writing after the 1970s considered him a typical pied noir (the usual designation for French people from Algeria), whose works present a colonialist perspective. In recent years, however, the pendulum has swung back; Kaplan notes that the bloody civil war of the 1990s in Algeria has made many Algerian intellectuals appreciate Camus’s­ steadfast rejection of violence. Some of the most memorable pages here restate an argument ­Camus had already developed at length in The Rebel: not all means are acceptable, even when employed for noble ends; terrorism and torture destroy the very goals they are supposed to serve. This position was criticised as “idealist” (it was the reason for the famous break with Sartre), but Camus sticks to it – admirably, in my opinion: “Although it is historically true that values such as the nation and humanity cannot survive unless one fights for them, fighting alone cannot justify them (nor can force). The fight must itself be justified, and explained, in terms of values.”

Even more eloquent, perhaps, are his remarks on the responsibility of intellectuals in times of hatred: “It is to explain the meaning of words in such a way as to sober minds and calm fanaticisms.” In the preface, he asks his readers to “set their ideological reflexes aside for a moment and just think”.

And that is the best reason for reading these articles today. Algeria never did become the peaceful federation Camus dreamed of, where pieds noirs and Arabs, Berbers and Jews lived together. As Kaplan points out, we cannot know how he would have reacted to the final years of the war, or to independence. We do know that his ethical positions are still meaningful, worldwide. «