Book reviews: Algerian Chronicles | Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

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WHERE Albert Camus has been concerned, silence has been anything but golden: he’s been much castigated for the voiceless Arab characters of L’Étranger and La Peste.

Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus

(Harvard, £16.95) ****

In his own lifetime, he was criticised for keeping quiet as his Algerian homeland slipped into crisis; then, when in 1958 he published this eloquent and passionate plea for understanding, the hush from the reviewers was deafening. Camus’ reticence stemmed in part from his fears for his mother (hard of hearing, as it happens), at home in Algiers; in part from his reluctance to stir up violence on either side. But, as one of over a million pieds noirs himself, he was better placed than any of his comrades on the French Left to appreciate the inadequacy of the opposition they drew between cruel colonialists and a suffering Arab mass. “Day after day,” he says, “these simplifications prove, in a sort of reductio absurdum, that in Algeria the French and the Arabs are condemned either to live together or to die together.” Whether he was ultimately right is open to question: he certainly paid a high price for his nuanced view of the situation.

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man? by Lewis Wolpert

(Faber, £14.99) ****

Professor Higgins posed the question rhetorically, but for Professor Wolpert it’s worth asking literally: why did sexual difference and gender identity develop as they have? Wolpert is emphatic that Men Are From Earth, and Women Are from Earth as Well. But we’ve evolved, and, in so doing, he suggests, been shaped by our environments in line with our reproductive functions. The anatomical differences are obvious (though, interestingly, Wolpert suggests that men are modified women, rather than vice versa); the intellectual ones non-existent; the physiological ones (susceptibility to certain illnesses) banal. But women’s role as mothers has, he says, produced different ways of responding emotionally – greater empathy, for example; whilst men’s tendency to systematise has also been confirmed. A lively and insightful discussion.