The Magazine

The French Connection

Paris and Algiers pulled Camus in different directions.

Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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I turn to Joe and Guigitte Frank, who thought they were going to spend a quiet afternoon at my father's and not get drawn into old polemics. But their years of teaching have made them more patient, and Joe offers an answer: It matters to anyone who still reads, he says. So I offer him a sample of David Carroll's prose:

The "Algerian in Camus," in the sense I am using the term, does not, however, constitute an "Algerian identity" that would define Camus; it is rather the locus of a problem, of a split or conflict of national cultural and political identities that is expressed in his writings in various ways.

Joe winces. My father's brows turn up in genuine surprise. He fell out of touch with the university world when he went overseas for long decades of service to our country. It gets worse:

The Algerian in Camus is also an important component of his agnosticism, of his determined resistance to political and religious doctrines, systems, and ideas, the side of him that maintains a distance from--and a complicated, oppositional relationship with--national, religious, cultural, ethnic, and political identities, the side that resists oneness, sameness, uniformity, and all expressions of absolute truth.

Carroll is a good man. He is trying to do the right thing. But why not just say that Camus was confused? Which would be factually mistaken, but it would at least be clear. Camus was not confused and he had no identity problems, if that's what Carroll is trying to say. He had, to be sure, a complicated personal life, some of which took place in the streets around here; but that is a different matter entirely. He was Algerian--of course he was Algerian, français d'Algérie--and that was never an issue; but in the academy it seems to have become an issue.

Carroll takes us through several of Camus's key books, including The Stranger and The Plague, to mutilate those who would make Camus an apologist for the colonial regime. In doing this, Carroll misinterprets almost as grossly as they falsify. I learn in Albert Camus the Algerian that there is a "post-colonial" school of literary criticism which posits that The Stranger is racist because the Arab victim of the anti-hero Meursault has no name. Or that the plague in The Plague is a metaphor for the de facto apartheid in Algeria because there are no Arabs in the fictional Oran (Algeria's western capital) where the story is set.

Carroll argues, on the contrary, that Meursault is "the other" and is executed as "an Arab and a Jew." The Plague, he says, by omitting the Arabs, is really an attack on colonial segregation. The first thing you notice about The Stranger is its title. Meursault's problem is existential. As to The Plague, Camus--who knew there was a vicious strain of anti-Semitism among the often pro-Vichy pieds-noirs, notably in Oran--made it very clear that he was writing a parable of the Nazi occupation of Europe and the duty to resist evil.

Camus's journalism during the Algerian war, mainly in the form of editorial commentary collected in 1958 in the slim volume Chroniques algériennes, sought to separate the combatants. His position was that the cycles of terror and repression played into the hands of the extremists on both sides, which seems obvious enough in retrospect. He was sensible and reasonable. However, it took only a few people who were not sensible or reasonable, but who had access to bombs, to render his position irrelevant.

I assume this is where Carroll thinks his book can be read with profit by someone with no particular interest in French literature or Algerian history. But can the Algerian controversies serve as lessons for today's war in Iraq? More specifically, Carroll, in one overwrought sentence, asks why George W. Bush did not read Camus before starting all the trouble: It would have sharpened his sense of justice. But I have the impression that, as a matter of fact, the president did read Camus somewhere along the way.

The present situation in Iraq, Carroll writes, bears some resemblance to the situation Camus commented on with futile good sense and goodwill. Perhaps. We are presently engaged in operations in Iraq, allied with some Iraqis against others who are themselves supported by a Muslim internationale. Many Muslims are opposed to this internationale, which wants our ruin and their destruction. In the end, though, the only question in conflicts like this is who shall have power locally. The French army and government always had a problem in that the settler "tribe" was adamant about not wanting to share power while the FLN was adamant that its core leadership would monopolize power, Leninist-style.

In these circumstances, the hearts-and-minds strategies that the army tried, with occasional success, were like spitting in the wind. Camus was considered naive at best, a traitor at worst, by pied-noir public opinion, and would probably be called a wimp today by Muslim nationalists. In a (successful) strategy of cutting off and starving the insurgents while they hunted them down, the French took the battle to Egypt during the Suez expedition, and sealed off the borders with Tunisia and Morocco. I don't know if this is germane to the geography of Mesopotamia; it is true, though, that the French army took a few years to find winning tactics.

Simply projecting from what Camus said about terror and torture, he would surely have condemned people who set off bombs in marketplaces and mosques. He would have opposed the ill-treatment of prisoners, while seeking to know whether such ill-treatment was systemic or an aberration. On the strategy of choosing Iraq as a battlefield in a larger war, there is no point in speculating: He was not keen on military solutions. But he never said the French army was wrong to defend the civilian population in Algeria. Maybe he would have felt the same way about the American, British, and Iraqi forces battling marketplace killers--maybe not. But what motivated his attitude toward Algeria was that his people lived there.

Would he think the U.S. Army should stay out of the sectarian and tribal conflicts tearing Iraq apart? The doctor in The Plague views his duty as a call to act in a seemingly hopeless situation. Camus probably did not take the full measure of Algerian national sentiment, which united Arabs and Berbers, liberal nationalists like Ferhat Abbas (whom Camus respected), Leninists and proto-Islamists, against the French. What would he have thought of our attempt to encourage such sentiment in the geographical expression called Iraq? Would he have blamed us for unleashing the dogs of civil war in a once-united Iraq by leaving a power vacuum after removing the tyrant who held it together by terror?

Forty-seven years after his death, no one can say.

Roger Kaplan is the author of Conservative Socialism: The Decline of Radicalism and the Triumph of the Left in France.