Reflections from Camus in his centennial year.
Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By ROGER KAPLAN
World War II posed no moral or existential problems for Albert Camus. As it began, he was 26 years old and had already made his mark as a crusading journalist; within a couple of years he would be famous for a shocking novel, The Stranger. With his family and his wife’s family in relative security in Algeria, he left the Paris paper where he was working when it fired its Jewish staff and entered, as the idiom had it, into resistance. Camus became one of the editors of Combat, one of the most widely circulated clandestine newspapers, and lived for a time in the Resistance stronghold of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
Camus sensed, and expressed starkly, what many of his contemporaries felt with vague premonitions and discomfort: The world does not care whether you get out of bed on the wrong foot, or have no running water, or are condemned to death because of your ancestry (or present beliefs). What follows is that you have a choice: You can succumb to the horror and become a vegetable or an opportunist, a person with no moral compass; or you can use your reason and senses to think things through and find what is right, and live accordingly.
This applies to the political life, life in society, and the aesthetic life, wherein you learn to appreciate the beauty, both natural and artificial, of which the world is full. Such a life, even hesitatingly approached by the ill- or incompletely educated characters who sometimes appear in Camus’s writings, transcends the absurdity of it all—at least insofar as can be done by mere mortals.
This Camus-in-a-nutshell hardly does justice to France’s 1957 Nobel laureate in literature. But full justice, as he surely knew, is scarcely within anyone’s grasp; the striving for it gives life meaning. Albert Camus (1913-1960) sought justice throughout his life, and nowhere as insistently as in his native Algeria.
Curiously enough, his papers on the continuing Algerian crisis, which cover 20 years, have never before been published in English. This present edition is a translation, with some minor editorial notes and a helpful introduction, of the third volume of the selections he made of his journalistic writings, Actuelles (Current Events), in 1958. It is devoted entirely to Algeria and collects the pieces he considered most helpful for finding a just solution to a situation that, at the time, seemed utterly blocked.
Camus’s anticolonialist credentials were solid. They were well in advance of the French left—which, in fact, supported colonialism almost to the bitter end—and of the Third Worldist fashion that evolved as a kind of replacement faith to orthodox socialism in the late 1950s. Camus was no romantic and did not expect salvation for the Algerian people, or any other ex-oppressed non-Europeans. He only hoped that they would demonstrate more political lucidity than their ex-oppressors. He viewed this as their only chance to make the kind of country, and society, that they claimed to want.
Thus, in the anticolonial writings he contributed to the left-of-center Alger républicain in 1937-8—represented here by selections from a series of reports called “The Misery of Kabylia” (Kabylia being the mountainous Berber region to the east of Algiers) and in the alarm he tried to sound in Combat upon returning to Algeria in 1945, able to see the looming crisis—the theme is that France had betrayed its own values in Algeria.
Camus took with utmost seriousness the principles of French republicanism, which were flouted with impunity in what was, administratively, supposed to be not a colony but three overseas départements of France. In reality, the Algerian Muslim majority was, except for a narrow fringe, deprived of its political and civil rights, and the economic consequences were of a level of misery that, Camus warned, approached mass starvation.
The unjust system in Algeria, however, was not to be blamed on the French settlers, the large majority of whom were, like Camus’s own family, of extremely modest means. Camus insisted that the Français d’Algérie should not be made to carry the blame and pay the price for the failed policies of Third and Fourth Republic politicians eager to make advantageous political arrangements with the small, cliquish, settler upper class.
But that is exactly what happened. When, in 1954, the federation of nationalist parties known as the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) took command of the independence movement, thrusting its most ruthless elements into command and launching a terror and guerrilla campaign, the reaction in Paris was brutal: “The only negotiation is war,” said François Mitterrand, then a young minister of justice (no doubt Camus appreciated the bitter irony). But as the FLN dug in, the center-left governments of the Fourth Republic began talking of negotiations that would, the settlers believed, lead to surrender.
Camus’s writings, mainly in L’Express—a magazine founded to oppose a purely military solution to the crisis—took on a different cast. The theme of justice remained dominant. But now he called attention to the coming injustice he feared would be done to his people, even as he continued to focus on the injustices committed for a century-and-a-half, in the name of a civilizing mission, against the Arabs and Berbers.
Thus, Algerian Chronicles is one of the most dramatic volumes ever published in the genre of “selected news columns.” For, in Camus’s case, and particularly in the third Actuelles, what we have is not only real reporting and sensible policy recommendations, but the record of a soul in crisis.
It is not that Camus was ambivalent about what was happening in Algeria. He remained steadfast in his belief that nothing was possible unless and until republican principles were truly and universally applied. Indeed, he was perfectly willing, even eager, to consider such matters as reparations, well aware (as his reporting shows) of the economic spoliation to which the Muslim majority was subjected. What he could not accept, however, was the idea of turning over a country of many and diverse communities to a single-party Arab nationalist regime.
After 1957 and the publication of his selections the following year, Camus cloaked himself in his famous “silence” on Algeria. He explained that the words he wrote, words of moderation and measure, would be distorted and abused. Since he was a marked man on both sides—as an apologist for colonialism by left-wing, Stalinist fellow travelers like Sartre, and as a traitor to his own people by the Algérie française—he feared that his own family, including his mother still in Algeria, would be targeted. Thus, during the last years of the war in Algeria, when it became the dominant political issue in France, Camus stayed on the sidelines.
One can only conjecture, of course, but even had he stayed in the debate until his death in an automobile accident in 1960, Camus likely would not have had much influence. Which is, perhaps, the enduring lesson of this volume. Since the voice of restraint—what Camus liked to call the “Mediterranean voice”—cannot be heard in the midst of a savage war of peace, the greatest gift that a man of letters can offer is the example of courage: to stand on one’s own ground and speak, even if it means going against the conformism of thought that will, in the end, prevail.
Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington.