The atrocity-ridden 1950s war between Algeria’s independence fighters and a French settler resistance led by the army butchered hundreds of thousands on both sides, mainly civilians. And on their behalf, an eloquent but futile voice:
“All the dead belong to the same tragic family, whose members are now slitting one another’s throats in the dead of night, the blind killing the blind without being able to see who they are,” Albert Camus wrote. “Before long, Algeria will be populated exclusively by murderers and victims. Only the dead will be innocent.” And, he adds, “Tomorrow they will face each other not across an abyss but over a common grave.”
Camus, one of France’s and the century’s great artists, wrote out of a personal, rooted despair. In a time and place of polar divisions, in words as well as deeds, he was a citizen of the equator. Of the Mediterranean, that is; born and raised in Algeria of a settler family, yet a fighter for Algerian rights (though against independence) and denouncer of French and settler oppression. He kept trying vainly to have his nuanced message heard in the cold absolutes of the Paris intellectual world, of which he was both simultaneously a prominent and an estranged member.
Camus’s Algerian political pieces, collected and published in 1956, have now been lucidly translated by Arthur Goldhammer and edited along with some additional material by Yale’s Alice Kaplan. Their appearance in France was met by something worse than attack: virtual indifference. The bloodshed had gone on too long; proposals for compromise, integration, and a sharing of power were well past their sell-by date. History is less reasonable than words and can move faster; Camus’s words, sensible and moving, were left behind; he arrived at the station after the train had left.
His “Algerian Chronicles’’ today have not much more than a long-gone relevance to Algeria. There was no way that the independence struggle could have been gentled into the compromise that Camus advocated and that some of its own leaders had originally favored. As for the settlers, in their intransigent opposition to reforms they were too stiff-necked for anything short of decapitation.
It is in the depiction of Camus’s torn allegiances, though, that his writing still speaks. His childhood and youth belonged to the sun, the pleasures, the rhythms of Algeria, despite the poverty in which his mother struggled, his father having abandoned her. One of the side pieces in this collection is a celebration of Mediterranean culture, with its spontaneity and life, as against the constrictions of northern Europe; even Mussolini’s Italy, he argues, bad as it was, never had quite the totalitarian rigor of Nazi Germany.
In article after article, published in Combat, the underground Resistance newspaper that won a powerful postwar role on the left, Camus repeatedly makes the argument — heresy to the other editors — that the million or so settlers were as much a part of Algeria as its 8 million Muslims. They had been there for generations, and if some were privileged colonial types, the great majority were struggling workers and small farmers.
He unhesitatingly denounced the harshly unjust treatment of the Muslim majority; its exclusion from political power, its economic exploitation, the fact, for instance, that its wartime food ration was inferior to that of the settlers. He forcefully called for equitable economic partnership between the two populations, equal rights, and a shared political role.
It was enough for the settlers’ political leadership to treat him as a traitor; just as the insurgents’ leaders came to hold him in contempt for his opposition to independence (blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be torn to pieces). This stemmed in part from a visceral traditional belief that Algeria could be no other than part of France. Mostly it came from his conviction that independence would eliminate the settlers, as in fact it did.
The most moving part of the “Chronicles’’ comes at the end years after Algeria won its independence, and Camus had abandoned his efforts. At the writer’s Nobel Prize ceremony, an Algerian representative angrily assailed him for not having supported the struggle. Evoking the horrendous atrocities committed against civilians by both sides, Camus spoke a painfully personal, no doubt scandalous line that lifted his personal ties above the abstract arguments for and against independence: “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.”
Later, reflecting his own perpetual ambivalence — ambivalence not as mushy vagueness but as what became the driving force of his literary genius — he reached out to defend the Algerian interlocutor whose aggressiveness he had rebuked at the time.
“I feel closer to him than to many French people who speak about Algeria without knowing it. He knew what he was talking about, and his face reflected not hatred but despair and unhappiness. I share that unhappiness.”
Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at email@example.com.