By Jacinta Le Plastrier
When Albert Camus died, he had been sidelined by his fellow left-wing intellectuals for his opposition to Algerian independence and his condemnation of Stalin’s gulags. Fifty-five years later, writes Jacinta Le Plastrier, his stance on both issues has withstood the assault of time far better than those of his contemporaries.
And the long overdue release of his final book, Algerian Chronicles, translated into English for the first time, reveals the fault-lines of Camus’s approach to his birth-country, in passionate reportage that spans the 1930s through to the 1950s.
Albert Camus published the final book of his lifetime, Algerian Chronicles, in Paris in 1958. The great writer’s final work – his own selection of his deeply haunted articles on his birth-country Algeria and the question of its independence — was met by an almost complete critical silence. That silence continued to reverberate following his early death two years later.
The reason for this public disdain was twofold. Camus had been traumatically sidelined by other European-based left-wing hommes engages such as Jean-Paul Sartre, not just for his opposition to Algerian independence, but for his condemnation of Stalin’s gulags.
Fifty-five years later, Camus’s passionate discourse — and his almost solitary intellectual and activist stance, on both issues — has withstood the assault of time far better than his contemporaries. In the light of this, the long-overdue, full English translation of Algerian Chronicles is presciently relevant.
‘Dismissed or disdained in 1958, Algerian Chronicles has a new life in 2013, a half-century after the independence Camus so feared,’ writes editor Alice Kaplan in her introduction to this new edition. ‘The book’s critique of the dead end of terrorism — the word appears repeatedly, with respect to both sides of the conflict — its insistence on a multiplicity of cultures; its resistance to fundamentalisms, are as meaningful in contemporary Algeria as in London or New York. Camus’s refusal of violence speaks to Algerians still recovering from the civil war of the 1990s – “the dirty wars”, or “black decade” that resulted in an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths.’
In Algerian Chronicles, which gathers his reportage on his birth-country from the 1930s to the 1950s, Camus meshes the machinery of journalistic ‘on-the-grounds’ reportage with what would become his literary hallmark: an austere styling of language whose results are both exquisite and intensely humane.
In the book’s first series, Camus describes the ‘misery’ of the mountain-based Kabyle community, which had suffered a cruel famine in 1939. He writes, ‘The reader will have seen, at least, that misery here is not just a word or a theme for meditation. It exists. It cries out in desperation. What have we done about it, and do we have the right to avert our eyes? I am not sure that anyone will understand.’
Eighteen months after Algerian Chronicles was published – breaking Camus’s self-imposed, almost-complete public silence of 29 months on Algeria – the writer was dead. He died, aged 46, in an auto accident, alongside his publisher Michel Gallimard, who was driving the car.
The final words of his preface to Chronicles, characterised by his customary astringent order, would become valedictory: ‘This is my testimony, and I shall have nothing more to say.’
The absence of the book’s English publication until now speaks to the terrible sentence of silence that was then imposed on this work. This may surprise those who have grown up familiar with his famous writings, such as The Stranger and The Plague.
Camus’s final few years were lived in a form of exile, from both the country of his birth and his Paris-based community of writer-activists. This was despite his being awarded the Nobel Prize laureateship in 1957 — the second-youngest writer after Kipling to have received it.
Camus was denounced within the Algerian milieu, by both colonialists and members of the independence movement. When he last visited Algiers, in 1956, to helm talks discussing a possible French—Algerian solution to the country’s civil conflict, ultracolonialists in the crowd called for his death.
In Chronicles, Camus writes: ‘I know from experience that to say these things today is to venture into a no-man’s-land between hostile armies. It is to preach the folly of war as bullets fly. Bloodshed may sometimes lead to progress, but more often it brings only greater barbarity and misery.’
For 20 years, Camus maintained a consistent approach to Algeria, supporting full reparation for the Algerians and formal reforms that granted equality to both Algerians and French-Algerians (while maintaining a French-based government). His views had led to a virtual ‘exile’ when, following his articles on the ‘misery’ of Kabyle for a left-wing Algerian newspaper, Camus was blacklisted by the French government. He was forced to move to Paris in order to earn a livelihood. Camus’s stance on Algeria, then, was a long and chronically solitary one.
While waging that public silence, broken only by his Nobel speech and a single published letter to Encounter magazine, Camus is estimated to have personally intervened, via private letters of plea to French President René Coty, in 150 cases where Algerians were condemned to die after being charged for participation in pro-independence activities. He did not save all their lives, but he did save a number. Camus intimated, in press interviews around the Nobel Prize, that he had acted on behalf of the Algerian cause in ways that were not known. He did not reveal explicit details of his actions though. His silence, says Kaplan, was being read as ‘a metonymy for cowardice’.
Kaplan is clear about the fault-lines of Camus’s approach to the Algerian issue. When he returned to the country in 1956, the place was unfamiliar after his long ‘exile’. The post-colonial academe attacked his representation of Arab characters. I read Chronicles close on the heels of Camus’s final, incomplete, semi-autobiographical novel, The First Man (published in English in 1995, one year after France). The novel, which narrates his impoverished yet sunlit childhood in Algiers, is evidence that Camus’s own blood, and its Algerian spawning, pulses intimately within the lines of his reportage. Camus also came from the disentitled: he was born into the dirt-poorest pied noir community of Algiers. His father died in the first year of Camus’s life, in World War I and on French soil. This was the household of Camus’s childhood and adolescence: a mother, deaf, almost mute, and illiterate; an uncle, intellectually disabled; and his grandmother, domineering, tyrannical.
Camus described his motivation on the Algerian issue during the presentation in Algiers in 1956. ‘I thought it possible, and even considered it my duty, to come before you to issue a simple appeal to your humanity, which in one respect at least might be able to calm tempers and bring together a majority of Algerians, both French and Arab, without asking them to relinquish any of their convictions … Let me say first — and I cannot emphasize this enough — that by its nature the appeal falls outside the realm of politics …’
‘I am only here under the pressure of the situation and the way I sometimes conceive of my profession as a writer.’
Algerian Chronicles, ed. Alice Kaplan, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, is published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2013).
Jacinta Le Plastrier is a Melbourne-based writer, poet and editor. She is blog editor at Cordite Poetry Review, publisher at John Leonard Press, and is presently a Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. She blogs at www.jacintaleplastrierofficial.blogspot.com.
The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships are designed to give writers space to work on their projects, and made possible by the generous support of the Readings Foundation. In 2013, twenty writers were offered a $1000 stipend and a workspace in the Wheeler Centre over a two month period.