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Home > General > Camus and Algeria: The Moral Question | Claire Messud in NYRB

Camus and Algeria: The Moral Question | Claire Messud in NYRB

11 November 2013

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The New York Review of Books - November 7, 2013 Issue

Camus & Algeria: The Moral Question

Claire Messud

Algerian Chronicles
by Albert Camus, edited and with an introduction by Alice Kaplan, and translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 224 pp., $21.95

“What a misfortune is the one of a man without a city.” “Oh make it so that I will not be without a city,” the choir said [in Medea]. I am without a city.

—Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1951–1959

One Christmas when I was in my early twenties, my mother, my sister, and I returned home from midnight services to find my deeply private and resolutely lapsed father watching John Paul II’s mass at St. Peter’s on television, his face wet with tears. Distressed to see him thus, we asked why he was crying. “Because when I last heard the mass in Latin,” he replied, “I thought I had a religion, and I thought I had a country.” My father, like Albert Camus, was a pied-noir, a French Algerian. Eighteen years Camus’s junior, he grew up in Bab el-Oued, a working-class neighborhood of Algiers not unlike Camus’s Belcourt. There was no money, but my grandfather was an officer in the navy. Camus’s father was killed early in World War I when his son was a year old, and he and his brother were raised by their mother, who was illiterate and almost deaf, their fierce grandmother, and their largely mute barrel-maker uncle.

My father, like Camus, attended the Lycée Bugeaud, where Jacques Derrida was his classmate (“I always did better than him in philosophy,” my father said), and the Faculté, where he studied law. In 1952, he departed for the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship—the list of French recipients that year shows him to be the lone student from Algeria—and thereafter he would always live in exile, in France, Australia, or North America. But surely he left home without appreciating that it would prove impossible to return.

My grandfather, just eight years older than Camus, hailed from still more modest origins in Blida, southwest of Algiers. His mother, an elementary school teacher and the daughter of an illiterate garçon de café, raised four children alone. The youngest, my grandfather, was, like Camus, a beneficiary of the meritocratic French education system of the period, and made his way from remote poverty to the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris, after which he entered the navy as a career officer. A devout Catholic and passionate French patriot, he also adored his native Algeria: letters between my grandparents wax as lyrical about their beloved landscapes as they do about each other.

Nobody in my family ever spoke about the Algerian War. They told many stories about the 1930s and 1940s, when my father and aunt were children; but of what happened later, they were silent. In 1955, my grandfather took a position in Rabat, Morocco, and my grandparents did not live in Algeria again. In the late 1950s, when the war in Algeria was at its most fevered and vicious, my father was doing graduate work on Turkey at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard: after his death, among his papers from that period, I found files of clippings on political upheavals in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, India, Morocco, Libya, in addition to Turkey—but not one word about his homeland. My father’s lonely tears twenty-five years ago were, as far as I know, his only expression of emotion about what happened.

Last year, on July 5, 2012, Algeria celebrated fifty years of independence from France. When Albert Camus perished in a car accident near Sens on January 4, 1960, at the age of forty-six, two and a half years before the Évian Accords that ended the war, he had become a figure of contempt and scorn for both the left and the right, seen as simultaneously naive and dogmatic in his persistent hope for a moderate Algerian solution. As late as 1958, Camus wrote that his aim was to “achieve the only acceptable future: a future in which France, wholeheartedly embracing its tradition of liberty, does justice to all the communities of Algeria without discrimination in favor of one or another.”

November 7 of this year marks Camus’s centenary. The artist and essayist—the author of L’Étranger (1942) and L’Homme révolté (1951)—has consistently held the reading public’s admiration and imagination. But his attitudes on the Algerian question—excoriated by his contemporaries on all sides, and subsequently by critics as diverse as Conor Cruise O’Brien and Edward Said—remain controversial.

The recent publication, for the first time in English, of Camus’s Algerian Chronicles, edited and introduced by Alice Kaplan and beautifully translated by Arthur Goldhammer, affords Camus the belated opportunity to make his own case to the Anglophone public. This book, in slightly different form, proved his final public word on the Algerian question when it was originally published in June 1958. Ending two and a half years of public silence that followed his failed call for a civilian truce in Algiers in January 1956—a silence that became, according to Kaplan, “a metonymy for cowardice” but that my relatives would have recognized as agony—Algerian Chronicles was published in France in 1958 to “widespread critical silence.”

The lack of interest that greeted the book can be attributed in part to its publication fast upon the heels of Henri Alleg’s The Question, the vivid and disturbing autobiographical account of the author’s torture in the Barberousse prison in Algiers, an immediate best seller subsequently suppressed by the French authorities. This book, and the debates that arose from it, greatly affected French public opinion on the war; and it was, thereafter, impossible to ignore the facts about the French military’s use of torture.

The Question was followed, a year later, by The Gangrene, the accounts of seven young Algerian intellectuals and students tortured by French authorities in Paris. This book, like Alleg’s, was rapidly suppressed in France, and was translated into English by Robert Silvers, the editor of this journal. As the American publisher Lyle Stuart wrote in his introduction to the US edition:

The tortures described in this book didn’t take place on a lonely country road three miles from a primitive village…. They happened in the heart of Paris, France. They happened eight months after General Charles de Gaulle assumed power…less than three hundred yards from the Elysée Palace.

Camus had ceased to seem a relevant spokesman on the subject: having been, in his youth, at the vanguard in his attempts to bring to public attention the plight of native Algerians, it seemed to many that he had, throughout the 1950s, fallen out of touch with the realities of his homeland. This was not a matter of inattention or lack of commitment; it resulted, rather, from a worldview that could not conceive of an Algeria that was not French. When, in the midst of the atrocities—both by the French and the Algerians—as many around Camus came to accept the inevitability of an independent Algeria, and his beloved lycée teacher and mentor Jean Grenier pondered Algeria’s fate were France to abandon it, Camus fiercely insisted: “She cannot, because she could never agree to throw one million, two hundred thousand Frenchmen into the sea.”

Algerian Chronicles assembles twenty years of Camus’s writings on Algeria, from his reporting on poverty in Kabylia for the Alger républicain in June 1939 to his call in 1956 for a civilian truce, first mooted in his column in L’Express and subsequently presented to the people of Algiers in a rowdy and poignantly disastrous town meeting on January 22 of that year. The selection is rounded out by his 1958 preface to the collection itself, and includes various illuminating appendices.

To witness the progression of his responses is to recognize above all the remarkable consistency of Camus’s moral conviction, the dogged optimism of his outlook, and his unfailing ability, even in the complex turmoil of emotional involvement with the issue, to cleave to his own principles of justice. The positions that he took on Algeria in the 1950s can be anticipated not simply in his reporting from Kabylia, but in philosophical positions and notebook entries from very early on—as, for example, in his early pacifist tendencies when working on the Alger républican in 1939; or in his open letter of 1948 to Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie: “I merely say that we must refuse all legitimacy to violence, whether it comes from raison d’état or totalitarian philosophy. Violence is both unavoidable and unjustifiable.”

There is little distance from this to his 1958 preface, in which he reminds the French that “we must refuse to justify these methods [reprisals and torture] on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain.” And by the same token, he addresses the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the movement for Algerian independence: “No matter what cause one defends, it will suffer permanent disgrace if one resorts to blind attacks on crowds of innocent people.” If criticism is to be effective, he continues, “both camps must be condemned.”

Along with them, he chastises armchair intellectuals (implicitly pointing a finger at Jean-Paul Sartre) who endorse terrorist violence from afar:

Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries. This is a casuistry of blood with which intellectuals should, I think, have nothing to do, unless they are prepared to take up arms themselves.

It was this moral lucidity that had provoked Camus’s disenchantment with communism and underpinned his ardent opposition to the death penalty, a stance that prompted him to speak out, at different times, to save the lives of Nazi collaborators and FLN terrorists alike.

What changed, of course, was not Camus but the situation in Algeria. His 1939 visit to Kabylia—a mountainous region in northern Algeria populated by Berbers—exposed him to conditions of famine and destitution previously unimagined. Like Chekhov visiting Sakhalin, he was profoundly affected by the suffering he witnessed. His impassioned articles are full of facts (“a family of eight needs approximately 120 kilos of wheat for just one month’s worth of bread. I was told that the indigents I saw had to make their 10 kilos last the entire month”) and radical proposals: “They will have more schools on the day that the artificial barrier between European and indigenous schools is removed.”

In the event, this series did not contribute to any change in government policy. Rather, along with his other articles, it resulted in the shuttering of the Alger républicain and the effective expulsion of Camus from Algeria to Paris after March 1940.

When Camus again turned his journalist’s eye to the subject of his homeland, it was in Combat, his Resistance newspaper in Paris, following the uprising that began in Sétif on May 8, 1945—the incident that essentially marked the beginning of the Algerian War (although there was no further violence until 1954). According to Alistair Horne in A Savage War of Peace, over five days in and around Sétif, 103 Europeans were murdered and one hundred wounded; “many of the corpses were appallingly mutilated: women with their breasts slashed off, men with their severed sexual organs stuffed into their mouths.”
messud_2_110713.jpg Apic/Getty Images
Albert Camus at the age of seven (center, wearing black) in his uncle’s workshop, Algiers, 1920

The repression and reprisals by the French military claimed a far greater number of casualties: estimates varied from around 1,300 to an astounding 45,000. As the poet Kateb Yacine recalled: “I was sixteen years old. The shock which I felt at the pitiless butchery that caused the deaths of thousands of Muslims, I have never forgotten. From that moment my nationalism took definite form.”

While the details of these events were little reported in France, Camus nevertheless devoted a series of articles to the “Crisis in Algeria.” He once again laid out the distressing economic conditions, alarming statistics, and history of famine that underpinned the Algerians’ call for freedom, pointing out, furthermore, that many Algerians had only recently fought for France. He denounced France’s failure to make good on its long-standing official goal of assimilation and citizenship for all Arabs in Algeria, and warned that “if you are unwilling to change quickly enough, you lose control of the situation.”

Camus concluded by endorsing the moderate Algerian leader Ferhat Abbas and his Party of the Manifesto, who called for an Algerian constitution and assembly; and, typically, by emphasizing the demands of justice: “We must convince ourselves that in North Africa as elsewhere, we will preserve nothing that is French unless we preserve justice as well.”

Between 1945 and 1954, when the FLN was established (the name of the party, incidentally, that has ruled Algeria to this day), the Muslim population of Algeria became more and more radical in its demands, and moved inexorably toward revolution and a call for independence. Tellingly, perhaps, it was during this time that Camus, disillusioned by Stalinism, wrote L’Homme révolté (The Rebel), in which he questioned accepted accounts of revolution (including France’s), and argued that all modern revolutions have ended up reinforcing the state’s authority.

Camus, in his letter to Kessous, lamented that “Algeria is where I hurt at this moment, as others feel pain in their lungs,” a telling analogy from one who suffered from tuberculosis. He argued, still, for the peace that Soustelle could no longer envisage. “Bloodshed may sometimes lead to progress, but more often it brings only greater barbarity and misery,” he warned, and in spite of the violence, held out his hand to Kessous: “I will be told, as you will be told, that the time for compromise is over and that the goal now must be to wage war and win. But you and I both know that there will be no real winners in this war….”

By this relatively early juncture in 1955, Camus, in his beautiful, obdurate optimism, had parted company with reality. While he continued to believe that “the dream that the French will suddenly disappear is childish” and that there “will be no real winners in this war,” the FLN was determined to attain independence by all necessary means. By September 1956, it was official FLN policy to attack civilians. One of its leaders, Ramdane Abane, said that “one corpse in a jacket is always worth more than twenty in uniform.” Urban bombings became widespread.

At the same time, after Philippeville, the pieds-noirs were given permission to bear arms, thereby escalating levels of fear and violence; by late 1956, the right-wing terrorism sponsored by the French officers and activists who later formed the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) was underway; and by January 1957, General Massu had been granted unlimited military control over the city of Algiers. Torture of Algerians and of European dissidents—such as Alleg, author of The Question—became commonplace; the FLN engaged in torture as well.

By the time of Camus’s final public effort, his simple and heartfelt call for a civilian truce, in late January 1956, the situation in Algeria was irredeemably bitter:

What do we want? We want the Arab movement and the French authorities, without entering into contact with each other or making any other commitment, to declare simultaneously that as long as the troubles continue, civilian populations will at all times be respected and protected.

This plea was met with resounding indifference on both sides; and following this failure any public position at all became, for Camus, untenable. As the Tunisian Jewish writer Albert Memmi wrote in late 1957:

Camus has been forced to become silent because everything about North Africa paralyzes him…. It must be understood that his situation is by no means easy; it is not intellectually or emotionally easy to have all of one’s family on a side that is morally condemned.

And from his contemporary perspective, Camus’s biographer Robert Zaretsky eloquently observes:

Camus’ silence over the war ravaging his native Algeria, the source of nearly all his images of worldly beauty, did not transcend ethics. Instead, it flowed from his recognition that the humiliated were on both sides in this conflict: the great majority of pieds-noirs as well as Arabs.

Camus’s honesty and consistency retain, in retrospect, a moral purity that few others could claim. He saw that “the era of colonialism is over,” but felt that “the only problem now is to draw the appropriate consequences”—in this case, a moderate solution that would provide rights for all members of the society, including his own community.

Next to Camus, his peers seem cynical at best: Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir celebrated the FLN—as they had celebrated Stalin—from the comfortable remove of their Paris cafés. Raymond Aron’s approach to the crisis was to produce a cost-benefit analysis proving that the colony was no longer a financially workable proposition for France and hence should be abandoned. The French military and government were responsible for acts of torture and violence that would irreparably compromise France’s honor. And when Camus approached the great De Gaulle to propose the simple solution of French citizenship for all Algerians—this in March 1958, two months before the general retook power having used, among others, the slogan “We are all Frenchmen, from Dunkirk to Tamanrasset!”—De Gaulle reportedly scoffed, “Right, and we’ll have fifty niggers [bougnoules] in the Chamber of Deputies.”

In fact, Camus’s plea for a truce was not entirely ignored. Germaine Tillion was a French anthropologist and writer who, like Camus, had spent time among the indigenous Algerians in the 1930s, in her case researching a doctorate on the tribes of the Aurès Mountains. Sent back to Algeria in 1954 by Francois Mitterrand (then minister of the interior), she produced a report on the conditions of Muslim life that was in harmony with Camus’s perspective (Algeria: The Realities, published in English in 1958). Tillion was called, in June 1957, eighteen months after Camus’s appeal, to a clandestine meeting with the FLN’s leader, Saadi Yacef. As a result of their intense, four-hour discussion, she was charged with proposing to the French government (briefly, in that unstable moment, the Bourgès-Maunoury administration) a bilateral civilian truce. [. . .]

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