On Albert Camus' Algerian Chronicles

Paul Berman reviews a volume of Camus' writing, recently published in English
Albert Camus
From Paul Berman (New Republic) (my thanks to Matthew Feldman for drawing my attention to the review):
Albert Camus’ Algerian Chronicles have never been presented, until now, in a full English translation, and this is a pity. The Chronicles contain his articles on Algerian themes for the French and Algerian press beginning in 1939 and continuing until he brought out the book in 1958, at a moment when the Algerian War had reached its halfway point. He made a number of arguments in the course of the collected articles, and some of those arguments are well known in English even without having benefited from a complete translation. These are his positions on torture (he was opposed), terrorism (likewise), and the duty of intellectuals (they ought to keep their cool). One of his arguments has been pretty much forgotten, though—and this additional argument ought to strike us as curious and thought-provoking and, given the circumstances of our own moment, more than a little insightful.

His own evaluation of Algerian Chronicles was modest. In his preface in 1958, he explained that a principal reason to collect the articles was merely to defend his reputation against his detractors. “If you write a hundred articles, all that remains of them is the distorted interpretation imposed by your adversaries. A book may not avoid every possible misinterpretation, but at least it makes certain kinds of misunderstandings impossible.” Nor did he gaze back on his Algerian journalism with any kind of satisfaction. Whatever he had hoped to achieve had not been achieved. “This book is among other things the history of a failure.” Only, what exactly had been the failure? His dashed hopes—what did they add up to? This is what hardly anyone remembers today, or, more precisely, what everyone remembers only in the distorted versions imposed by his adversaries.

Algeria in the mid-twentieth century consisted, in Camus’ sometimes variable figures, of some nine million people, of whom eight million were conventionally described as Arabs—meaning, a mixture of Arabs and Kabyles, who are Berbers. The other million or million-plus were people denoted as French, which tended to include a number of Spaniards, too, together with a scattering of other Europeans. There were Turks and also Jews, who were caught, as he explained, between the old-fashioned French anti-Semitism and Arab mistrust. In Camus’ interpretation, all of these people counted as indigenous Algerians, the million-plus French Algerians no less than the eight million Arabs. It is true that, here and there in his journalism, his language lapses into a more conventional terminology, with the Arabs labeled as “indigenous” or “natives,” and the French as “settlers,” not to mention as “colonists,” by which he meant settlers who were also exploiters. Mostly he insisted on his own vocabulary, though, which decreed that French Algerians and Arab Algerians were, in both cases, “indigenous” populations—separate communities uneasily inhabiting together the same Algeria.

He knew that, to a great many of his readers in France, whose knowledge of Algerian affairs seemed to him laughable, the French Algerians appeared to be singularly unattractive. “If you read certain newspapers, you get the impression that Algeria is a land of a million whip-wielding, cigar-chomping colonists driving around in Cadillacs.” But, on the contrary, an overwhelming majority of French Algerians, 80 percent of them, were workers and small-businessmen. They were people who enjoyed a standard of living superior to that of their Arab neighbors, but inferior to that of ordinary workers in France—humble people, significantly poorer than Camus’ left-wing critics in France, the haughty intellectuals. They were different from the French populations in Tunisia and Morocco. The French populations in those other countries were relatively new, and none too numerous. But the French Algerians were an old and well-established community, with roots tracing back into the mid-nineteenth century. And, after many a generation in Algeria, those roots had mingled in the Algerian soil and the people themselves had sprouted, as it were, leafy cultural traits of their own.

Camus was an entirely humble French Algerian himself, Spanish on his mother’s side, which meant humbler yet. Every stage of his schooling had taken place in Algeria, unto the University of Algiers, where (although he does not make this point) his thesis topic was itself Algerian. This was a study of neo-Platonism and Augustine of Hippo, which was the town known in Camus’ time, in French, as Bône, and is known today, in Arabic, as Annaba—and happened to be, under any name, next door to Camus’ earliest home. He judged the French Algerians to be indigenous because he knew himself to be indigenous, not merely because of his postal address. He believed in the existence of a Mediterranean culture not confined to any particular nationality, nor to any nationalism, except “the nationalism of sunshine” (as spelled out in a still earlier article from 1937, included in the new edition); and this culture, fragrant and balmy, was his own.[Read More]

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