May 3, 2013 6:31 pm

A place called home

Albert Camus’ political writings reveal a complex, personal bond with his native country

Algerian Chronicles, by Albert Camus, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press, RRP£16.95 / RRP$21.95, 240 pages

“A French writer from Algeria,” was how a tight-lipped Albert Camus characterised himself in October 1957 on accepting his nomination as the second-youngest winner of the Nobel prize in literature. These simple words concealed a churning heart. The normally voluble Camus, then 43, was in the midst of a period of self-imposed silence.

After years of championing equal rights for Arabs in his native Algeria, Camus, the son of a Pied-Noir family descended from European settlers, found himself in the uncomfortable position of rejecting any notion of his homeland gaining independence from France.

The last time he had spoken out on Algeria had been in January 1956 on a visit to Algiers, when he had called for a civilian truce between French colonialists and the Arab-dominated National Liberation Front (FLN). For his trouble he received death threats from the colonialists and scornful rejection by the FLN. At the risk of being labelled a coward, Camus decided to keep his peace.

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This silence lasted until 1958 when he published Actuelles III, a selection of essays and articles outlining his position on Algeria. Some of these writings were translated into English for Resistance, Rebellion and Death (1960) but others, such as his early forays into journalism for the anti-colonialist newspaper Alger républicain, appear for the first time in this new translation of the 1958 collection.

Algerian Chronicles also includes two letters that Camus wrote to French president René Coty in 1957 beseeching him to pardon several captured FLN members. That Camus should have been working behind the scenes to save the separatists whose violence he so abhorred speaks volumes about this complex man.

Camus’ articles for the Alger républicain, which appeared in 1939, show his concern for the suffering of the civilian population. His criticisms of the metropolitan French government for not doing more to improve the lot of farmers in famine-stricken Kabylia, in northern Algeria, seem relatively benign now; however they were enough at the time for him to lose his job and force him to migrate to France the following year to find a new one.

Two years later his reputation as a great novelist was sealed when he wrote his absurdist masterpiece The Stranger (1942). Algeria was the setting for that book, as it was for The Plague (1947) and so too his unfinished, largely autobiographical final novel The First Man, which was published after his death in a car accident at 46.

On several occasions in the Chronicles Camus stresses his longstanding interest in Algerian affairs, thereby distinguishing himself from unnamed thinkers who, he says, only showed concern when it became ideologically convenient.

“The role of the intellectual cannot be to excuse the violence of one side and condemn that of the other,” writes Camus – no doubt thinking of his old sparring partner Jean-Paul Sartre, who pilloried French colonialists on the one hand and hailed the freedom fighters of the FLN on the other.

Camus’ own mistake was to believe that if Algeria was severed from France then both would perish. He argued that the 1.2m Europeans in Algeria (about a ninth of the population) were “an indigenous population in the full sense of the word” and refused to countenance Algerian national sovereignty.

Now, in the centennial year of his birth, it remains the one blot on Camus’ record of getting things right – unlike many others in the left in France, he had refused to be hoodwinked by Stalinism and joined the French resistance at the outset of the second world war. But Algeria was different.

In his 1955 “letter to an Algerian militant” he writes: “Algeria is where I hurt at this moment, as others feel pain in their lungs.” Rather like the tuberculosis that he had learned to live with throughout his adult life, there was no easy cure for what ailed him.

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