December 1938 in a large provincial city. It’s the last chance for the council to agree the municipal budget; in the chamber a reporter from the local paper tries to wring a bit of fun from a drab occasion. As a dignitary ploughs through a lengthy preamble, restless councillors begin to doodle (one makes a paper windmill from the minutes of an earlier meeting). A few days later an inquiry opens into a gas explosion caused by a leak in the mains. The same reporter heads for the scene. Here he’s a stickler for detail: medium-sized pipe, weight forty to fifty kilograms, linking the mains to a pressure valve; width of fissure 323 mm. The gas company blames the burst on subsidence but he thinks they may be trying to swing the inquiry in their favour. In February he delivers a mind-numbing tract on grain and grape harvests the previous year. At the end he announces he’ll be back shortly with more of the same once the session on the citrus harvest opens.
When Albert Camus filed these pieces, he had already joined and left the Communist Party, where he got a sketchy education in the thrills and pitfalls of the militant’s life, plunging into agitprop theatre and play readings in the suburbs of Algiers. He wasn’t a good communist: he’d been disabused by Retour de l’URSS, Gide’s unsparing account of socialism in one country, and didn’t share the party’s hostility to the first stirrings of nationalism in Algeria. He’d begun work on a novel and a set of essays when he was denounced as a Trotskyist and expelled from the party in the autumn of 1937. He continued dreaming up theatre projects and writing, but money was tight. He was an ambitious 24-year-old, filing index cards and plotting graphs as a meteorologist’s assistant at the Institute of Geophysics in Algiers when a job came up at a new city paper.
The first issue of Alger républicain, a broadsheet of the left, appeared in October 1938. Camus’s reports on the Algiers municipal budget and the mains leak were published at the end of the year. He also had an editorial/reviewing slot, ‘Le Salon de lecture’, where he wrote about La Conspiration by Paul Nizan, and two works of fiction – La Nausée and Le Mur – by Sartre. The pieces on Nizan and Sartre are often quoted, unlike his review of La Pasionaria’s speeches and writings (not ‘a great book’ despite the ‘unforgettable’ voice of a ‘lucid militant’). Camus the ex-communist was still firmly on the left, with a youthful hunger for novelty, pace, verve. He detected a stiffness in the limbs when it came to most French novelists and movie directors. Reviewing a book about American cinema he sees its ‘immense superiority’ and laments that ‘our best French directors all share the same fault.’ Their work is ‘slow in the telling. And this slowness is precisely that of the novelist who has not mastered his art.’ Jorge Amado, by contrast, has what it takes. Camus is exhilarated by Jubiabá (1935), ‘magnificent and stunning’, ‘fecund’. ‘Once again the novelists of the Americas make us feel the emptiness and artifice of our own fiction.’
Reviews of Brazilian novels and reports about gas leaks would not have been right for Algerian Chronicles, a collection of highly politicised pieces about the state of Algeria, carefully chosen by Camus and published by Gallimard in 1958. They appear here in English for the first time. Camus was rightly proud of his work for Alger républicain. The reports he chose from the end of the 1930s are models of advocacy journalism. Alice Kaplan has appended a powerful sketch from the same period about a convict transport ship. From 1940 onwards Camus was effectively ‘exiled’ from Algeria, having left for metropolitan France and become cut off from North Africa by the war. (Henceforth, apart from occasional visits, Algeria would remain a distant prospect, on which he gazed with ever greater dismay.) By 1943 he was living in Paris and working for Gallimard. In the last five months of the German occupation he was also running Combat, the ‘unified’ Resistance journal, which he continued to edit until 1947. Algerian Chronicles includes several pieces from Combat, prompted by the ‘disturbances’ in Algeria around the town of Sétif (and neighbouring Guelma) in 1945. The police fired on a crowd; riots followed and settlers were massacred; vengeance was swift and disproportionate: Sétif was a key moment in the anti-colonial struggle and Camus is at pains to explain the grievances behind the surge of violence against the settlers.
In the mid-1950s he began writing for L’Express. By now the Algerian liberation movement, the Front de Libération Nationale, had launched its armed struggle, the war was on in earnest, and L’Express had several issues seized for its coverage of the French army’s brutal methods. The best of Camus’s articles here frame the ‘Algerian problem’ in stark terms: the settlers must choose ‘between the politics of reconquest and the politics of reform’ and not mistake the second for ‘surrender’; the real surrender – the moral capitulation – is French injustice in the territory, which has brought about the insurrection. Yet he never confronts the starker possibility, that independence might be inevitable. He could conceive it only in terms of ‘losing’ Algeria, a disastrous outcome, in his view, for nearly a million settlers and eight million Arabs and Berbers.
Algerian Chronicles was not a success when it appeared in 1958. Camus was by then in no-man’s-land. As a critic of colonialism and opponent of independence, he had dug himself an inconvenient hole, too shallow to protect him from the crossfire of the Algerian war, but too deep for him to clamber out and make an expedient dash for one or another front, even if he’d wanted to. For several years he’d been explaining to anyone who would listen that ‘Arab’ violence was as cruel as the oppressor’s; for much longer he had inveighed against the colonial regime and the settlers for their abuse of Algerians. Perhaps this is why he is still sometimes referred to as an ‘anti-colonialist’, yet decolonisation in the sense we understand it, with a full handover of powers, was not what he proposed. He felt that France and its overseas departments in Algeria should come to a new federal arrangement and the settlers should remain, but on an equal footing with Algerians.
The closing pieces in Algerian Chronicles are mostly appeals for precisely such a third way, written in the thick of an asymmetrical war whose violence nonetheless tarnished both sides and ruled out any prospect of a Mediterranean intellectual, as Camus thought of himself, riding to the rescue. He argued passionately for a truce that would spare civilians. If both parties were committed to a fight to the death, it should resemble a duel on the edge of town, with noncombatants out of harm’s way. This was a doomed idea. Civilian casualties were in the hundreds of thousands and after eight years of conflict Algeria had lost the same proportion of its population as France did during the 1914-18 war. Camus failed to make the case for peace and federation; by the time Algerian Chronicles appeared he was a castaway, held afloat not by his reputation as a thinker but by his renown as a novelist and playwright.
He had also been a great journalist. His reports for Alger républicain from the Berber region of Kabylia on a famine in 1939 hit hard at the colonial administration for its indifference to ‘the indescribable penury of the Kabyle peasantry’. Handouts, Camus explains, were pitiful, at around 12 litres of grain – less than a week’s supply – every two or three months for a family of six or seven. When local communes opted for ‘charity workshops’ where the destitute were put to work, the scheme was used to retrieve tax from people in arrears: what they owed was deducted from the cash component of the wage. ‘There are no words harsh enough,’ he wrote, ‘to condemn such cruelty.’ Because he understood the markets in grain and fruit, and the way the government could set the price to fleece the producer, the comprehensive New Deal-style plan he put forward for the rehabilitation of the region looked authoritative and plausible. It included a proposal for the distribution of 200,000 hectares of land to poor Kabyles.
Camus liked to hector the settlers, whose behaviour reflected the structural injustices of colonialism. All the same, he felt that certain misconceptions in metropolitan France needed straightening out. The pieds noirs were not, as the press suggested, ‘a million whip-wielding, cigar-chomping colonists driving around in Cadillacs’; 80 per cent were small businessmen or workers whose minimum wage was well below regional thresholds in the poorest parts of France. Social security benefits for poor whites in Algeria were less than half the value of benefits in France. Did the bien-pensant media in Paris really believe these people were ‘colonial profiteers’? Weren’t they simply being pilloried ‘to expiate the immense sins of French colonisation’?
By 1945 Camus had published L’Etranger, two plays – Caligula and Le Malentendu – and Le Mythe de Sisyphe, his famous book about ‘the absurd’, suicide, revolt, theatre, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, the Don Juan syndrome, you name it. As a Resistance figure at Combat he had distinguished himself, but in the new mood of polarisation he was uncomfortable and tetchy. He had become part of the furniture at Gallimard; he had been praised by Blanchot and Sartre on the publication of L’Etranger and Sartre had taken him up. He had begun a new draft of La Peste (Sartre liked it), which would clinch his success when it appeared in 1947. But all the while he’d been spoiling for a fight. He remained staunchly on the left: a boy from a poor background whose intimacy with the class injustices that preoccupied Sartre and his colleagues was never in question. Yet his anti-communism was hardening, and when he invoked his working-class origins in conversation they were exasperated, just as he was by their condescension.
For Sartre, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, anti-communism was out of the question in the 1940s. In the dugout at Les Temps modernes it was regarded as an elementary mistake that handed the initiative to a defeated enemy, tainted by collaboration but rapidly regrouping as the new postwar order took shape. Camus’s legendary estrangements in Paris had more to do with anti-communism than communism itself: Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were far from being communists at the time – the party was vigorously denouncing Sartre – but they were assiduous anti-anti-communists doing their best to keep the ball in play.
A chapter from Humanism and Terror – Merleau-Ponty’s cold-eyed piece of anti-anti-communist reasoning – upset Camus when it appeared in 1946 in Les Temps modernes ahead of the book’s publication. In the excerpt, Merleau-Ponty took issue with Koestler, Camus’s new friend, whose disillusion with the party was anything but frivolous. Sartre and his colleagues saw Koestler as a figure to be reckoned with; he was apparently a well-wisher and now a charismatic presence on the scene in Paris, planning a move to France. But his confidence that no revolution could survive a ‘terror’ – a conclusion Merleau-Ponty was struggling to avoid – had narrowed the margin for the home team at Les Temps modernes. To Camus, Merleau-Ponty’s views on the October Revolution were beginning to look like parlour-Bolshevik extenuations of the Soviet Union. In fact Merleau-Ponty’s main preoccupation was how to keep ‘reason’ alive when ‘history’ and ‘progress’ were tested past the limit by labour camps, show trials and the like; it was a case, as usual, of what position not to occupy. But Camus went for Merleau-Ponty as though he were a sworn enemy.
The story of his falling-out with Sartre is now as famous as the crime Meursault commits on the beach in L’Etranger. No one at Les Temps modernes liked L’Homme révolté when it appeared in 1951. It was a celebrity platform on which Camus ascended majestically, using the ills of the Soviet Union as a pulley-system: his targets included Marxism, Robespierre, the Bolsheviks and the very notion of revolution (this last item came as a shock in France). The alternative was ‘rebellion’, a state of mind achieved, apparently, by internalising real contradictions in the world – meaning and absurdity, justice and travesty, violence and moderation – and emerging with a kind of ethical digest that guides our judgments and tells us how to act; the rest is totalitarianism. It seemed at the time both lofty and a little vague and Sartre didn’t buy it, but he was duty-bound to review the book.
After much hesitation he assigned it to Francis Jeanson, ex-Alger républicain (and later a clandestine courier in France for the FLN). Jeanson took Camus apart. He saw his ‘thirst for moderation’ as a narcissistic abdication of reason. Why prefer rebellion to real collective action? And why on earth compare the execution of Louis XVI to the passion of Christ? Camus had become a tormented literary grandee whose personal agony, in Jeanson’s view, had no bearing on reality. Camus’s reply to Jeanson, published in Les Temps modernes, was followed by a brutal denunciation from Sartre. Did Camus imagine he was alone in finding Stalinism unacceptable? (‘Oui, Camus, je trouve comme vous ces camps inadmissibles.’) How perverse on Camus’s part – and what a gift to the aggressive new Atlanticism – to have joined the anti-communist chorus when Europe’s future hung between capitalism and socialism and the Viet Minh were fighting for independence in Indochina: ‘If we apply your principles, the Viet Minh are colonised and therefore slaves, but because they are communists they must be tyrants at the same time.’ Sartre, the anti-anti-communist and anti-colonialist, now saw his friend in the light of the Cold War as both an anti-communist and a budding anti-anti-colonialist. His attack contained ad hominem passages of the harshest kind. Camus was filled with anguish, not only about the book he’d written but about his ability to write at all. Then in 1954 when Beauvoir published Les Mandarins, he reacted to the character of Henri Perron – editor, writer, two-timing lover – as a treacherous put-down. There is plenty in Perron that resembles Camus, but Perron is also an exquisite corpse in which parts of the composite are borrowed from Sartre and reassigned. Camus was incensed. The new boy who had arrived in the capital to such acclaim in the 1940s was now convinced he had been subjected to a thorough Parisian hazing.
But the low-key reception of Algerian Chronicles was not just to do with the fact that Camus had disappointed his eloquent friends. The bigger problem was the timing. By 1958 he had got nowhere with his appeals for a ‘civilian truce’ or moderation on both sides and he had decided on silence. The book was meant to be a pointed exit from the conversation: the early dispatches he included would surely remind his former friends in Paris – ‘bistro’ anti-colonialists, as he thought of them now, at a remove from the violence they condoned – how thoroughly he’d known Algeria and how strongly he’d objected to the white man’s dealings with the ‘natives’.
Algerian Chronicles was in production at Gallimard when La Question, Henri Alleg’s devastating book about the use of torture in Algeria, appeared out of the blue from Les Editions de Minuit. Minuit’s credentials were impeccable. It was founded in 1941 as a clandestine venture, when Gallimard was treading a fine line with the Germans: La Nouvelle revue française, which Gallimard published, was openly collaborationist, and shut down after the Liberation. Fourteen years on, a former underground publisher had come out with a story of interrogation worthy of the dark days of occupation, only to see the title suppressed by the censor. The colonial war in Algeria suddenly struck a sombre and familiar chord.
Like Camus and Jeanson, Alleg was a journalist at Alger républicain. He’d originally moved from France to Algeria to teach, but by 1951, long after Camus’s brief stint, he was running the paper. In 1955 – a year into what was then a full-scale war of liberation declared by the FLN – the authorities shut it down. It was too sympathetic to indigenous grievances and under Alleg, a diehard in the Algerian Communist Party, it had become a party asset to all intents and purposes. Alleg went into hiding shortly after the paper closed. He was arrested in 1957 and tortured for several weeks – burns, electric shocks and waterboarding, as it’s now known – but wouldn’t give away the names of the people who’d sheltered him when he’d gone to ground. The manuscript of La Question was smuggled out of a military hospital where he was recovering after his interrogation. His memoir of torture became famous overnight in France and for many waverers, it put paid to the notion of a compromise.
By comparison with La Question, a lot of the later pieces in Algerian Chronicles looked like metropolitan op-ed. It didn’t help that Alleg, along with many non-indigenous communists who’d gone to the wire for independence, was a party man enrolled in a ‘historic’ struggle that L’Homme révolté had written off as grandiose and murderous. If Alleg had been the kind of self-reflexive, transcendent ‘rebel’ Camus favoured, he would almost certainly have been spared the torture chamber, but his involvement with the Algerian Communist Party meant that he was committed to independence alongside the FLN (which later forced the Algerian party to dissolve). The PCF, on the contrary, had voted for the ‘special powers’ proposed by Guy Mollet’s government, which effectively handed the running of Algeria to the French military in 1956. And here was a rare irony in the uninflected fight Camus had picked. When he’d been a communist in the 1930s he’d grasped that the French party line was no use to the oppressed Algerian population: despite the Third International’s support for anti-colonial struggles, the PCF thought dictatorship of the proletariat in a ‘French’ Algeria was preferable to national liberation for an inchoate people still ‘in formation’. And then in 1945, as Camus set out in Combat to show why Algerians had risen up after a century of subjection and murdered 103 Europeans in Sétif, the party had denounced the new anti-colonial fervour as a ‘Hitlerian’ tendency; communists took part in the revenge attacks, resulting in several thousand Algerian deaths. A pied noir with a rare sympathy for the Arabs and Berbers, Camus had always had more reason to distrust the communists than the editors at Les Temps modernes gave him credit for.
At the heart of this dispute was the problem of violence. Much has been said about why Sartre – or Jeanson, or Alleg – could countenance it, while Camus found it repellent. In the 1940s he had excused violence as a grim French necessity in the face of defeat and occupation; it was not the servant of a grand idea. Yet in the editorials he wrote or approved for Combat the Resistance took on a grand dimension as a synonym for ‘freedom’ and a prelude to ‘workers’ democracy’. The onset of the Cold War suited Camus: it meant he was no longer in two minds. He could draw a line under the Resistance and denounce the use of force in the name of any ‘idea’ – communism, colonialism, anti-colonialism – as fiercely as he denounced its use against civilians in Algeria. He could wag a reproachful finger at Nasser and rail against the invasion of Hungary. Henceforth he was a left-wing libertarian at odds with ‘progressive’ (i.e. communist) versions of history. ‘All the dead,’ he wrote in L’Express in a lament for Algeria, ‘belong to the same tragic family.’ It was this all-in-one humanism that had worried Merleau-Ponty and seemed to Camus’s former friends to blur the contours of the anti-colonial struggle. Camus could never conjugate violence and ‘history’ with the frightening fluency of his detractors in the anti-anti-communist camp.
On the eve of Algerian independence in 1962, two years after Camus’s fatal car crash, the busy, dialectical Sartre was on the move, having sublimated his torment about the gulag to become a respectable (and ponderous) fellow-traveller. He sheared away after Hungary to recover the old élan that Camus had loved. He remained a dogged anti-colonialist. Camus, for his part, had barely changed his position after their falling out. By the time he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1957 he was a statuesque figure: spurned voice of reason on Algeria, fervent anti-communist, bringer of light to the overcast north of European philosophy. As Sartre turned his attention to Vietnam in the wake of Algerian independence and refused a Nobel award, Camus the moralist seemed lost to posterity, buried along with the man.
Camus’s rare journalistic forays in defence of the settlers were well and good, and he had a point, but with the exception of L’Etranger, his terse little shocker which exonerates no one, he made the case much better in his fiction. Le Premier Homme, published 34 years after his death, is a deeply sympathetic portrait of a poor settler family – his own family – in Algeria. If Sartre and his circle had lived to read it, they might have forgiven Camus for brandishing his proletarian credentials in Paris. In La Peste, Rieux the doctor is a model of fortitude (a good novel with an irreproachable citizen at its centre; how hard is that to write?). But there is also an intriguing figure in ‘The Adultererous Woman’, a short story drafted in the 1950s, around the time Camus was writing for L’Express. Janine, the middle-aged wife of a travelling salesman, is an unusual settler, alert, observant, torn between two worlds and drawn, in an obscure, tremulous way, to the colonised population, even if she can’t connect with them in a ‘kingdom eternally promised to her’ but which, she comes to realise during a trip to the desert, ‘would never be hers’. While her husband disparages the Algerians, she is impressed by the ‘pride’ and independent bearing of the people around her – more impressed than Edward Said acknowledged when he wrote about this story in Culture and Imperialism. Deep in the south of the country, while her husband is asleep in their hotel, she returns to a fort they’d visited in daylight and gazes across an exhilarating expanse of desert. The stars seem to tumble in slow motion towards the horizon and she feels a lifelong malaise – an oppressive fear, mingled with regret – beginning to lift. It’s a more or less erotic moment that leaves her lying on her back on a chilly terrace.
‘The Adulterous Woman’, one of six stories in Exile and the Kingdom (1957), makes a virtue of Janine’s attention to the world around her and conjures a version of the settler mentality that Camus felt to be in short supply. We sense colonised people coming alive before her eyes, whether they’re intimidating men striding towards her in a windswept square or tiny figures in the distance, eking a heroic livelihood from rubble and sand. And even though there was plenty to fear in the behaviour of the colonised when Exile and the Kingdom was published – at the height of the war – it’s fear she’s ready to come to terms with, as she might, in more propitious circumstances, come to terms with the colonised themselves. For Camus, Janine has the makings of a good outcome in Algeria, even if she represents only half of the equation.
At the same time we’re still in the ambiguous, sexualised confines of the colonial imagination, just as we were with Adela Quested’s strange turn in the Marabar caves. Camus is clumsier than Forster and the two moments are worlds apart – a French Algerian fugue across breathtaking spaces, a bout of very British claustrophobia in a granite chamber – but they have one striking feature in common: the native only becomes an insistent presence when he isn’t there. In A Passage to India Dr Aziz is not in the cave where Adela hallucinates his sexual advances; in ‘The Adulterous Woman’, the noble, self-sufficient men of the south, who broke through a veil of dust to appear so vividly to Janine, are now hidden by the night, far below the fort, as she gives herself to the continent that belongs to them. Camus couldn’t find a place for real, colonised persons to live and breathe in his fiction.
This is a longstanding objection to La Peste. Conor Cruise O’Brien felt in 1970 that the ‘native question is simply abolished’ by the absence of Algerians from the novel, even though we assume they’re dying in larger numbers than the French. Things had gone downhill, O’Brien felt, since L’Etranger, where at least he recognised their existence, even if they were ‘silent, nameless, faceless Arabs’ and one of them got shot to death by a distracted white man on a beach.
Neocolonial wars in the Middle East have not helped Camus’s reputation as a dead white-settler male. He is a more divisive figure now than he was in his lifetime. In 2010 the writer Yasmina Khadra – ex-Algerian army, real name Mohammed Moulessehole – backed a proposal for a ‘Camus caravan’ to tour Algeria and reacquaint the country with its Nobel home-boy. The idea fell apart under a barrage of angry scepticism from Algerian intellectuals and academics, who see him unequivocally as a colonial writer, and technically French. Why regard him as ‘Algerian’, one of them asked, when many Jews and Europeans who’d thrown in their lot with the FLN weren’t honoured with the new nationality in 1962?
In France the Camus problem is very much worse. He has never been a national treasure in the style of Sartre or Malraux. The Bibliothèque nationale has put on shows about Sartre (safe) and Guy Debord (charming), but nothing comparable for Camus, who can still stir up primitive sentiments or – like all good humanists – suddenly find himself on the guest list at an event he’d have failed to attend. In 2009 in a fit of hubris Sarkozy tried to have Camus’s remains transferred to the Panthéon. There were many objectors, led by Camus’s son, Jean, who argued that his father was not at ease with the trappings of national identity, and in the end the plan was abandoned.
In 2013, the centenary of Camus’s birth, a major exhibition was planned in Aix-en-Provence. Benjamin Stora, a historian of the Maghreb (and the Algerian war), was put in charge only to be shown the door a few months later. Stora, nowadays close to the Socialist Party, was a good choice for the Ministry of Culture if they were to provide funding, which seemed to be the plan. But he didn’t suit the mayor of Aix, an eccentric figure on the right of the UMP who has no qualms about electoral alliances with the Front National. Stora wanted the exhibition to include material on the Algerian war (there was talk of screening Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers). The mayor was appalled and so were the vengeful little groups in Aix who have her attention. More than three million pieds noirs and their descendants live in France today, from a repatriated stock of about 750,000. Most of them are in the south, drawn – as Camus was – to warm climates, and many are Janines, who understand that what they were promised did not belong to them. A handful nurse the grievances of their parents and grandparents; fewer still are old enough to remember the bitterness of independence at first hand. These last two groups are known as ‘nostalgériques’, people who pine for the place in the sun they were forced to abandon.
In Aix the loudest objections to Stora came from nostalgérique activists who support the descendants of colonial extremists in the Organisation de l’armée secrète – the OAS – and lobby against the commemoration of Algerian independence. The mayor of Aix took exception to local independence celebrations in 2012 and according to Stora she thinks nothing of renaming a road in Aix after Jean Bastien-Thiry, the anti-independence air force officer who was executed in 1963 for a failed attempt on De Gaulle’s life. (Google Maps will alert us to a rue Bastien-Thiry in Aix if the nostalgériques ever get their way.)
The mayor and her entourage of self-styled ‘French Algerians’ had no objection to a Camus show, as long as it portrayed independence as a fact rather than a desirable outcome, but Stora – a former Trotskyist, born in Algeria to Jewish parents – was not the man to weigh this fine distinction. ‘An Israelite from Constantine’, he was roundly loathed, as one eloquent local put it last year, by the ‘French Algerian community’ in Aix. After Stora left, his hapless successor resigned. A half-hearted, under-funded exhibition – a perfect expression of the national attitude to Camus – went ahead in Aix, bankrolled mostly by the mayor’s tax-base.
Camus brûlant, the short book Stora and his colleague (who also left) wrote about the exhibition scandal and the ‘capture’ of Camus by various hostage-takers – in Algeria, the Elysée and Aix – depicts him as a brilliant left-wing misfit with a rebellious anarcho-syndicalist impulse which threw him clear of the wreckage in every ideological struggle of the 20th century, including Bolshevism, Spanish fascism, Nazism, colonial revanchism and Algerian nationalism under arms. Camus brûlant is an astute, elliptical book that tracks Camus from his days as a communist to his sanctification as a liberal icon along the lines of Orwell. But once the media had boiled off the last nuances, Stora’s Camus was nothing less than a Christ-child whose noble aversions, ignored by Republican France, were all of a piece and apparent on day one in the manger.
Last summer, as tempers were cooling, the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud turned up the heat again with his extraordinary novel, Meursault, contre-enquête. Daoud’s narrator, Haroun, is in his twenties in July 1962 when he kills a French settler during the vengeful aftermath of Algerian independence. Haroun and his mother have moved away from Algiers to live in a deadbeat coastal town between Oran and the capital and, as the Europeans depart, mother and son have taken over a nearby house vacated by a family of settlers. They’re disturbed late at night by Joseph, a terrified Frenchman, returning to his relatives’ property to escape the wave of post-independence violence against the Europeans. Egged on by his crone of a mother, Haroun fires two rounds at Joseph and buries him the same night.
The killing is not the crisis of the novel but its resolution: we’ve known from the start that Haroun’s older brother, Moussa, was shot dead on a beach in 1942 – the year L’Etranger was published – by a settler who went on to become famous. Moussa’s body was never found, his name never mentioned in court records or brief reports in the press. But the name of the criminal is Meursault, one half of a much admired pantomime horse, part author, part protagonist, that won itself a reputation with a memorable crime at the sea’s edge. Haroun’s only option turns out to be an eye for an eye.
When the novel opens he is already an ageing drunk in a bar in Oran going back over the details with a student at work on a Camus thesis. Years earlier there had been another academic, a good-looking woman who arrived on his doorstep and announced that his brother was murdered by a settler. She introduced him to L’Etranger; he fell in love with her as she took him through the novel and he learned proficiency in French in order to read it. The affair ended badly, as everything had since Moussa was killed and M’ma required Haroun to live in the confines of her grief. Haroun’s is very much a mother-son story, as Meursault’s is. Where Camus begins, ‘My mother died today’ (I’m quoting Sandra Smith’s new and beautifully clean translation of L’Etranger), Haroun begins, ‘My mother is still alive today.’Lines or passages are lifted from L’Etranger and left to stand, or tweaked for the occasion. Haroun plays a knife-edge game of identification and counter-identification with Meursault, the murderous colonising other, and soon enough we realise we’re reading both novels at the same time.
Like Vendredi, Michel Tournier’s subaltern rewrite of Robinson Crusoe, Meursault, contre-enquête wrests the narrative away from the settler. In his fruitless search through L’Etranger for a sign of his brother’s name, Haroun encounters the word ‘Arab’ 25 times, while the indignity of namelessness is driven home by a sense that Algeria before independence had any number of Meursaults: killing an unidentified Arab was a minor distinction for a settler. Nevertheless the narrator despises the ‘liberation’ regime (still in place after more than fifty years) and the Islamist alternative, which emerged in the 1990s and was driven from electoral victory into a long civil war. The FLN has ‘eaten’ the country, Haroun feels, and the new minarets appearing everywhere are like mould proliferating on the remains of a feast. In a strong Camusian undertow Joseph and Moussa are murdered Abels, members of the same tragic family, founded by the colonial encounter. Haroun, like Meursault, was bound by his colonial destiny to be a Cain.
An FLN officer fresh from the maquis interrogates Haroun about the murder of Joseph, but just as Meursault was on trial for a moral shortcoming rather than a killing, so Haroun is under suspicion chiefly because he failed to join the FLN at the time of the war. His interrogator reminds him that his deed would have been heroic before the ceasefire, but not now, ‘not this week!’ (About three thousand settlers who stayed on after the ceasefire were murdered.) Haroun is released but he’s puzzled: he has wasted away his youth as a bereaved outsider living, and eventually killing, in the shadow of M’ma, just as Meursault lived and killed in the shadow of Maman. He is still enraged by the canonical status of the Meursault/Camus circus duo, clumping around to great applause, yet now that the satisfaction of avenging Moussa is dwindling away, he finds himself brooding over the lonely infamy of taking a life and walking free: it’s his own version of Camusian absurdity.
We think back to the beach as it figures in both novels and recall that Meursault couldn’t see his victim clearly at the moment of the shooting. Scouring the shoreline for a trace of his dead brother, Haroun too is blinded by sweat and salt: he seems to pick out a form that might have been Moussa but it’s tenuous. We remember Meursault, vision impaired, senses stunned by the afternoon sun, and the revolver in hand. Twenty years later, when Haroun’s turn comes around, he finds the murder weapon concealed in a scarf, perhaps something belonging to his mother, perhaps a bit of European tat left by Joseph’s family. Once he’s unwrapped it, he grasps its prophetic state of readiness, primed for the kill like ‘a dog with one nostril’. He can’t see his victim all that well in the darkness of the barn and so, of course, the crime committed in the dead of night resembles the crime committed in broad daylight. What distinguishes them is that one killer knows the identity of his victim and the other doesn’t. Referring to Moussa simply as ‘the Arab’ made killing him as easy as ‘killing time’, Haroun concludes. But surely Camus knew this. It was a mistake, he wrote in Combat after the events in Sétif, to imagine the Algerian people didn’t really ‘exist’: they were ‘suffering from hunger’ and ‘demanding justice’, but they weren’t ‘the wretched, faceless mob in which westerners see nothing worth respecting or defending’.
This article draws on three valuable sources in English: Albert Camus: A Life by Olivier Todd, translated by Benjamin Ivry (Chatto 1997), Camus & Sartre: the Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended it by Ronald Aronson (Chicago, 2004), and Algeria: France’s Undeclared War by Martin Evans (Oxford, 2011), a formidable successor to Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace. But see also Albert Camus’s ‘The New Mediterranean Culture’: A Text and it Contexts by Neil Foxlee (Peter Lang, 2010) and We are no longer in France: Communists in Colonial Algeria by Allison Drew (Manchester, 2014). Conor Cruise O’Brien’s critique of Camus was the first title in the Fontana Modern Masters series, edited by Frank Kermode. Many of Camus’s pieces for Alger républicain are collected in the Pléiade Oeuvres complètes: Tome I (2006). Others can be found in Cahiers Albert Camus, 3: Fragments d’un combat 1938-1940, edited by André Abbou and Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi (Gallimard, 1978).