Algerian Chronicles

Albert Camus's Algerian Chronicles appeared in 1957, at the height of French turmoil over the rebellious and violent Algerian independence movement. At the time the book received little notice in France, and with the exception of some of the individual essays, this translation by Arthur Goldhammer represents its first appearance in English. It has not, for the most part, been regarded as one of Camus's "important" works, a list that would include novels such as The Stranger, The Plague, or The Fall and philosophical works such as The Myth of Sisyphus. This is, perhaps, an oversight. At a historical moment when it seems crucial to the human prospect to think intelligently about terrorism and other forms of political violence, the thinking Camus does in Algerian Chronicles may strike us, if we open ourselves to it, as necessary, cogent, and sane.

At the time of its publication the book left many not only unconvinced but unhappy. Looking back from the perspective of 1969, Conor Cruise O'Brien expressed the view of many on the Left when he called it "a depressing volume." O'Brien thought Algerian Chronicles represented the moral failure of a writer and moralist he had had high hopes for and wanted deeply to admire. Like Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others, O'Brien blamed Camus for failing to support the revolutionaries who had fought for Algeria's independence -- an independence that, to the surprise of many, had been granted in 1962. Camus did not live to see this happen. He had been killed in a car accident in 1960, three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature. Nor, mercifully, did he live to witness the ongoing internecine violence that continued to plague Algeria for decades after independence, most brutally during the 1990s, when over 100,000 people died in a chaotic period of guerrilla fighting and factional massacres of civilians. Perhaps O'Brien's assessment would have been different if he had foreseen this slaughter. If nothing else it confirmed that, even if some of Camus's reasons for insisting that Algeria must remain part of France could be called in question, he was at the very least correct to insist that independence would be anything but a cure-all for that troubled former colony.

Camus was born in Algeria to a family of French pied-noirs, descendants of the original European colonizers of Algeria. Relations between the pied-noirs and Algeria's majority Arab population were tense, largely due to French economic policies that had exacerbated and in some cases created the inhuman poverty under which many of the Arabs existed -- a poverty that is described in moving detail the first section of Algerian Chronicles, "The Misery of Kabylia," which was written during the 1930s, when, as Camus said later, "almost no one in France was interested in" Algeria. This set of essays, and much of the writing elsewhere in the book, is more than sufficient to show that those who view Camus as a former pied-noir who cared only about the fate of that group were simply mistaken.

Indeed, Algerian Chronicles gives ample evidence that Camus felt genuine outrage and deep compassion about the suffering of Algeria's Arab and Berber populations, and for every statement that makes him sound like an apologist for France (and such statements are, admittedly, present) there are several that take the French government to task for its wrongdoings and demand that it radically alter its policies. He was particularly outspoken regarding French military attacks on civilian populations and also regarding the widespread use of torture, both of which he viewed as absolutely unjustifiable. Indeed, many in France called Camus a traitor on account of his sympathy with the Algerian Arabs. When he returned to Algeria in 1956 to speak against the killing of civilians at a public meeting -- after having been forced to leave for having been so outspoken in his criticism of French authority there -- a mob of French "ultracolonialists" gathered outside the meeting and angrily chanted "Death to Camus." The text of that speech is included in this volume as "Call for a Civilian Truce in Algeria.")

But the main movement in favor of Algerian independence, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), was equally guilty of human rights violations. They too sometimes used torture, and they too committed acts of terrorism against innocent civilians. Camus's family, who still lived in Algeria, were among the potential targets of these terrorist acts, and some of the rebels accused him of a kind of self-interest in denouncing the terrorists; but what is clear from Algerian Chroniclesis that Camus's compassion could be triggered by the suffering of any human being, and that his political and moral concern was with any innocent person who might be made the victim of violence in the name of any political cause. Indeed, his unhappiness with the evident disregard for human rights on both sides in the Algerian conflict sent him into a long period of silence, during which he said he nothing out of fear that whatever he might say would be used as ammunition by one side or the other:

When the fate of men and women who share one's own blood is linked directly or indirectly to articles that one writes so effortlessly in the comfort of one's study, then one has a duty to weigh the pros and cons before taking up one's pen. For my own part, while I remain sensitive to the risk that, in criticizing the course of the rebellion, I give aid and comfort to the most insolent instigators of the Algerian tragedy, I am also afraid that, by retracing the long history of French errors, I am, with no risk to myself, supplying alibis to the criminal madmen who would toss grenades into crowds of innocent people who happen to be my kin.

Instead he tried to maintain a sensible middle position, breaking his silence occasionally to call on both sides to stop violating the rights of the innocent and to declare a "civilian truce" that would have protected all noncombatants from being made targets of violence.

The civilian truce was seen only as a first step, but Camus was probably right that it was a necessary first step. Neither side, though, was interested in implementing it: each used the misdeeds of the other to justify their own. Camus's sane and compassionate position, meanwhile, seemed to satisfy no one. The extremists on each side saw Camus as having aligned himself with their enemies (that is how extremists, after all, tend to see moderates). Or else they saw him as having chosen no side at all -- or having tried to have it both ways -- and so accused him of indecisiveness, cowardice, or naïve idealism.

Algerian Chronicles may have suffered the fate of being published at a time when those who most needed to hear what it had to say were entirely unable to read it with an open mind. It is possible that, now that some decades have passed, it will find a second life. We Americans would be well advised to pay it serious attention. After more than a decade in which the United States has chosen to respond to the specter of lawless terrorism with forms of violence some have regarded as state-sanctioned terrorism -- years during which, as in the Algerian war, the violence inflicted by each side has been used to justify the violence inflicted by the other, and during which the use of torture by American military and security forces has been not only condoned but applauded by a large segment of the American citizenry -- Camus's reflections on these subjects seem to address us directly:

The reprisals against the civilian population of Algeria and the use of torture against the rebels are crimes for which we all bear a share of responsibility. That we have been able to do such things is a humiliating reality that we must henceforth face. Meanwhile, we must refuse to justify these methods on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain.

If nothing else, Algerian Chronicles brings us closer to Camus the man. Like Camus's other posthumously published writings -- the unfinished novel The First Man in particular -- it helps to remind us that the question of Algeria loomed in Camus's mind long before it seized the attention of France as a whole and that it first appeared there not as a political question, nor even as a question of identity (assuming that those two can be meaningfully distinguished), but as a sensual reality, a place whose sounds, smells, and landscapes remained with Camus throughout his life. Camus's feeling of doubleness and isolation, his sense of being a "stranger" in French society, stem from the dual reality of being both French and Algerian, a duality that would have been difficult to reconcile even if he had not lived during a time when the communities in which these identities were grounded were in such prolonged and violent contention with each other.

"For Algeria," he once wrote, "I have unbridled passion and I surrender to the pleasure of loving: Can one love a country like a woman?" But Algeria was, for Camus, not only the beloved and elusive Other. It was an aspect of the self, not only mentally and emotionally but physically, so that he felt, quite literally, that the struggles that were taking place there were tearing him apart. "Believe me," he wrote to a friend during these years, "when I tell you that Algeria is where I hurt at this moment, as others feel pain in their lungs."

 

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