Camus at War

Algerian Chroniclesby Albert Camuse, Edited by Alice Kaplan, Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

Belknap Press. $240p $21.95

This short book makes available for the first time in English a series of articles in French compiled in 1958 by Albert Camus from his writings on Algeria from 1939 to 1958. Camus was born and raised in Algeria, a pied noir, a member of the minority European community, his family of humble background. After the world-wide movement toward decolonization gained steam in the 1940s and ’50s, Camus saw his native land torn apart during the bloody and destabilizing Algerian war, beginning in 1954 and ending with independence from France in 1962. It was a complex conflict characterized by guerilla warfare, terrorism against civilians, the use of torture on both sides, reprisals and counterterrorism operations by the French Army. These articles chronicle his attempts over 20 years to influence the powerful forces at play, and his anguish at being powerless in the face of intransigence is palpable.

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It comes as some surprise that Camus was not in favor of Algerian independence, as were so many in France, as Jean-Paul Sartre and others. Yet he knew that colonization with its injustices must end. His was a middle way, a federated Algeria maintaining close ties to France. For Algeria at that time had a population of nine million of which approximately eight million were Arabo-Berber and one million were European, mostly French pied noirs, and in the midst of such bloodshed, Camus feared for the fate of this minority in a newly independent Islamic state. But his position was unacceptable both to those who wanted to continue colonization with more repressive measures and to those who wanted to cut ties with Algeria completely. He saw the French who simply favored full independence as using the pied noirs as ‘expiatory victims’ for French colonialism. “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,” whereas 80 percent of the French settlers were workers and small business people trying to make a living.

What does Camus say in this book? It is divided into five sets of articles arranged in chronological order beginning with “The Misery of Kabylia” written for the Alger Républicain, a left-wing daily paper in 1939, and “Crisis in Algeria,” articles published in Combat in May 1945. For both sets of articles, Camus travelled extensively, visiting cities and villages. His purpose was to give “voice to the voiceless,” and he treats unemployment, lack of schools and plain destitution.

Though moved by these descriptions, I was frustrated by the lack of context, for they are newspaper articles written over 70 years ago. To be told that the daily wage is seven francs for 10 hours of work leaves one with a vague notion that this is an unjust wage, but the lack of the context of purchasing power lessens for us today the power of the author’s journalism. The same is true for a number of “common sense” solutions offered by this journalist for the misery of Kabylia, a region in the north of Algeria suffering from famine. If 70 years from today, people were to read the “common sense” solutions offered in The Detroit Free Press by a journalist of 2013 to the broken schools in the city of Detroit, what would they make of it? To the audience that may have only the vaguest notion of Detroit (and most Anglophone readers today have never even heard of Kabylia), the absence of context would hinder the impact of the writing.

Still, the author’s moral indignation at the humanly intolerable situation does manage to shine through. Because the harvest and rainfall were uncertain in Algeria, the French administration had set up reserves of grain. But in World War II, these reserves were shipped to the German forces in France, and the Algerians were left at the mercy of the rainfall and spotty harvests, with famine as a result. He saw the results of the poor rainfall: “The plow tears at the flaky, powdery soil incapable of holding the sown seed. The harvest expected for this season will be worse than the last, which was disastrous.”

In the writing from the time of the Algerian war in the 1950’s, Camus becomes more desperate: “Believe me when I tell you that Algeria is where I hurt at this moment, as others feel pain in their lungs.” Camus calls for both sides, the French government and the freedom fighters, to admit past mistakes, denounce the atrocities against civilians on both sides and seek a just compromise. “The massacres of Guelma and Sétif have provoked deep indignation and revulsion in the French of Algeria. The subsequent repression [by the French] has sown fear and hostility in the Arab masses. In this climate, the likelihood that a firm but democratic policy can succeed has diminished.” Neither side listened to Camus then, but that does not mean that we should not listen to him today: engaged, informed, humane and anguished.

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