[Marxism] Albert Camus

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 27 09:29:19 MST 2014


LRB Vol. 36 No. 23 · 4 December 2014

The Castaway
Jeremy Harding

Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus, edited by Alice Kaplan, translated 
by Arthur Goldhammer
Harvard, 224 pp, £11.95, November, ISBN 978 0 674 41675 8

Camus brûlant by Benjamin Stora and Jean-Baptiste Péretié
Stock, 109 pp, €12.50, September 2013, ISBN 978 2 234 07482 8

Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud
Actes Sud, 155 pp, €19.00, May, ISBN 978 2 330 03372 9

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 Le 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 novels – 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 National, 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. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s critique of Camus was the 
first title in the Fontana Modern Masters series, edited by Frank 
Kermode. Most of Camus’s pieces for Alger républicain are collected in 
the Pléiade Oeuvres complètes: Tome I (2006). Others, including his 
reports from the Chamber of Agriculture in Algiers, can be found in the 
microfiche archive at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris.



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