Book Review: Albert Camus, the Guillotine’s Relentless Foe

“I have always held the death sentence in horror and judged that, at least as an individual, I couldn’t participate in it, even by abstention. That’s all. ."
A man woke before dawn, dressed quietly so as not to disturb his wife, and rode into town to watch a man be put to death. It was neither fascination nor bloodlust that pushed him to attend the public execution but a sense of outraged justice: the condemned man had, in a murderous frenzy, bludgeoned to death not just a husband and wife on their farm but their children too. When the man returned home after the execution, he rushed past his wife, vomited in the bathroom and collapsed in bed. Until the end of his life he refused to speak about what he saw that day.

Readers of Albert Camus will recognize this story, which was about his father, Lucien Camus. It surfaces intact in his first and last novels, The Outsider and The First Man, and in his long essay Reflections on the Guillotine, and it floats to the surface of The Plague. This story — one of the few Camus’ mother was able to tell the son who never knew his father — infuses the near entirety of Camus’ writings. For Camus was driven by the same sense of outraged justice as his father.

In Albert Camus contre la peine de mort  by Eve Morisi, (Gallimard, Paris, 2011)  a stunning collection of extracts from Camus’ fiction and non-fiction, notebooks and letters (many never before published), Eve Morisi has performed an invaluable service. Through her sensitive pairing of fictional and non-fictional works, she reminds us why Camus was one of the most influential and consistent moral voices of the 20th century. And why he remains relevant for our own century.
After the second world war Camus became France’s most eloquent voice of the Resistance, and spoke out on behalf of condemned political prisoners across the world, protesting against (in Morisi’s words) the “death-centred state in all of its guises”. The letters in this volume trace Camus’ interventions for political prisoners in Franco’s Spain and Stalin’s Russia, eastern Europe, Iran, Vietnam and Greece. Throughout, the book underscores his unflagging insistence on moral candor and coherence.
One particularly revealing episode, involving his role in the épuration(purge) in liberated France, shows how Camus publicly revealed his own change of heart... Read more:

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