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Book review: Albert Camus‘ 'Algerian Chronicles’ // PDF of 'Reflections on the Guillotine'

(Download a copy of Camus' famous essay: Reflections on the Guillotine)

Camus was born in Algeria in 1913, into a poor French family that had settled in the colony generations earlier. His father, an employee at a winery, was drafted at the outbreak of World War I and died soon after. His mother, deaf and illiterate, supported her two sons by cleaning houses. (Camus draws a loving portrait of her in his unfinished autobiographical novel, “The First Man,” published in 1994.) Although he never lived in Algeria after 1942, he returned there regularly to visit his family. He maintained warm friendships with childhood friends and cordial relations with a number of Arab intellectuals.

When the Algerian war for independence broke out in 1954, Camus was devastated. For years he had voiced strong criticism of French colonial policy in Algeria, and was forced to leave the country in 1940 after the authorities shut down the newspaper where he had published his most critical articles. He considered himself Algerian. In 1954, one million French citizens lived in Algeria, three-quarters of them born there. Even the poorest of them enjoyed privileges not extended to the nine million Arabs and Berbers who also lived there, often in horrifying poverty, as Camus had shown in his 1939 series of articles on “The Misery of Kabylia.” With other left-leaning intellectuals, Camus argued for economic and political reforms; in the 1940s he supported the Arab leader Ferhat Abbas, who called for political representation for Algeria’s Muslims in a federation with France. When even such modest proposals were scuttled by hard-line French settlers and the French government, power among Arabs shifted to the independence movement, which had concluded that only violence could make the French budge. The bloody war that ensued lasted eight years; terrorism and brutal repression — including the torture of militants by the French Army — reinforced each other in a deadly cycle. Even a regime change in France, with Charles de Gaulle returning as president of the Fifth Republic in 1958, could not stop the bleeding for another four years.
Camus was caught in the middle: a passionate believer in justice for all, he supported Arab aspirations for political rights but could not give up his own love of, and claim to, Algeria. Above all, he felt outrage and horror at the blood being shed on both sides. In 1955, when Arab moderates were still calling for dialogue, Camus’s friend Aziz Kessous, a socialist close to Ferhat Abbas, asked him to write in support of a newspaper he had founded. Camus responded with his “Letter to an Algerian Militant,” printed on the front page of the first issue. This text, heartbreaking in many ways, shows both Camus’s hopeful vision for the country and his growing awareness that it was becoming unrealizable.
Just weeks before, on Aug. 20, a new ­escalation had occurred: Arab guerrillas in the north attacked and killed French settlers, along with some Muslim civilians; the army responded by massacring thousands of Arabs. Camus begins his letter by roundly condemning the massacre, which has put him “on the edge of despair.” He continues, “You and I, who are so alike, who share the same culture and the same hopes, who have been brothers for so long . . . know that we are not enemies.” Yet this hopeful note is soon followed by a negative one: “I know from experience that to say these things today is to venture into a no man’s land between hostile armies. It is to preach the folly of war as bullets fly.”
This letter was included in Camus’s “Chroniques algériennes,” a selection of texts, mostly newspaper articles, written over a period of 20 years and published in 1958, shortly after de Gaulle’s return to power. It was the last book Camus published in his lifetime, and it appears now in its entirety for the first time in English, expertly translated by Arthur Goldhammer. The editor, Alice Kaplan, has added six texts to Camus’s original selection in an appendix, to further illuminate Camus’s relation to Algeria. (I wish, though, there were a few more editorial notes to give readers background information. Camus’s allusions to contemporary events like the August 1955 massacre were obvious to most of his French readers in 1958 but not to English speakers today.)
As the writings in “Algerian Chronicles” make clear, Camus’s position in “no man’s land” left him increasingly isolated: hated by the right for his condemnation of government policies, scorned by the left for his inability to imagine an independent Algeria from which the French would be absent.
Kaplan’s introduction traces the evolution of Camus’s positions on the Algerian conflict, as well as the ups and downs of critics’ judgments of them. While Camus’s first readers saw him as a philosopher concerned with universal questions of human existence, some influential critics writing after the 1970s considered him a typical pied noir (the usual, sometimes pejorative designation for French people from Algeria), whose works present a colonialist perspective. In recent years, however, the pendulum has swung back; Kaplan notes that the bloody civil war of the 1990s in Algeria has made many Algerian intellectuals appreciate Camus’s steadfast rejection of violence, even when it is committed in the name of high principles. Obviously, this does not apply only to Algeria.
Some of the most memorable pages here restate an argument Camus had already developed at length in “The Rebel”: not all means are acceptable, even when employed for noble ends; terrorism and torture destroy the very goals they are supposed to serve. This position was criticized as “idealist” (it was the reason for the famous break with Sartre), but Camus sticks to it — admirably, in my opinion: “Although it is historically true that values such as the nation and humanity cannot survive unless one fights for them, fighting alone cannot justify them (nor can force). The fight must itself be justified, and explained, in terms of values.”
Even more eloquent, perhaps, are his remarks on the responsibility of intellectuals in times of hatred: “It is to explain the meaning of words in such a way as to sober minds and calm fanaticisms.” Great writer that he was, Camus placed hope in the calming power of language carefully used, and of reason; in the preface, he asks his readers to “set their ideological reflexes aside for a moment and just think.”
And that, of course, is the best reason for reading these articles today. Algeria never did become the peaceful federation Camus dreamed of, where pieds noirs and Arabs, Berbers and Jews lived together. As Kap­lan points out, we cannot know how he would have reacted to the final years of the war, or to the independence that followed. We do know that his ethical positions are still meaningful, worldwide.

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