“People expect too much of writers,” Albert Camus lamented in the late 1950s. At the time Camus was writing, the Algerian rebellion had grown into a full-scale guerrilla war for independence, and while his initial sympathy for the uprising led the French Right and the French Algerian settlers to denounce him as a traitor, he also came in for frequent polemical attacks from the French Left for not energetically and unequivocally supporting the insurgents. Criticism also came from the Algerian militants themselves. Frantz Fanon, the best-known Algerian writer, derided him as a “sweet sister.” Sartre, formerly his close friend, mocked Camus’s “beautiful soul.”
Camus’s complaint does him credit. He agonized over his political pronouncements in a way that the more brilliant, mercurial, doctrinaire Sartre never had to. In 1957, as the war ground on and positions hardened on both sides, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despairing of the Algerian situation but determined to answer his critics and, with the prestige of the Nobel behind him, make one final effort for peace and reconciliation, Camus assembled a short collection of his writings about Algeria, which was published in 1958. It appears now in English for the first time, ably translated by Arthur Goldhammer.
Algerian Chronicles spans two decades. In 1939, when Camus was a young journalist in Algeria—where he was born in 1913, to impoverished and barely literate working-class parents—a severe drought struck the region of Kabylia. Camus traveled there to report on it, and was horrified. He wrote a series of vivid and powerful dispatches, with which Algerian Chronicles begins.
Kabylia was a populous province that, like many other underdeveloped areas, derived a large proportion of its income from the remittances of émigré workers. During the Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment soared in France, many Algerian immigrants were sent home and new emigration was discouraged. Kabylia was already economically depressed when the drought hit, and the results were devastating. Hunger and unemployment were general, wages were below subsistence level, and there were few schools for poor children to attend. Some public subsidies and private charity arrived from France but made hardly a dent.
Camus supplied statistics, anecdotes, and indignation, all in generous quantities. He also made specific and sensible recommendations: guaranteed credit for small farmers; experiments with new crops, such as cherries and carob, and new techniques, such as drying houses for figs; the introduction of self-governing Arab communes under the supervision of French colonial authorities. More generally, he attacked the greed of the large colonial landowners, the grands colons, and called on the French government to make good on its long-standing promise to extend the rights of Frenchmen to native Algerians. The latter suggestion was particularly unpopular among his fellow French settlers in Algeria, the pieds-noirs, 80 percent of whom were poor, but not as poor as the natives, and who at least enjoyed the legal and political rights of French citizens. The reports were widely read—first in Algeria and later as a small book in France—but with little practical result. However, France’s Algerian community found that they provided ample cause to vilify Camus, and eventually forced him into exile.
Camus never again lived in Algeria, but it always dominated his literary imagination—The Stranger, The Plague, Exile and the Kingdom, and The First Man are all set there—and haunted him politically as well. (To an Algerian militant, an old friend, he wrote after one of the innumerable atrocities by both sides: “Believe me when I tell you that Algeria is where I hurt at this moment, as others feel pain in their lungs.”) During the Nazi occupation of France, he became the editor of Combat, the newspaper of the French Resistance, where his (anonymous) wartime writing was widely acclaimed. In 1945, with France newly liberated and political renewal in the air, Camus traveled for three weeks to Algeria and published a series of essays in Combat calling for a new relationship between France and her colony.
There was a depressing resemblance between these reports (which make up the middle section of Algerian Chronicles) and Camus’s dispatches from Kabylia. Drought, wartime austerity, and the cessation of practically all imports meant another raging famine, this time countrywide. More statistics, anecdotes, and indignation from Camus. France must immediately send 240 ships, he insisted, each with five thousand tons of grain, and “if necessary, demand that the world provide the necessary ships. When millions of people are suffering from hunger, it becomes everybody’s business.”
There was, however, a difference in Camus’s analysis of the political situation. In 1939 he had pleaded for the long-promised assimilation of native Algerians. At that point, nearly 80 percent of the indigenous population wanted to become French citizens. By 1945 the promise had been too long delayed; scarcely anyone believed in it anymore. Moreover, as Camus pointed out, “hundreds of thousands of Arabs have spent the past two years fighting for the liberation of France.” It seems incredible in retrospect that a new French government thought it could simply resume the old colonial relationship with only minor modifications, but that is evidently what it assumed. This was folly, Camus protested. The French would “have to conquer Algeria a second time,” and “this second conquest will not be as easy as the first.”
Arab public opinion had shifted from assimilation to federation and a modified form of independence. Camus strongly supported this position, though he carefully couched his support in a patriotic appeal to French wisdom and grandeur. He knew all too well the intransigence of the French Algerian community; he also recognized—almost uniquely among French intellectuals—that his fellow pieds-noirs, though dismayingly many of them were pigheaded racists, nevertheless had rights, too, and were just as much oppressed as they were oppressors.
The French government continued to dither. In 1948 it allowed elections for two separate assemblies, French and Muslim, but when it looked like the pro-independence parties would dominate the latter, the colonial administration rigged the elections and began arresting the leaders. Predictably, this led to further Arab protest, which led to further French repression. A National Liberation Front (FLN) formed, demanding complete independence. It was, of course, outlawed. In late 1954, the FLN launched a guerrilla offensive, to which the French government responded by escalating its repression. In August 1955, the FLN massacred 123 French and Muslim civilians, and the French Army (along with paramilitary groups of pieds-noirs) went on a rampage, killing thousands of guerrillas and Arab civilians. The Algerian War had begun in earnest.
Camus was distraught, not least because his family, including his elderly mother, and many close friends, French and Arab, were caught between two armed forces employing indiscriminate violence. In a series of essays published in late 1955 and early 1956 (also reprinted here), he denounced the large-scale use of torture by the French Army and of terror by the FLN. In January 1956, he traveled to Algiers to give a speech. With a mob of pieds-noirs outside howling for his scalp, barely restrained by almost equally disapproving armed guards from the FLN, which had guaranteed his safety, he delivered an eloquent plea for a civilian truce, a promise from both sides not to attack civilians. It was perhaps his finest moment politically. But the men with the guns, on both sides, ignored him.
Moral imagination is not to be expected, perhaps, from politicians or military commanders. But even the intellectuals of Paris and Algiers failed to respond, preferring partisan commitment. Camus was profoundly discouraged, and moreover bore many scars from earlier Parisian polemics. Further ridicule was in store: At a press conference in Stockholm after the Nobel ceremony, Camus made a statement widely misreported as “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” Goldhammer and Alice Kaplan—in her introduction to this edition—perform a considerable service in pointing out that Camus said nothing so simplistic. What he said was: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” He was not sentimentally exalting his mother above justice; he was rejecting the equation of justice with revolutionary terrorism.
But by the time he put together Chroniques algériennes the following year, his bridges to his fellow intellectuals had been burned. In the preface he complained of “a peculiar French nastiness” and announced: “I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent and to deepen the divisions in a France already poisoned by hatred and factionalism.” He kept to this public silence for the short remainder of his life. But he intervened privately on nearly 150 occasions to urge clemency for political prisoners. Some of this correspondence, along with a few letters to journals and newspapers, is included here.
The problem of revolutionary violence was perhaps the most fateful question of political morality in the twentieth century. Two texts are indispensable to anyone wanting to engage that question: Camus’s “Neither Victims nor Executioners” (1946) and Sartre’s introduction to The Wretched of the Earth (1961), written one year after Camus’s death but clearly addressed to him. As Sartre acknowledged in a generous obituary for his friend and adversary: “One lived with or against his thought. . . . He had to be avoided or fought: indispensable, in a word, to this tension which makes the life of the mind.” That tension is everywhere in evidence in Algerian Chronicles.
George Scialabba is a contributing editor of The Baffler and the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? (Pressed Wafer, 2009) and For the Republic (Pressed Wafer, forthcoming in April).