"Even my death will be contested. And yet what I desire most today is a quiet death, which would bring peace to those whom I love."
Albert Camus's prediction has been borne out—but not his hope. As France approaches next year's centennial of the French Algerian writer's birth, controversies have crackled over the meaning of his life and work. These battles, which have swept up intellectuals and politicians, have as much to do with France's troubled past—in particular its ties with its former colony Algeria—as they do with our own troubling present.
Camus was remarkable witness to his times. Like George Orwell, he was right about the plagues of the era—totalitarianism and Communism. Also like Orwell, Camus's lucid gaze, blunt honesty, and persistent humanity have made him as discomfiting and indispensable since his death in 1960 as he was during his short life.
Over the past couple of years, official efforts to commemorate Camus have faltered. In 2009, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal that the writer's remains be moved to the Panthéon, the neo-Classical pile dedicated to France's "great men," was assailed by critics, outraged that the conservative president was trying to yoke his name to a writer who had spent his life on the political left. While Sarkozy believed that he needed Camus, concluded Camus's biographer Olivier Todd, "Camus has no need for Sarkozy."
More recently, ideological and political collisions have capsized plans for a grand centennial exhibition in Aix-en-Provence, home of the Camus archives. Two exhibit directors, Benjamin Stora, a historian of French Algeria, and Michel Onfray, a popular philosopher (and author of a controversial biography of Camus), were toppled by political foes. The result has been paralysis. Officials in Aix insist that an exhibit, though more modest given Paris's refusal to subsidize the event, will nevertheless be held. The title of Stora's torpedoed exhibit, "Albert Camus: The Stranger Who Resembles Us," has never seemed truer.
Few writers were more conflicted over personal and national identity than Camus. He was a pied-noir, the moniker given to immigrants who came to French Algeria during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of them came from elsewhere in Europe, becoming citizens of a nation, France, whose language they did not speak, whose history they did not know, and whose soil they did not set foot on.
Algeria was nevertheless considered part of France, even with several million Arabs and Berbers who were denied the rights of citizenship. By the 1950s, Camus resembled one of his mythic heroes, Prometheus, chained not to a rock but to the impasse of Algeria's resistance to a foreign occupation—a French occupation. He labored for a solution that would satisfy the imperatives of justice for both Arabs and pieds-noirs, risking his life in pursuit of an impossible peace.
Camus's efforts failed, and he fell silent—a public silence that began in 1956 and remained almost unbroken until his death, four years later. One of the two notable interruptions was the publication, in 1958, of Chroniques algériennes, the collection of Camus's articles on Algeria. (In May, Harvard University Press will publish Arthur Goldhammer's masterly translation.)
The second exception was Camus's controversial reply, in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, to an Algerian student who was hectoring him for his public silence. Camus reminded the student that he had long denounced the political and economic repression of Arabs and Berbers, but that he also condemned the use of blind violence by Algerian nationalists: "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." If that doesn't sound quite right, it is because the familiar quotation—"I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice"—was the invention of the French newspaper Le Monde, which sympathized with the cause of Algerian nationalists and cordially despised Camus. Le Monde published a correction three days later.
After the so-called second Algerian War, or "black decade" of the 1990s, which pitted the government against Islamic fundamentalists, leaving more than 100,000 civilians dead, several Algerian writers discovered Camus as one of their own. Secular, moderate, and French-speaking, these Algerians saw a parallel between their own embattled identity vis-à-vis Muslim fundamentalists and Camus's insistence on the Algerian identity of the pieds-noirs.
These Algerian writers are drawn to Camus first because of his Algerian roots but also because his writing evokes universal values. That is perhaps why his spirit has hovered over the Arab Spring. Yesterday it was Camus, today it is Bouazizi, a Tunisian intellectual recently affirmed, referring to the young man whose suicide ignited the liberation movement in Tunisia and much of the rest of North Africa. "He is perhaps no longer part of our world, but he is not silent. ... His cry is primal: He demands the right to dignity, to work. He demands the right to enjoy the rights all humans should enjoy." The words are redolent of language from The Rebel.
Camus wrote against the deadly sophistries of communism and its penchant for rationalizing mass murder and political repression, but his lucid analysis also applies to the autocratic states of North Africa, which had long emphasized order over democracy, the status quo over the uncertainties of change. We were asked to overlook the corruption and brutality, to excuse it in the same paternalistic terms—the people are not ready for democracy—that Arab leaders used even as they were being pushed out the door.
In The Rebel, Camus described revolt as the response of human beings who, pushed too far, reject "the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition." For young Egyptians under an octogenarian rais, propped up by a murderous police force and billions in American military aid, for young Tunisians under a kleptomaniac ruler whose family turned the nation into a warehouse to pillage, and for young Libyans under a lunatic whose rule rivaled Caligula's over Rome, the moment finally arrived, as Camus put it, that "the outrage be brought to an end."