Resistance, Rebellion, and Writing

“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.

More here.


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