Camus, Albert 1913–1960

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Author: John Fletcher
Editor: C. Brian Cox
Date: 1997
From: African Writers(Vol. 1. )
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Biography
Length: 8,927 words

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Albert Camus 1913–1960


ONE OF THE most influential twentieth-century writers, Albert Camus was born in Algeria of French parents. He was thus what the French call a pied noir (black foot), a European settler in a predominantly Arab and Berber country. After a bitter struggle, Algeria won its independence from France in 1962. By then Camus was dead, but the conflict in his homeland cast a dark shadow over his final years. Even at the height of his international fame, he never forgot his origins: he remained a pied noir all his life. Although as a person of liberal political opinions Camus would have accepted Algerian independence, there is no doubt that he also would have regretted it and would have wished that such an outcome could have been avoided.

The attitude was condemned in his lifetime as cowardly ambivalence, but since his death opinions have changed. It is now widely agreed that independence was not the un-alloyed triumph of justice over injustice but, rather, the substitution of a lesser injustice, the uprooting of the pieds noirs, for a greater injustice, the harsh treatment of the indigenous population. It is clear, too, that Algeria has had more than its fair share of problems as a sovereign state. The revolutionary oligarchy that came to power in 1962 pursued economic policies that made this potentially wealthy country, with its large reserves of natural gas, one of the poorer nations of North Africa, condemned to rely on emigration to siphon off excess labor. In France, the resulting increase in the number of Algerians led to severe racial tension and the rise of the Front National, a neofascist party that advocated the forcible repatriation of immigrants.

Camus, a man of the Left all his life, would have deplored the success of the Front National in France, just as he would have regretted the advance of its mirror image in Algeria, Islamic fundamentalism. Such polarization, in which intolerance and fanaticism have threatened human rights on both sides of the Mediterranean, would have appalled the liberal, humanist democrat that Camus was in every fiber of his being. During the Algerian War he felt sympathy for the motive common to the rebels and the pieds noirs—the desire for a homeland—but he underestimated the political nature of the conflict and its resulting bitterness. His perspective limited by his universalist humanism, he believed—or perhaps wished desperately to believe—that if only Algeria’s underdevelopment, poverty, and lack of educational opportunity were tackled through systemic reform, then French, Arab, and Berber could live together in a confederation modeled after the German-French-Italian union of Switzerland, with proportional representation in a parliament made up of members drawn from all sections of the community.

However, it was unrealistic to hope that Europeans and indigenous North Africans could live together as neighbors. French Algeria was a society of unofficial apartheid. Although in law all races were held to be equal — that is why Meursault is executed for murdering an Arab in L’Étranger...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1381400022