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Camus and Algeria

In this week in which (November 7th) the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Albert Camus will be celebrated, The New York Review of Books publishes a sparkling essay by Claire Messud hung on a new Harvard University Press collection of his writings on his native Algeria (Algerian Chronicles).

In his youth a radical campaigner for the rights of Algerian Muslims “[b]y this relatively early juncture in 1955,” Messud writes,

Camus, in his beautiful, obdurate optimism, had parted company with reality. While he continued to believe that ‘the dream that the French will suddenly disappear is childish’ and that there ‘will be no real winners in this war,’ the FLN [Algerian National Liberation Front]was determined to attain independence by all necessary means. By September 1956, it was official FLN policy to attack civilians. One of its leaders, Ramdane Abane, said that ‘one corpse in a jacket is always worth more than twenty in uniform.’ Urban bombings became widespread.
At the same time, after Philippeville [a massacre of colonists, followed by reprisal killings of Muslims], the pieds-noirs were given permission to bear arms, thereby escalating levels of fear and violence; by late 1956, the right-wing terrorism sponsored by the French officers and activists who later formed the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) was underway; and by January 1957, General Massu had been granted unlimited military control over the city of Algiers. Torture of Algerians and of European dissidents—such as [Henri] Alleg, author of The Question—became commonplace; the FLN engaged in torture as well.
By the time of Camus’s final public effort, his simple and heartfelt call for a civilian truce, in late January 1956, the situation in Algeria was irredeemably bitter ...

Camus’s biographer Robert Zaretsky observes:

Camus’s silence over the war ravaging his native Algeria, the source of nearly all his images of worldly beauty, did not transcend ethics. Instead, it flowed from his recognition that the humiliated were on both sides in this conflict: the great majority of pieds-noirs as well as Arabs.

Camus’s honesty and consistency retain, in retrospect, a moral purity that few others could claim. He saw that “the era of colonialism is over,” but felt that “the only problem now is to draw the appropriate consequences”—in this case, a moderate solution that would provide rights for all members of the society, including his own community.

Next to Camus, his peers seem cynical at best: Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir celebrated the FLN—as they had celebrated Stalin—from the comfortable remove of their Paris cafés. Raymond Aron’s approach to the crisis was to produce a cost-benefit analysis proving that the colony was no longer a financially workable proposition for France and hence should be abandoned. The French military and government were responsible for acts of torture and violence that would irreparably compromise France’s honor. And when Camus approached the great De Gaulle to propose the simple solution of French citizenship for all Algerians—this in March 1958, two months before the general retook power having used, among others, the slogan “We are all Frenchmen, from Dunkirk to Tamanrasset!”—De Gaulle reportedly scoffed, “Right, and we’ll have fifty niggers [bougnoules] in the Chamber of Deputies.”

The complete article can be found here: http://bit.ly/1adoUl5