Al­bert Ca­mus

is as rel­e­vant to­day as he was 50 years ago

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

AL­BERT Ca­mus, born 100 years ago this Novem­ber, has been re­ha­bil­i­tated in re­cent times and not, one hopes, just be­cause pieties have shifted. The French author strove, in a time of im­pla­ca­ble cer­tain­ties, to keep the am­bi­gu­i­ties of ex­is­tence al­ways in play. In an era when vi­o­lence on a mas­sive scale was con­doned for the sake of long-term goals, he pre­served a space for kind­ness and for care of the in­di­vid­ual.

A son of the En­light­en­ment, Ca­mus chose its de­on­to­log­i­cal rather than its util­i­tar­ian wing. He acted out of duty and de­cency when many oth­ers were mak­ing moral ac­com­mo­da­tions. Un­like some who post­dated their brav­ery, he did work for the French Re­sis­tance, re­port­ing for, then edit­ing, its clan­des­tine news­pa­per,

Com­bat. He re­signed when the pa­per be­came com­mer­cial and pop­ulist. He re­signed from his job with the UN when fas­cist Spain was wel­comed into it.

When the French in­tel­li­gentsia di­vided over Al­ge­ria into the im­pe­ri­al­ist Right and proin­de­pen­dence Left, Ca­mus ag­o­nised over his po­si­tion as an Al­ge­rian-born French­man whose fam­ily still lived in Al­giers. He sym­pa­thised with the as­pi­ra­tions of the Arabs but hated the ter­ror meth­ods of the sep­a­ratist move­ment, the Front de Lib­er­a­tion Na­tionale.

He also sym­pa­thised with the eth­nic French, the ‘‘ pieds noirs’’ who, like the Ber­bers, Jews, Greeks and other non-Arabs who had lived there for gen­er­a­tions, he classed as in­dige­nous. They had no other home to go to. He wanted all to be free and equal in a French-gov­erned Al­ge­ria that re­spected the repub­li­can­ism of the French con­sti­tu­tion and ex­tended full cit­i­zen­ship, in spirit as well as let­ter, in a de­parte­ment d’outre-mer that was part of France. Most of all he sym­pa­thised with, and ad­vo­cated on be­half of, un­armed civil­ians who were dy­ing in the es­ca­lat­ing tur­moil.

This am­biva­lence led to a fa­mous state­ment, of­ten quoted and mis­quoted, that has been used both to as­sas­si­nate and to de­ify him ever since. ‘‘ Peo­ple are now plant­ing bombs in the tramways of Al­giers,’’ he said. ‘‘ My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is jus­tice, I pre­fer my mother.’’

It is sur­pris­ing, per­haps, given Ca­mus died

53 years ago, that his key work on the sub­ject, Actuelles III (Chroniques al­ge­ri­ennes

1939-1958), has only now been trans­lated into English. Ti­tled Al­ge­rian Chron­i­cles, it has been in­vis­i­bly trans­lated by Arthur Gold­ham­mer and pref­aced per­cep­tively by Alice Ka­plan, pro­fes­sor of French at Yale Univer­sity.

In the an­glo­phone world, Ca­mus is best known as a nov­el­ist. He was awarded the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 1957 for ‘‘ his

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