is as relevant today as he was 50 years ago
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