CA­MUS’S CALL TO SPARE THE LIVES OF NON­COM­BAT­ANTS ECHOES STILL

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

im­por­tant lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion, which with clear-sighted earnest­ness il­lu­mi­nates the prob­lems of the hu­man con­science in our times’’.

His nov­els, in­clud­ing The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall, are alive with phe­nomeno­log­i­cal minu­tiae in their ex­am­i­na­tion of life as it is lived and, im­por­tantly, jus­ti­fied. He is of­ten called an ex­is­ten­tial­ist, some­thing he de­nied re­peat­edly, rather than the ab­sur­dist he was. He ar­tic­u­lated his phi­los­o­phy in The Myth of Sisy­phus, ex­plain­ing, un­for­tu­nately with­out the stylish­ness of his fic­tion, that al­though life is con­tin­gent and mean­ing­less, it is still in­valu­able. Sui­cide, he ar­gued, was nei­ther a log­i­cal nor a moral way out.

De­spite the ab­sur­dism and the world­weari­ness of his fic­tion, his good looks and his tire­less wom­an­is­ing, sin­cer­ity was per­haps his defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic. His peers com­mented on his mod­esty.

Ca­mus was born in Al­giers in 1913. A year later, his fa­ther died de­fend­ing France in the Marne. He and his brother were reared by their deaf mother, their un­cle and grand­mother in a work­ing-class sub­urb. A teacher took him un­der his wing and he grad­u­ated in phi­los­o­phy from the Univer­sity of Al­giers.

He be­came a jour­nal­ist and his 1939 re­ports from famine-struck Kabylia, writ­ten dur­ing 10 rea­soned in ar­gu­ment, with no hint of sar­casm or anger.

Apart from their his­tor­i­cal in­ter­est, Ca­mus’s es­says show us two things. One is it is pos­si­ble to be po­lit­i­cally en­gaged with­out foam­ing at the mouth. The other is the more things change in what his­to­rian Ian Mor­ris calls ‘‘ the arc of in­sta­bil­ity’’, from cen­tral Africa to Pak­istan, the more they stay the same. Fur­ther, they re­mind us that a great deal days for the daily news­pa­per Al­gerRepub­li­cain, open Al­ge­rian Chron­i­cles. The rest of the es­says were pub­lished in Parisian news­pa­pers af­ter the war and deal with grow­ing Al­ge­rian un­rest. All are a model of en­gaged jour­nal­ism: scrupu­lous and ex­haus­tive in the facts, telling in colour­ful anec­dote, of the hor­ror go­ing on there to­day is the legacy of 19th-cen­tury Euro­pean colo­nial­ism and su­per­power ma­noeu­vring in the Cold War.

‘‘ The Right has ... ceded the moral re­sponse en­tirely to the Left, while the Left has ceded the pa­tri­otic re­sponse en­tirely to the Right,’’ Ca­mus wrote, and he could be talk­ing about any­where in the West right now. The French Left at the time was con­don­ing ev­ery ter­ror­ist out­rage per­pe­trated by the FLN; the Right was cheer­ing harsh reprisals in­flicted by the French army.

Al­ge­ria went up in flames. Ca­mus didn’t live to see its in­de­pen­dence in 1962, af­ter more than a mil­lion deaths, let alone the dread­ful civil war be­tween Is­lamists and the mil­i­tary in the 1990s, or the re­cent ac­tiv­ity of the self-styled ‘‘ al-Qa’ida in the Land of Is­lamic Maghreb’’.

Through all th­ese bloody con­vul­sions and those of the wider re­gion, Ca­mus’s cen­tral call — to spare the lives of non­com­bat­ants — echoes still.

In a speech in Al­ge­ria in 1956 he said: ‘‘ As hor­ri­ble and re­pug­nant as the two world wars were, or­gan­i­sa­tions of­fer­ing aid and as­sis­tance were able to il­lu­mi­nate the dark­ness with rays of pity that made it im­pos­si­ble to give up hope in mankind. The need for such help seems all the more ur­gent in what ap­pears in many ways to be a frat­ri­ci­dal strug­gle, an ob­scure com­bat in which lethal force makes no dis­tinc­tion be­tween men and women or soldiers and work­ers.’’

Else­where he pleaded with both sides to re­ject the ‘‘ blood-soaked logic of to­tal war’’, propos­ing ‘‘ both camps com­mit them­selves pub­licly and si­mul­ta­ne­ously to a pol­icy of not harm­ing civil­ian pop­u­la­tions, no mat­ter what the cir­cum­stances’’.

Af­ter Iraq, af­ter Syria, af­ter the still un­ex­plained sus­pen­sion of in­ter­na­tional law in deadly Amer­i­can drone strikes, af­ter the con­stant bomb­ing of mar­ket­places and mosques now that asym­met­ri­cal war has made ob­so­lete the Geneva Con­ven­tions, Ca­mus’s voice seems naively ide­al­is­tic. The world needs that kind of naivete more than ever.

Al­ge­rian Chron­i­cles;

Al­bert Ca­mus, far left, from the cover of

left, French com­man­dos dur­ing the Al­ge­rian War

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