Why is Albert Camus Still a Stranger in His Native Algeria?

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the famed novelist, our reporter searches the north African nation for signs of his legacy

Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, now Drean, a town near Algeria's northeast coast. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)
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Camus continued to seek a middle path. He intervened with French authorities to save the lives of dozens of condemned mujahedin, but refused to support the armed struggle. “People are now planting bombs on the tramways of Algiers,” he famously told an FLN sympathizer following his acceptance of the 1957 Nobel. “My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” The FLN never forgave him for rejecting its cause. Eventually, Camus stopped commenting altogether on the war, a retreat that some equated with cowardice, but that Camus justified, saying that any comment he made would inflame one side or the other.

In Camus’ “Letter to an Algerian Militant,” published in Kaplan’s Algerian Chronicles, he equates the pain he felt about the Algerian War with the “hurt in his lungs.” By the time the war ended in March 1962, anywhere from a half-million to more than one million Arab civilians and freedom fighters were dead, along with nearly 40,000 French soldiers and pieds-noirs. A million pieds-noirs fled to France; others were massacred in Oran and other Algerian cities, while still others disappeared. (Camus’ mother died of natural causes in Algiers in September 1960.) Outside the former Barberousse prison, next to the Casbah, I studied a stone tablet that listed, in Arabic, the names of hundreds of fighters executed on the guillotine by the French occupiers.

Camus’ equivocating role during the Algerian War has never stopped igniting controversy. Columbia University historian Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism, berated Camus for having an “incapacitated colonial sensibility.” Particularly damning for Camus’ critics is the absence of developed Arab characters in the author’s body of fiction, a telling indication, they say, that while Camus sympathized with Arabs in general, he cared little about them as individuals. Kaplan says that Camus was simply a product of his time, and the deeply segregated society from which he came. “He knew the settler population, their poverty and their issues,” she says. Even so, many Algerian Arab writers “are deeply engaged with Camus.”

For Olivier Todd, the quality that resonates for him is Camus’ “honesty,” his refusal to insist on absolute truth. “He is constantly doubting. He has doubts about the Communists, about the future of Algeria, even about himself,” Todd says. Yet it took Todd decades to warm up to him. Todd met Camus twice, once in a Paris café in 1948, when the writer sat down at the counter with a newspaper and ogled Todd’s young wife. “I was furious,” says Todd. “I said aloud, ‘Who is this asshole? Who does he think he is?’” A decade later he was introduced to Camus on the Boulevard St. Germain and “disliked him intensely. His clothes were much too loud, and he was aggressive with me. He defended the pieds-noirs too much.” But after five years immersed in his life and literature, after hundreds of interviews and repeated trips to Algeria, “My feelings about him have changed completely,” Todd says. “I ended up liking him immensely.”

For Kaplan and other admirers, Camus was, above all, a humanist, who believed in the sanctity of life, the folly of killing for an ideology and the urgency of peaceful coexistence. “There is a Camus for every stage of life,” says Kaplan, trying to explain Camus’ staying power and relevance today. “Adolescents can identify with the alienation of Meursault. The Plague is for when you’re in college, politically engaged and sympathetic with resistance.” The Fall, Camus’ 1956 novel about the crisis of conscience of a successful Parisian lawyer, “is for 50-year-olds. It is angry, acrimonious, confronting the worst things you know about yourself.” And The First Man, a beautifully rendered, unfinished autobiographical novel published posthumously in 1994, “is Camus’ Proustian moment, his looking back on his life. You can spend your whole life with Camus.”

In a field near the sea at Tipasa stands one of Algeria’s only monuments to the writer, a headstone erected by his friends after he died in January 1960, at the age of 46, in a car crash with his publisher, Michel Gallimard, near the French town of Sens. At the time he was living in Lourmarin, a village in the Vaucluse, where his daughter lives today. (According to Todd, Camus said that the hills near his home “always remind me of Algeria.”) Weathered by the wind, the French inscription is barely legible, and the name “Albert Camus” has been defaced with a knife by someone with a grudge. The inscription is a quote from the 1938 essay “Nuptials at Tipasa,” written before the horrors of war and the personal struggles that would shadow his rise to greatness. “Here I understand what they call glory,” it reads, in homage to the seaside ruins where he spent some of his most joyful moments. “The right to love without limits.”


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