By Albert Camus
Edited & Introduced by Alice Kaplan
Harvard University Press – £16.95
As Alice Kaplan has written in this book’s Introduction: ”Giving speech to anger and helplessness and injustice is the task Camus set for himself in publishing the Algerian Chronicles. His sense of impending loss, his horror of terror, even his vacillations, endow the book with many moments of literary beauty, and with an uncanny relevance.”
It is a description that’s most unthinkable to argue with.
Quite why this is so, is because it’s almost impossible to refer to any page of this brave and outstanding work, without really being touched in some form. There again, the philosopher and ultra-humanist, Albert Camus, literally seethed with an emphatic commitment to the defense of those who suffered both deplorable and inconceivable colonial injustice.
For instance, in the seventeenth chapter, ‘A Clear Conscience,’ he argues: ”[…] these same ordinary people are the first victims of the present situation. They are not the ones placing ads in the papers, looking to buy property in Provence or apartments in Paris. They were born in Algeria and will die there, and their one hope is that they will not die in terror or be massacred in the pit of some mine. Must these hardworking Frenchmen, who live in isolated rural towns and villages, be sacrificed to expiate the immense sins of French colonization? Those who think so should first say as much and then, in my view, go offer themselves up as expiatory victims. It is too easy to allow others to be sacrificed, and if the French of Algeria bear their share of responsibility, the French of France must not forget theirs either.”
Published in France in 1958 – the same year the Algerian War triggered the collapse of the Fourth French Republic – this is the first edition of the Algerian Chronicles in English.
Initially dismissed or disdained upon publication, these 216 pages could well be described a prescient analysis of the dead end of terrorism. A book which – due to a menagerie of thanks to Arthur Goldhammer’s excellent translation – sheds an inadvertent abundance of apposite light on the futility of current day terrorism. A facet, which in and of itself, is no mean feat, as the translator himself makes clear at the outset: ”When I think of Camus’s prose, I think of adjectives such as ”pure,” ”restrained,” and ”disciplined.” He never strains for effect, never descends into bathos, and always modulates his passion with classical precision.”
Might this be due to the fact that Albert Camus ”wrote as a moralist, in the noblest sense of the term?” Or, as he once declared: ”people expect too much of writers in theses matters?”
Either way, it’s a pleasure to be able to finally read this English edition of the Algerian Chronicles, and as such, fully comprehend the 1957 Noble Prize Winner for Literature’s acute anguish as to what (really) was going on in his place of birth: ”I do not think I am mistaken when I say that the destiny of this people is to work and to contemplate, and in so doing to teach lessons in wisdom to the anxious conquerors that we French have become. Let us learn, at least, to beg pardon for our feverish need of power, the natural bent of mediocre people, by taking upon ourselves the burdens and needs of a wiser people, so as to deliver it unto its profound grandeur.”