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Algerian Chronicles

Albert Camus's 1957 work shows his outrage over the suffering of Algeria's Arab and Berber populations.

June 16, 2013

Algerian Chronicles, by Albert Camus, Harvard University Press, 240 pp.

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Reviewed by Troy Jollimore for Barnes & Noble Review

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Albert Camus's Algerian Chronicles appeared in 1957, at the height of French turmoil over the rebellious and violent Algerian independence movement. At the time the book received little notice in France, and with the exception of some of the individual essays, this translation by Arthur Goldhammer represents its first appearance in English.

It has not, for the most part, been regarded as one of Camus's "important" works, a list that would include novels such as "The Stranger," "The Plague," or "The Fall" and philosophical works such as "The Myth of Sisyphus." This is, perhaps, an oversight. At a historical moment when it seems crucial to the human prospect to think intelligently about terrorism and other forms of political violence, the thinking Camus does in Algerian Chronicles may strike us, if we open ourselves to it, as necessary, cogent, and sane.

At the time of its publication the book left many not only unconvinced but unhappy. Looking back from the perspective of 1969, Conor Cruise O'Brien expressed the view of many on the Left when he called it "a depressing volume." O'Brien thought "Algerian Chronicles" represented the moral failure of a writer and moralist he had had high hopes for and wanted deeply to admire.

Like Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others, O'Brien blamed Camus for failing to support the revolutionaries who had fought for Algeria's independence – an independence that, to the surprise of many, had been granted in 1962. Camus did not live to see this happen. He had been killed in a car accident in 1960, three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature.

Nor, mercifully, did he live to witness the ongoing internecine violence that continued to plague Algeria for decades after independence, most brutally during the 1990s, when over 100,000 people died in a chaotic period of guerrilla fighting and factional massacres of civilians. Perhaps O'Brien's assessment would have been different if he had foreseen this slaughter. If nothing else it confirmed that, even if some of Camus's reasons for insisting that Algeria must remain part of France could be called in question, he was at the very least correct to insist that independence would be anything but a cure-all for that troubled former colony.

Camus was born in Algeria to a family of French pied-noirs, descendants of the original European colonizers of Algeria. Relations between the pied-noirs and Algeria's majority Arab population were tense, largely due to French economic policies that had exacerbated and in some cases created the inhuman poverty under which many of the Arabs existed – a poverty that is described in moving detail the first section of "Algerian Chronicles," "The Misery of Kabylia," which was written during the 1930s, when, as Camus said later, "almost no one in France was interested in" Algeria. This set of essays, and much of the writing elsewhere in the book, is more than sufficient to show that those who view Camus as a former pied-noir who cared only about the fate of that group were simply mistaken.

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