“Algerian Chronicles:” A Short Review

The writings, or perhaps one should say the thinking, of Albert Camus may be more relevant today than the time in which he lived. Each of us is in some way a product of our time, and Camus was certainly a product of his. Lifting himself from the obscurity of a working class neighborhood in Algiers, he would become a Nobel Prize winning author and one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the twentieth century. 2013 marks the centenary of his birth, and as such, a re-examination of his thinking has once again risen to relevant heights in nearly every context. Nearly a dozen books have been published in various languages this year alone.

The contemporary world, especially its politicians, can take much from Camus’s recently published Algerian Chronicles. Written between 1939 and 1958, the Algerian Chronicles constitutes a document of a man torn between his homeland and the country that colonized her. Moreover, the reader is also presented with indisputable proof of that man’s inability and unwillingness to waver for the sake of politics or personal costs. Camus first published The Algerian Chronicles in 1958, just two short years before his untimely death.

The book begins with the piece “The Misery of Kabylia,” initially written as a series of articles for Alger républicain in 1939. Kabylia is a mountainous region in the north of Algeria and functioned as a stronghold for the French. When Camus arrives in 1939 he sees hunger, destitution, and extreme poverty. His descriptions of the region are harsh and uncompromising. In many instances he dares his readers to doubt the truth of his reporting, to come and witness it for themselves. This is the longest and the most brutal section of the book. It is also the section that shows us a Camus angered by the plight of those who have no hope and by those who refuse to see it as a human obligation to intercede on behalf of those living in Kabylia during a famine.

The other pieces collected in this book are no less harsh and uncompromising. Camus is a man deeply affected by what he witnesses and one can easily sense the frustration in his writing. No wonder his silence weighed so heavily on his conscience. The most recent selections, collected under the title “Algeria 1958,” depict a writer giving one last attempt at a peaceful solution to the Algerian problem. Despite the extreme violence, Camus believed that the Arabs and the French pied noirs could find a way to live together. Of course, we know now that this belief turned out to be a pipe dream. Still, Camus’s optimism in the face of such widespread violence and terror is admirable.

The Algerian Chronicles is not only a snapshot of a certain time, just before the power keg that is Algeria began to blow, but also a snapshot of the mind of one of our most thoughtful and tormented thinkers. The reader can easily sense the frustration, the powerlessness, of Camus in these pages. One wonders what Camus would make of Algeria today, or Algeria even ten years after his death.

The Algerian Chronicles is published by Belknap Harvard and is edited by Alice Kaplan, who also provides a wonderful introduction. The book is translated by Arthur Goldhammer.