Thomas R. Healy
 

IN HIS OWN BOAT

                                    "If there's an uprising, no one is safe,
                                     we're all in the same boat."
                                                                           
                                                                    The Guest

     Albert Camus was a Frenchman, born and reared in Algeria, so when troubles arose in the French colony after the Second World War, he was terribly conflicted.  The famous moralist who always seemed so certain in his convictions suddenly was confused, even silent at times, divided by allegiances to his homeland and to the mother country.  Although he wrote many columns and articles about the turmoil, he declined to consider it in his imaginative writing, except for the short story "The Guest," included in his collection Exile and the Kingdom.

    
Day after day, Daru, the schoolteacher in the story, is alone in his classroom because an unexpected snowfall has kept his pupils at home.  Then, late one afternoon, he is visited by two "Odd pupils":  a gendarme on horseback with a roped Arab trudging behind him with his hands tied.  Surprised by their appearance, he is even more surprised when the gendarme asks him to deliver the prisoner to police headquarters the next day.  Daru declines, however, saying "that's not my job."  Now the gendarme is surprised.  Sternly he reminds him that "Things are brewing ...  There is talk of a forthcoming revolt."  Daru remains reluctant and asks, "Is he against us?"  The gendarme does not think so, admitting the Arab has been arrested for killing a member of his family, "But you can never be sure."  He then makes it clear that his request is an order and that the schoolteacher must comply with it because "In wartime people do all kinds of jobs."

     Accordingly, the teacher sets out with the prisoner early the next morning, still clearly troubled by the task.  Though repulsed by the crime the Arab committed, it offends him to have to deliver the prisoner to the authorities.  And he rebukes "his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab too who had dared to kill and not managed to get away."  After a couple of hours of walking, they reach a plateau where two paths are apparent.  The one to the east leads to the village where the police headquarters is located while the southern one leads to pasturelands where nomads are likely to offer him protection.  Daru gives the prisoner some food and money then, still uncomfortable in the role of a guard, he turns and walks away, letting the prisoner decide for himself which path to follow.  A few minutes later, after climbing a small hill, he spots the Arab making his way toward police headquarters.  His act of munificence does not entirely exonerate him, however, because when he returns to his classroom he finds a menacing message scrawled on the blackboard:  "You handed over our brother.  You will pay for this."

     Damned if he did, damned if he didn't, so Daru found himself after releasing the prisoner.  "In this vast landscape he had loved so much," he realized now, "he was alone."  His quandary reflected the increasing isolation Camus was to find himself in during the Algerian crisis.

*

     The first significant indication of unrest in French Algeria occurred on V.E. day, May 8, 1945, in the predominantly Moslem market town of Setif.  While the European settlers in Algeria were eager to celebrate the capitulation of Germany, the Moslems in Setif were just as eager to demand liberation from French rule.  Tensions were extraordinarily high, with signs appearing overnight on walls urging "Moslems unite!"  Only twenty gendarmes were available to monitor the thousands of nationalists who arrived in town to join the mass demonstration for independence so when shots were fired they were unable to contain the violence.  For five days Europeans were attacked indiscriminately, leaving over a hundred dead and another hundred wounded.  Then French troops arrived to reestablish order, and they did so with ferocity, killing from a thousand to six thousand people.

     By coincidence, Camus was in Algiers at the time of the upheaval.  He was there to visit his mother and friends, from whom he had long been separated because of the war, and to write some articles for the newspaper Combat about the region.  The eight articles he wrote after his three week visit presented a general survey of the current situation in Algeria.  Without directly addressing the violence that erupted in Setif, he described the grim state of existence of the Moslem population, which he conceded was no longer interested in being French citizens.  Pleading for the introduction of real democracy to the country, he declared, "It is the humble force of justice, and it alone, which must help us to win back Algeria and its inhabitants."

     For several years then, Camus was silent on the troubles in his homeland.  Not until 1954, when armed revolt under the leadership of the F.L.N. (the Front de Liberation Nationale) began on November first, did he again address the subject.  He deplored the terrorist tactics of the rebels and, just as vehemently, the repressive methods employed by the government in retaliation.  Predictably perhaps, as someone raised in the settler community, he was opposed to any resolution of the crisis that would require "the eviction of 1,200,000 Europeans from Algeria."  What he proposed, instead, was a federalist solution in which Algeria would be allowed considerable independence from France.  Many of his colleagues in Paris were appalled by such a proposal.  For them, the choice was obvious:  support must be with those seeking liberation from French colonialism.  For failing to recognize this, Simone de Beauvoir dismissed him as "that just man without justice."

     Despite such criticism, Camus continued to search for a resolution of the conflict that would enable the settlers and the rebels to live together as equals in Algeria.  Shortly before Christmas in 1955, overcome with despair at the escalating violence, he advanced in a newspaper article the notion of a "civil truce," in which the combatants would agree not to attack civilians.  He hoped that a "truce to the massacre of civilians, on one side and the other" would eventually lead to a settlement of the war.  A month later, he flew to Algiers to present his idea in a public forum.  The predominantly European audience was sympathetic to his appeal but not those Europeans outside the auditorium who shouted "Camus to the wall!" and "Death to Camus!"  Stones also were hurled against the large windows in the auditorium, which further rattled Camus and compelled him to read his remarks a little more briskly.  He reiterated the proposal he made earlier in L'Express, insisting that the two peoples of Algeria must refrain from committing "the most hateful aspect of the fight":  "the murder of the innocent."

     His plea for moderation was dismissed by an F.L.N. member in the audience as the rhetoric of "a soft sister," and very soon the idea of a truce for civilians withered away as the fighting intensified.  By then, the combatants were engaged in a war to the knife, unwilling to accept any compromise of their ultimate aims.  The F.L.N., which regarded all French Algerians as oppressors, was committed to continue their terrorist campaign against civilians while the colonial authorities were willing to use torture, if necessary, to suppress the revolt.  Camus was bitterly disappointed.  "I thought myself able to speak in the name of reason," he wrote a friend, "but all that is out of date, and passion carries everything before it."

     Disillusioned and embarrassed, he decided after the collapse of his proposal not to make any further public comments on the crisis.  "I have decided to remain silent concerning Algeria," he declared in a notebook, "so as to add neither to its unhappiness nor to the stupidities written about it."  And, except for the publication in 1958 of a collection of his articles on Algeria, his silence was maintained until his untimely death in a car accident in 1960.  Certainly he did not ignore what was going on in the region, and when he could he intervened discreetly to assist friends in trouble.  Otherwise he stayed true to his word:  "Between wisdom reduced to silence and madness which shouts itself hoarse, I prefer the virtues of silence."

*

     One thing that Camus did say during his self-imposed silence was perhaps the most revealing public remark he ever uttered during the brutal war.  It happened at an informal meeting with students at Stockholm University a couple of days after he received the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Soon after the subject of the crisis was raised in the discussion, a young Moslem asked Camus why he had not done anything for Algeria in the past three years; then, before allowing the writer to respond, he went on a furious rant in support of the revolution.  Startled by the intemperate remarks, Camus replied, "I feel a certain repugnance about explaining myself in public but I have always condemned violence."  He then added, "(A)nd I must condemn a terrorism that works blindly in the streets of Algiers and one day might strike at my mother and my family.  I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice."

     Frequently, in his writings and public comments, Camus invoked grand words like justice and dignity and honor when discussing the issues of concern in postwar Europe.  His opinions were held in such high esteem he might as well have been called Albert "the Just" Camus.  He was the conscience of the battered continent, articulating what was and was not acceptable behavior by its citizens.  This was fine as long as his audience concurred with him, but that changed drastically with the outbreak of revolution in Algeria.  Indeed, many members of his audience agreed with de Beauvoir that his position on the insurrection was "without justice."  Some went so far as to claim that it was tantamount to endorsing the policies of the government.

     Grand words like justice are slippery and nebulous, routinely employed by politicians of all stripes to defend whatever policy they wish to pursue.  They probably should not be used by writers, not if they wish to make any sense.  For Camus, throughout the Algerian crisis, the word justice became a bone caught in the back of his throat, threatening to choke him each time he drew a breath.  Repeatedly, it was employed against him to show he was a hypocrite.  How, his critics demanded, could he defend armed resistance to the German occupation of France but not Moslem resistance to the French occupation of Algeria?  Once, after a rancorous argument with an Algerian friend, he admitted to his secretary:  "It's true that I wasn't shocked by resistance to the Nazis, because I was French and my country was occupied.  I should accept the Algerian resistance too, but I'm French."  His answers to this question of hypocrisy were feeble and unconvincing until out of frustration he admitted that the safety of his mother mattered more to him than justice in Algeria.

     Camus, the moralist, wrote as if there were only one kind of justice to be applied in all circumstances.  But, in his imaginative writing, he recognized there are many varieties of justice.  What is rightful for some may not be so for others.  Certainly the predicament that Daru encountered revealed this variety with each of the characters exercising a different kind of justice.  The gendarme is carrying out the lawful order of his superior when he transfers custody of the prisoner to Daru, and the schoolteacher also believes he is acting appropriately when he releases the Arab.  Yet, later, on the blackboard he finds a message promising vigilante justice will be meted out to him for taking  custody of the prisoner.  And perhaps even the prisoner himself administered justice when he killed a cousin who may have violated some tribal law or custom that demanded retribution.  Not all systems of justice are correct, of course, but it is up to those to whom they apply who must determine which is the best one for them.

     Camus did not turn his back on justice as his comment in Stockholm suggested but rather was determined to do what was just for his mother.  He did not side with the colonial authorities or the rebels but with his family.  He was a Frenchman but Algeria was his home.  "Everywhere else," like Daru, "he felt exiled."  And because of the crisis in his homeland he felt not only exiled in Paris during the last years of his life but very much alone.



Bibliography

Bree, Germaine, Camus, revised edition, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964.
_____, ed., Camus:  A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey,
          Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1962.
Camus, Albert, The Fall and Exile and the Kingdom, trans. Justin O'Brien, New York, The
          Modern Library, 1958.
Horne, Alistair, A Savage War of Peace, New York, Penguin Books, 1979.
          King, Adele, Albert Camus, New York, Grove Press, Inc., 1964.
Lottman, Herbert R., Albert Camus, Garden City, New York, Doubleday and Company,
          1979.
O'Brien, Conor Cruise, Albert Camus of Europe and Africa, New York, The Viking Press,
          1970.
Todd, Oliver, Albert Camus:  A Life, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Walzer, Michael, "Albert Camus's Algerian War," The Company of Critics, New York,
          Basic Books, Inc., 1988.


 

Thomas R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his essays have appeared in such journals as Dogmatika, Ducts, L'intrigue, Slow Trains, and Sugar Mule.