After my lecture at the Glycines, a university professor talked about what Camus means to Algerians today. What she said may have been familiar to everyone in the room, but it was completely new to me:
“It’s true that Camus was banished for a long time, by critics, readers, etc. I don’t think it’s The First Man that brought him back. It was the situation, the terrorism we experienced in the period we call our civil war (1990s). A lot of Algerians realized then that there might be a parallel, that they were in fact a little like those French Algerians from before, from the 1950s and 60s—Algerians whose stature as Algerians wasn’t being recognized. And so they started to reread Camus from that perspective. Those Algerians in the 1990s recognized themselves in Camus—whose Algerian dimension was denied, whether it was in his novels, in his refusal to take a position or in the positions he did take— the constant vacillation, the hesitation, the not being able to figure out what is going on or take a clear position. Since we were experiencing those same hesitations, we read him again in a new way. There were a lot of bridges. I remember how we felt threatened in our Algerian identity [by Islam fundamentalists]: what, we were supposed to leave Algeria now? We’re as much Algerians as they are! It was a scandal! Also there was the question of exile: people were leaving the country and they were criticized. Had they done the right thing? Did they have a choice? That new identification still doesn’t mean that Camus has finally been accepted as an Algerian writer. Last year there was a kind of triumphant cancellation of a caravan that was supposed to tour the country with readings of Camus. But that project was almost immediately cancelled, for reasons no one understood. There was a lot of opposition. And that was shocking.”
She reminded the audience that Feraoun, the father of Algerian literature, quoted Camus’ The Plague in the epigraph of his first novel, Le Fils du pauvre.
It’s going to be impossible to convey in this blog what it felt like listening to N* .speak about literature. I learned later that her husband had been murdered during the dirty wars, one of 100,000—and that she had never left Algeria. Afterwards I thought, if it had been an American event, she might have stood up and told her whole life story and not said much about Camus. And instead, here, Camus was a way of thinking about real life.