Tracing the footsteps of Algeria’s estranged son, Albert Camus

|     James McAuley     |

TIPAZA, Algeria – The ruins are about an hour out of town, ocher slabs of stone baking under an unrelenting Mediterranean sun and white haze that comes streaming in off the sea.

Tipaza was an ancient Roman settlement – sacked by the Vandals, rebuilt by the Byzantines, then destroyed again by the Omayyad and left in eternal disrepair. For a small fee, you can wander through a razed basilica, brush the dirt off the mosaic tiles that withstood the onslaughts and gaze off into the blue nothingness where sea meets sky.

Tipaza is also a monument to the beloved French writer Albert Camus, who was first and foremost a son of Algeria, a place that shaped his thinking but whose tumultuous 20th-Century trajectory toward independence he never quite comprehended.

“I understand here what is called glory, the right to love without measure,” the inscription reads on a monument to the writer who immortalised this place.

To find this memorial, you have to follow a winding trail along the rocky coastline, and when you do, it takes a moment to make out the script. But there is Camus’s name, etched in stone as if it were an ancient rune.

The Martyrs’ Memorial in Algiers was inaugurated in 1982, on the 20th anniversary of Algeria’s independence
The bookstore Les Vraies Richesses, which published Camus’s Nuptials, as well as other novels, in the 1930s
People visit the Roman ruins in Tipaza, Algeria, on June 28. The ruins are featured in Albert Camus’s Nuptials, lyrical essays published in the late 1930s
Inside the Jardin d”essai du Hamma (the Botanical Garden) in Algiers on June 29

Camus – football star, playwright and existentialist – certainly loved Algeria beyond measure, and it was here that he became the writer who would later produce the staccato yet weighty classics that have tortured and delighted students around the world: The Stranger (1942), The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), The Plague (1947).

Despite his towering literary legacy, there are few traces of him left in Algeria. In the four days that the government allowed me to report in the country earlier this month, primarily about the current protests against Algeria’s authoritarian rule, I decided to take at least a cursory glance at what remains of Camus’s imprint.

Camus was the classic pied noir, or French colonial settler, a second-generation French immigrant to what was then a part of France. Camus’s parents fit the profile of struggling workers who left Europe for what they thought would be an easier life on the other side of the Mediterranean. His father died in World War I when Camus was a year old, and the young Albert was raised by his mother in a one-bedroom apartment in the working-class Algiers neighbourhood of Belcourt, now Belouizdad.

At Number 93, rue Mohamed Belouizdad – formerly the rue de Lyon – there is no plaque to the boy who grew up there and who would one day win the Nobel Prize. What you see instead is a squat building whose whitewashed walls have begun to peel.

“Remembrance of things past is just for the rich,” Camus wrote in The First Man, the unfinished novel he set in Belcourt and that his daughter, Catherine, published posthumously. “For the poor it only marks the faint traces on the path to death.” So it still seems here on the streets of his youth.

And yet in other places, Belcourt gives a powerful sense of the colonial experience in Algiers. The manicured lawns of the botanical gardens – where the original Tarzan the Ape Man was filmed in the early 1930s – extend in orderly French progression from the foothills to the sea.

At the entrance to the park, there is the Musée des Beaux-Arts, a neoclassical wedding cake of a building with views of the city and its perfect semicircular bay. There are still canvasses by Camille Pissarro, Gustave Caillebotte and Berthe Morisot on the walls. After independence, the French first took these canvasses with them, but the Algerians successfully demanded their return.

Belcourt is also the site of Algiers’ Martyrs Memorial, a concrete tower with three soaring strands on a peak overlooking the bay. The Martyrs Memorial was officially dedicated in 1982, on the 20th anniversary of independence, which Camus never lived to see.

Camus’s views on the independence question were complex. He was never a right-wing pied noir, and he was a longtime champion of expanding political rights to Arabs and Berbers in Algeria. But actual independence he could never fathom.

“National independence for Algeria is a purely emotional response to the situation,” he wrote during the early moments of the War of Independence, as the Yale historian Alice Kaplan notes in her introduction to The Algerian Chronicles, a selection of Camus’s political writings. But this, Kaplan notes, was among the lines that stung Algerian nationalists most: “There has never been an Algerian nation.”

Amid the tumult of 1958 – when French generals in Algiers launched a military coup against Paris – Camus went further. The French, Camus observed, were “an indigenous population in the full sense of the word.”

Ever since, many of the Algerians who still read Camus have regarded him with suspicion, as little more than a coloniser in literary form.

In 2013, the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, one of the country’s leading public intellectuals, recast Camus’s The Stranger, in which a French Algerian named Meursault shoots and kills an unnamed Arab on a beach near Algiers. In The Meursault Investigation – by far the most successful Algerian novel in recent memory – Daoud names the unnamed victim as Musa, giving him an inner life and an inviolable humanity.

But Daoud sees Camus as undeniable part of Algeria’s national narrative, one that cannot simply be rooted out because of his Frenchness.

“We must not only read him, teach him in our schools, but also claim him,” he said. “He’s one of the figures of our wounded history while also being part of the injury. To continue to obscure and erase is to erase a part of our history we don’t want to claim, and to refuse to think about the need to open up to the rest of world, to reflect the universal.”

“We will remain a local history – decolonisation in museum mode – rather than a human and Algerian condition in which we can live and think,” he said.

It is perhaps at Tipaza that one feels closest to Camus.

With stones and sea, olive trees and its bougainvilleas, it was here that he set Les Noces, an essay he published in 1938 that gives some sense of his thoughts on the permeable barrier between life and art.

“There is a time to live and a time to create, which is less natural,” Camus writes in that essay. “It’s enough for me to live with my body and to testify with all my heart. To live Tipaza is to bear witness, and the work of art will follow.” – Text and photos by The Washington Post