In 1961, the poet Henri Kréa wrote that the murder of an Arab in a novel was simply an anti-Arab genocidal wish-fulfilment fantasy on the part of the author. The book was The Outsider. The writer, who desired the extermination of the Arabs, was the French-Algerian Albert Camus. As Kréa put it, when writing about Meursault’s infamous killing of an Arab in Camus’ novel, the murder was simply the ‘realisation of the obscure and puerile dream of the “poor white” Camus never ceased to be.’
Camus was not alive to read these words – he had died in a car accident the year before – but he would no doubt have been intensely shocked by them. They were a strange thing to say about a man who was given the task by the Communist Party in Algeria, before the war, to recruit Arabs, many of whom were his friends. In fact, he left the Communist Party because a Moscow directive swung the Party’s focus away from Arab equality in French Algeria towards supporting the French Government in its battle with the right wing in France. This was something that Camus felt was a betrayal of the French Arab and Berber people and it was that which initially turned him against communism. Camus had also, as a young journalist, documented the inequalities of the Arab and Berber people in Algeria during the 1930s. But these facts have never been enough to save Camus from the accusations, of the post-war French left wing, that he was tout court a white colonial with clear racial prejudices.
The anti-Camus vitriol would be translated into English by Conor Cruise O’Brien. O’Brien’s small monograph published in 1970, simply entitled Camus, would create the intellectual climate in which Camus’ work is read in English to this day. Much like the beach on which the Arab of The Outsider is killed, the academic environment in which Camus’ work is read is often hostile and unforgiving. Camus’ literary and moral crime, it has been argued by post-colonial critics from O’Brien onwards, is that he had left the murdered Arab unnamed and silent. As the argument developed ‘the subaltern’ had not spoken. It was clear from this that Camus’ failure to create a fully-fledged and speaking Arab character was the direct result of a colonial racism bred in the pied-noir Algerian community. Camus had created the Arab simply as a cipher to fulfil a literary need at best, at worst, as Kréa suggested, Camus literally wished to kill Arabs.
Although Camus had become a famous member of the French Resistance movement Combat in Paris he was a product of Belcourt, one of the poor pied-noir areas of Colonial-era Algiers – an area that would become a hotbed of protests during the Algerian War of Independence 1954-62. Belcourt was a district of poverty. And Camus’ literary praise of that poverty in his essays and fictions, which mingled in Belcourt with the sun and the sea, is perhaps one of his most emotive conceptions. But the reality of it was much bleaker and much less genial. Camus almost certainly contracted TB as a teenager from Belcourt’s streets and there was always an intimation in his work that its community held within it a latent violence that in another work he called ‘the plague’ – a murderous condition that would in reality be sent out onto the streets between 1954-1962. In fact on Camus’ return to Algiers in 1956 to organise a ‘civil truce’ between the white colonials and Arabs many of the pied-noirs, with whom he had grown up, threatened to kill him when he shared a stage with Ferhat Abbas, Algeria’s first president after independence.
In Belcourt Camus’ childhood was one of depravations, and he was exceptional in his family in that he was one of the first amongst them to learn how to read and to ultimately attend a university. Perhaps one of the most poignant stories of his life was when, on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, he sent his mother a telegram. On receiving it in her small modest flat in Algiers she had had to go next door to get the neighbour to explain it to her. She herself was an illiterate deaf washer woman or domestique who spent her life in an all-encompassing silence.
For many years I found it astonishing that anybody who read Camus’ work and biography could argue that he was a root and branch colonial racist. But offering proof about Camus’ political commitment to non-racism, his friendship with Arabs and his direct associations with the working-class, was pointless. Those who wished to read racism into his fictional works, with a seemingly ever increasing satisfaction, would not be swayed by a ‘friendship’ or extratextual argument. The racism is in the text they argued, ‘the Arab is not named and does not speak, you can’t deny it’. So be it, Camus’ work has been labelled racist for so long that it is almost needless to contradict it. There are even moments when I myself read a work like The Plague and begin to wonder if perhaps a slightly lighter version of O’Brien, Kréa and Edward Said’s criticisms might be valid.
But there is a startling textual blind spot or deafness in what has become, in many ways, the official post-colonial position towards Camus and his fictions. As O’Brien and many others have suggested, it was the Arab’s silence in The Outsider that was part of the prima facie evidence that led to the literary court case that would condemn Camus. But like many literary ‘guillotinings’ the evidence brought to court was myopic – although this has never stopped anybody from gleefully joining in to what Camus would call the act of ‘beating the other man’s breast’. Perhaps the most astounding oversight by most post-colonial critics is just how silence functions in Camus’ work and with whom it is associated.
As I have mentioned Camus’ mother was deaf, so was his uncle. But it is his mother who is of particular interest. As Stephen Watson suggests in his affecting essay ‘The Heart of Albert Camus’, Camus’ deaf and mute mother was something of a Christ-like figure in both his life and his imagination. As he would famously say of Meursault, this silent and encumbered woman was perhaps ‘the only messiah we deserve’. In his unfinished semi-autobiography, The First Man, there is a note about the mother and the son, whose education afforded him an escape from poverty:
She, silent most of the time, with only a few words at her disposal to express herself; he constantly talking and unable to find in thousands of words what she could say with a single one of her silences.
Camus once argued that silence was not necessarily a negative position. That in a world where language can be corrupted and be put to the use of what he would call ‘the plague’, silence is, he suggested, an appropriate and even a moral response. The idea that not only is silence a virtue, but that its virtue is the binary opposite of the dishonest bureaucratic language of the state is an often-noted element of Meursault’s character in The Outsider.
In the novel, what distinguishes Meursault from the colonial society – and makes him the existentialist hero that he is – is that he is condemned to death, not for the murder of the Arab, but for his ‘blanks and silences’ in both the court scenes as well as in his relationship with his girlfriend Marie. As the critic Patrick McCarthy once put it, Meursault’s silence is a ‘protest against the wordiness of the lawyers’ that sentence him. Another academic, John Foley, too points out that the ‘trial [of Meursault] stages a confrontation between the simple and direct language of Meursault…and the false bombastic language of the state’.
But this simplicity and silence is not merely ascribed to Meursault, it goes further than this, often becoming a representation of both the pied-noir and Arab Algerian condition. What the Arabs share with Meursault is their authentic silence in the face of the cant of the dominant official language of the colonial state. This notion, of silence as the marker of truthfulness and authenticity, would again appear in Camus’ short story ‘The Silent Men’ – a work which is not mentioned by either post-colonial critics O’Brien or Said.
‘The Silent Men’ is a story of pied-noir and Arab barrel coopers who come back to work after a failed strike. They are said to be filled with ‘an anger and helplessness that sometimes hurts so much that you can’t even cry out’. Said, the Arab cooper, is clearly the worst affected by the failure to secure a pay increase. In the most evocative scene, Yvar, the pied-noir protagonist, silently shares his sandwiches with Said, as they await their staged confrontation with the boss. Of course it is hardly surprising, given the title of the story, that their protests comes in the form of a refusal to speak to the owner of the company. Silence here, as in The Outsider, is far from being a negative attitude, it is both a voice and the locus of resistance.
This idea of the silence of resistance is something that the post-colonial critique overlooks and conveniently never discusses. This is not to deny that the Arabs are not given the opportunity, in most of Camus stories, to speak. And that the Arabs are most often marginal figures in his fictions. But of course this was not only true of his stories but was true of the society that Camus grew up in. To include Arabs on an equal footing, one should keep in mind, would be simply an obfuscation and a misrepresentation of the colonial world. What mattered philosophically and politically to Camus in The Outsider and ‘The Silent Men’ was a silence that indignantly faced up to the mendacious and unjust capitalist and colonial society.