Who knew I would be reading Camus’ last novel as though it was his first? In this world of the passed away French-Algiers, the present and past are blurred, as a man recalls his childhood, and the voice of the third-person narrator is so close, it might as well be first-person. This harrowing account of a fatherless boy living in poverty is so pure that it’s perfect in its stimulation. How can an author who grew so popular for his structural peculiarity in The Stranger, bring us such a completel
Wandering through the night of the years in the land of oblivion where each one is the first man, where he had to bring himself up, without a father, having never known those moments when a father would call his son, after waiting for him to reach the age of listening, to tell him the family’s secret, or a sorrow of long ago or the experience of his life…like all the men born in this country who, one by one, try to learn to live without roots and without faith, and today all of them are threatened with eternal anonymity…
The trajectory of this novel is reminiscent of the Márquez novel and its winding sentences and comma over usage, but instead of the parody and magical reality (as Márquez would put it), this is a novel of serious tones and contemplative prose.
Algeria separated from France after the Algerian War, as a result, many young men, “First Men,” lost their fathers to war. Albert Camus was one of them, and this story he tells is more personal than his others. Camus believed in a multicultural Algeria, where European-Algerians and African-Algerians could live in one accord and have the same rights. Once the war began, he didn’t want to advocate for his fellow European-Algerians in his writing, so he was shunned by the French literati, and he didn’t want to speak on behalf of the African-Algerians, for they were ideologue-rebels, so he chose to remain quiet. I know now that I not only like the writer-Camus, but I respect the man-Camus.
Camus died in a car wreck before this manuscript could be published, and the unedited version was retrieved from his car. When he died, he was “isolated and subject to attacks from all sides designed to destroy the man and the artist so that his ideas would have no impact.” Is economic freedom and advantages for all an agenda worth fighting for? Camus was certainly an advocate for the poor and down-trodden, as is clear from the portraits drawn in this novel of a society of Frenchmen: Arabs and Europeans. The complexities and absurdities of cultural and ethnic war can be found within succinct dialogue like this one:
‘Oh, me, I’m staying, and to the end. Whatever happens, I’m staying. I’ve sent my family to Algiers, and I’ll croak here. They don’t understand that in Paris. Besides us, you know who’re the only ones who can understand it?’
‘Exactly. We were made to understand each other. Fools and brutes like us, but with the same blood of men. We’ll kill each other for a little longer, cut off each other’s balls and torture each other a bit. And then we’ll go back to living as men together. The country wants it that way.’
“My father would never have published this manuscript,” his daughter wrote, “because he was a very reserved man and would no doubt have masked his own feelings far more in its final version.” Jacques Cormery is Camus, this is clear: a man in love with discovery and books, a man who loves his slightly-deaf and uneducated mother deeply and longs for her affection; a young man raised by two hard-working women: grandmother and mother; a man who never knew and misses his father; a man who escaped to France because of war, and misses his childhood home (Algeria). I enjoyed the reverence given to women in this novel.
I started the novel thinking that it would have a similar texture to Suite Française, but while they were both published posthumously in their unfinished versions, this work has the essence of a novel complete. You don’t get a clear sense of Jacques’ trajectory when as a forty-year old, he begins the book, seeking information about his veteran father, and you don’t get the sense of an ending for him, but you get a clear portrait of his mind’s eye: you see him realize himself and his country through history, and this self-consciousness as an ending is always impressive. There is anguish and perplexity here, and yet there remains the beauty of introspection.
As if the history of men, that history that kept on plodding across one of its oldest territories while leaving so few traces on it, was evaporating under the constant sun with the memory of those who made it, reduced to paroxysms of violence and murder, to blazes of hatred, to torrents of blood, quickly swollen and quickly dried up, like the seasonal streams of the country. Now the night was rising from the land itself and began to engulf everything, the dead and the living, under the marvelous and ever-present sky.