Alice Kaplan: Camus Redux, The Nation (Feb 3, 2015)

Reda Kateb (left) and Viggo Mortensen in Loin des hommes
February 17, 2015

Today, Albert Camus is still alive but changed, thanks to the art of David Oelhoffen and Kamel Daoud.

Albert Camus, once decried as the symbol of reactionary French Algeria by Jean-Paul Sartre and other grands hommes of the mid-century French left, has been the subject of increasingly positive revaluations since the posthumous publication of his unfinished autobiographical novel, The First Man, in 1994. Camus’s account of his threadbare beginnings, his love for his deaf mother and his ambivalence about success and exile gave readers reasons to think that, thirty-four years after his death, they finally knew something about him. Meanwhile, Sartre’s devotion to violent revolution had lost much of its allure during the 1990s, when a civil war in Algeria between radical Islamists and the Algerian army threatened the survival of secular intellectual life itself. The centenary of Camus’s birth in 2013 was welcomed in France with an array of new work, including a fascinating documentary by Joël Calmettes about Camus’s readers in the far corners of the globe. In the United States, Robert Zaretsky’s fine intellectual biography and the Harvard translation of Camus’s Algerian Chronicles were widely reviewed. Now, in the wake of the centenary, two bold and original new works swap criticism for art: a film, Loin des hommes, or Far From Men, and a novel, Meursault, contre-enquête, remain faithful to the moral and aesthetic spirit of Camus’s fictions while setting his themes and preoccupations in the geopolitical present

David Oelhoffen’s captivating Algerian western takes as its starting point Camus’s 1957 short story “The Guest,” though calling the film an adaptation would be a misnomer. Far From Men is closer to a new draft of a story that Camus had considered to be malleable and for which he imagined two opposing endings—as though the indecision crafted into the original story was an irresistible invitation to transform its essence in another medium.

To understand the alchemy of Far From Men, it helps to recall the story that inspired it. “The Guest” is not as well known as Camus’s classic The Stranger, but it is a favorite text for teaching the history of decolonization and the only work of fiction by Camus that approaches the conflict between France and Algeria head-on. “The Guest” is also Camus’s most perfect short story—taut and stark, with an ending that leaves room for a hundred interpretations.

For Camus, the story began with a memory. In 1934 or 1935, a native worker in the Sahara was arrested on trumped-up charges and dragged by rope from his village to the county seat. Secours Rouge (a communist health and legal-aid foundation, active in solidarity movements in the 1930s) publicized the scandal by printing postcards showing the prisoner, the rope, the horse and the gendarme. Camus would have seen copies of the postcard in 1934 or 1935, when he was going door to door in the working-class neighborhood of Algiers where he grew up, recruiting Muslim workers to a largely European Communist Party. He never forgot the image. Nor did he forget the misery he saw in Kabylia, the mountainous region east of Algiers. In 1939, he wrote a multipart exposé of “Misery in Kabylia” for Alger-Républicain. He described destitute children reduced to eating poisonous roots, dreamed of a time when Muslim and European students would study in the same classroom, and lambasted the colonial government, whose refusal to reform the region’s economy and political structure left the population living in dire poverty. By 1939, Camus had already left the Communist Party, but he remained faithful to the values of a popular front against fascism; he began to understand that essential reforms would never take place, and that France was bound to lose Algeria.

By the time “The Guest” appeared in the collection Exile and the Kingdom in 1957, the Algerian Revolution was in its third year, and the former anticolonial activist found himself in an impossible position, neither supporting the revolutionary party nor endorsing the die-hard proponents of French Algeria. By then he was living in France; a brief return to Algeria in 1956 to organize a civilian truce with a coalition of political parties had ended in failure. In Camus’s first notes on “The Guest,” he imagines a story set in the High Plateaus of Algeria, a region poised between two mountain ranges. It was the perfect literary setting for an author who was between a rock and a hard place.

“The Guest” begins with the image from the Secours Rouge postcard: the local gendarme Balducci arriving at teacher Daru’s schoolhouse, dragging an Arab prisoner by a rope attached to his saddle. The prisoner, who remains nameless in the story, has been arrested for slashing his cousin’s throat in retaliation for the theft of grain. The French title of Camus’s story is “L’hôte,” which can mean “guest” or “host”—a rich ambiguity lost in translation. Jacques Derrida, Camus’s fellow Algerian, drew from Camus’s tale of a nameless “guest” a philosophy of hospitality. But “The Guest” is most often interpreted as an allegory of the liberal French dilemma in Algeria.

Daru attends to the prisoner, inviting him to share a meal. The prisoner has no name, but speaks the truth. “Are you the judge?” he asks Daru, and “Why are you eating with me?” In other words, did Daru, or any European, have the right to judge the Arabs, and wasn’t it too late for a European to break bread with his Arab brothers? What kind of solidarity was possible for a man such as Daru in a revolutionary situation? The era of the Secours Rouge postcard, when well-meaning Europeans could argue for reform for their Arab brothers, was a thing of the past.

Daru shares his food with the Arab prisoner, shelters him overnight, and accompanies him on the road for several hours—as long as it takes the two men to reach the crossroads. If he goes one way, Daru tells him, he’ll reach the police headquarters and be punished. If he goes the other way, he will find the nomads, who will protect him in accordance with their laws of hospitality. In the end, given the choice between the road to the police headquarters and the road to the nomads, the Arab takes the wrong road, the one that leads to the police. Daru returns to his schoolhouse and finds a threat written on the blackboard: “You’ve handed over our brother. You will pay for this.” “The Guest” ends with Daru’s bitter reflection that he is alone in the country he has loved for so long. Camus considered but rejected another ending, wherein the schoolteacher tricks the prisoner into choosing freedom by telling him that the road to the nomads is really the road to the police. Camus explained to his former philosophy teacher that the ending could easily have been changed—the Arab could have gone east or west.

Camus wrote “The Guest” with an economy of means, a mythical simplicity, and, where politics were concerned, a tragic view of the situation. Far From Men brings history back into the picture. Without ever referring to Camus, Oelhoffen draws on Camus’s essays on the Algerian situation, especially “The Misery of Kabylia” in Algerian Chronicles, to make the Daru of his film more like the biographical Camus than the enigmatic schoolteacher in Camus’s story. Far From Men is set on November 1, 1954, shortly after Camus finished writing “The Guest,” when a series of insurrections in the Algerian countryside ushered in an eight-year war for liberation from France. Oelhoffen leaves Camus’s short story behind when Daru and the Arab walk out of the schoolhouse into the unforgiving terrain of the Atlas Mountains. They travel together not for a few hours, but for days. Oelhoffen blends shot after shot of the backs of the two men, European and Arab, dwarfed by an imposing rocky landscape, as they make their way toward the gendarmerie. We see the planes of their faces—facescapes, really, in harmony with the landscape, the film’s third main character. The Arab has a name, Mohamed, and a story. He has killed a cousin over grain to feed his family, and in accordance with the blood laws that govern his tribe, his brothers will pay with their lives if he isn’t punished for the murder. If the French police take him into custody and kill him, the requirements of the blood law will be met, and his brothers will be safe. The Arab in Camus’s original story has no remorse and gives no explanation for his crime, whereas Mohamed in Far From Men is a grand strategist with a plan to outsmart the law of his people by using the law of the French. “You figured it all out,” Daru tells him, in a scene that establishes the intellectual equality of the two men in a way that would have been inconceivable in Camus’s short story.

Daru and Mohamed cross paths with a band of freedom fighters—the first maquis of the Front de Libération Nationale, who attach both of them to the saddle of a horse by rope, and take them hostage, side by side. On their way to a cave that serves as a maquis camp, Daru recognizes two of the rebels, brothers-in-arms from the Italian campaign of World War II. Slimane, the leading rebel, explains to Daru that his men were politicized by the massacre of native veterans at Sétif in 1945 (an event that Camus was nearly alone in covering for the French press). When Slimane tries to recruit Daru to the cause, and the teacher demurs, Slimane warns him, “I love you like a brother but I’ll kill you if I have to.”

Far From Men transforms the private affair of conscience in “The Guest” into armed struggle. After Slimane and Daru’s conversation, French soldiers attack the rebel group. Two rebels raise their hands in surrender, only to be gunned down by a French military unit whose commander is under orders to take no prisoners. Daru tells the French soldier that he has committed a war crime. And in a passionate outcry, the high moment of the film, he reminds Mohamed that he is alive, that they are alive, and that in the midst of so much deadly violence on both sides, life is the supreme value. Mohamed asks him if he yells at his students with the same righteous edge. Sometimes, Daru admits. It’s one of several excellent moments in the film where Camus seems to be winking back at the screenwriter: yes, I was that angry, righteous teacher, at odds with both sides.

After days of wandering, Mohamed and Daru reach the same crossroads as Daru and the nameless Arab in “The Guest.” In the film, they are no longer guest and host, but comrades. There is an exchange of gifts, and affection, and a back and forth between Arabic and French. Daru cites the Koran. Because of who Mohamed and Daru have become, the story cannot have the same ending as “The Guest.” Then, in a final classroom scene, Daru teaches his last lesson, writing the word for the mountains, “Atlas,” on the blackboard in French and in Arabic. The names of the rivers of France, recited by the children at the start of the film, have given way to a geography lesson about the place where they live. But it is also the last lesson, the day that Daru, threatened by the rebellion, has to leave his school forever. Through Daru’s affection for his students, Far From Men links the sorrow of separation with the promise of freedom. It is both a hopeful and a heartbreaking moment, but not a sentimental one—a synthesis of politics and feeling that makes Far From Men more successful, more compelling, than any previous attempt to adapt Camus’s fiction for the screen.

In less capable hands, the history told in Far From Men might have been didactic, with Daru as a kind of French-Algerian Zelig walking into newsreel-worthy moments about the colonial troops of World War II converted to the cause, the criminal French army, and the history of Spanish immigration in Algeria. Even the depiction of the rebels in their grotto seems to echo the distant enfumade tactics of the first French conquerors of Algeria, who would trap the local tribes in their hideaways and asphyxiate them by lighting a fire. History is constantly making itself seen and heard in this movie, and Daru seems to know everyone. But the long road traveled, the constant eruption of violence, make each incident and reference credible. The use of silence and ambient noise is a powerful counterpoint to the events. Even a scene in a brothel, with its echo of the American western, is treated as a sacred moment of respite from struggle, very close in feeling to the scene in The Plague when sanitation workers who are battling the epidemic take time off to go swimming.

The two lead actors carry much of the meaning of the film in their faces, which the camera explores as relentlessly as it does the rocks and bush and sky of the Moroccan Atlas, where Far From Men was filmed. Viggo Mortensen, who plays Daru, is often shown gazing into the distance, the light bouncing off his broad, angular face—as though he were contemplating the impossible future in the country where he was born. Reda Kateb, who plays Mohamed, appears in the beginning of the film with his head hanging low and a slouching body, but, as the story progresses, he begins to walk tall, and his face opens up. In the penultimate scene, as he is deciding which path to take, he stares in what looks like two different directions—a strangely fitting cross-eyed glance—and manages, without words, to convey a mixture of canny resolve and courage.

One of the many pleasures of Far From Men, and the basis of Mohamed’s and Daru’s equality, is their dialogue in two languages, French and Algerian Arabic. Mortensen learned Arabic for the film. And he speaks French with a slight accent (the Danish-American actor spent part of his childhood in Buenos Aires), which is unsettling at first if you are expecting the stereotypical Third Republic schoolteacher. But even his accent is exploited to enrich the plot. Just as we discover that Mohamed learned French by working the land for Europeans, we learn late in the film that Daru’s Spanish parents settled in Algeria to farm the vineyards (shades of Camus’s grandmother, born in Minorca, and his father, Lucien, an agricultural worker). Daru tells Mohamed that kids in school called him “escargot,” because the Spanish migrant workers carried their homes on their backs. Daru and Mohamed are both outsiders in their tribes.

Reda Kateb is the grandnephew of the Algerian-Berber writer Kateb Yacine (born Yacine Kateb), author of the great Algerian epic novel Nedjma. Kateb Yacine, like the rebels in Far From Men, was arrested, imprisoned and politicized during the demonstrations over the Sétif massacre. He was one of several Algerian contemporaries who criticized Camus for ignoring his Arab characters, and, like Camus, he was an Algerian living in exile in 1957. How he would have enjoyed seeing his nephew play this willful version of Daru’s prisoner!

A few years ago, archivists at the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine in France—the most important French archive of contemporary literature—found a letter that the young Kateb Yacine had written to Albert Camus in 1957, the year that “The Guest” was published in Exile and the Kingdom. The letter had never been identified, for the signature was almost illegible. “Exiled from the same kingdom,” Kateb Yacine wrote, “here we are, two enemy brothers, draped in the pride of the renounced possession, having proudly rejected [our] heritage so as not to share it.” He suggests that the two men should make contact before it is too late.

Far From Men is a reply to Kateb Yacine’s letter to Camus. The film loses the sense of opacity between Arab and European worlds that is the source of the story’s stark pessimism. Instead, it takes “The Guest” into the twenty-first century, into a world where living together through differences can bring hope for reconciliation.

Just as Far From Men was appearing at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, an Algerian writer named Kamel Daoud was making news in Paris as a finalist for both the Goncourt Prize and the Renaudot Prize for his novel Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, counter-investigation), published first in Algiers by Editions Barzakh and reissued in France by Actes Sud. The novel has sold, to date, over 100,000 copies, and translations are under way in eighteen countries. (Other Press anticipates publication of an English translation this coming fall.) A film is in development by the documentary filmmaker Malek Bensmail, with Daoud as co-writer of the script.

There was a time when every American high school graduate knew not only the first sentence of The Stranger—“Maman died today”—but also that it was absurd and ushered in the story of a remorseless murder on a beach. Meursault, contre-enquête sets its own tone with a riff on that immortal first sentence: “Today, M’ma is still alive.” M’ma is the Algerian mother of Haroun, the narrator of Daoud’s novel, who can never break free of his duty to console a mother who is in perpetual mourning for her beloved son Moussa, killed on a beach in Algiers in 1942 by a guy named Meursault, the narrator of The Stranger. ”My brother Moussa,” Haroun explains to anyone who will listen, “died in a book.” Daoud portrays Algeria since 1962 through Haroun’s eyes, and we come to understand that if Camus could return to Algeria today, he would have to acknowledge that Haroun and his brother and their nation—not the other guy—got stuck with the weight of the absurd.

Haroun begins with a tirade (closer in style and voice to Camus’s angry monologue The Fall than to the cool and precise The Stranger) on his bar stool in the Titanic Restaurant in downtown Oran. Why wasn’t his brother’s body ever found? Why was Moussa erased from history, left dead without a name? But just when you think that Haroun is going to become a postcolonial avenger, punishing Meursault for his crime and dressing down Camus for his creation of a nameless Arab, this obnoxious and excitable narrator tells a story that reverses every expectation. In the exact middle of Meursault, contre-enquête, the same location in the novel as the murder of the nameless Arab in The Stranger, Haroun recounts a murder of his own. He killed a European, Joseph Larquais, during the battle for the liberation of Algeria—Daoud’s nod to the July 1962 massacre of Europeans in Oran, an episode bleached from official Algerian history. Meursault killed Moussa in 1942, and Moussa and Haroun are brothers, but in 1962 Haroun and Meursault become brothers too—brothers in the violence of history.

Humor erupts in Meursault, contre-enquête every time there is tragedy, and this recipe for the Algerian absurd gives Daoud’s book its literary sting. In The Stranger, Meursault is interviewed by the examining magistrate, who waives a crucifix at him. In Meursault, contre-enquête, a colonel from the National Liberation Army is in charge of Haroun’s murder case. He is annoyed that Haroun killed the European after national independence: if he had done it before, it would have been an act of war instead of a banal murder, and he could have been considered a bona fide hero of the revolution. Nonetheless, Haroun is released, and begins to learn French to understand Meursault’s book and to write his brother’s existence back into the story.

When Meursault, contre-enquête first appeared, readers in France thought that Daoud was settling scores with Camus, whereas Algerians worried that he had gone over to the other side. French and Algerian readers alike had trouble distinguishing between Daoud, the author, and Haroun, the character. For Daoud, the novel is above all an opportunity to engage with the legacy of Algerian independence, half a century old, and to ask what the country has made of its liberation. Daoud turns the novel into an aesthetic platform for his particular sense of the Algerian absurd: the tyranny of official religion and an asphyxiating national history. There’s not much in common between Haroun and Daoud, for Haroun is a mass of regrets and neuroses, whereas Daoud’s anger, in his regular newspaper columns in Le Quotidien d’Oran, is exquisitely controlled and logical. He lambastes whatever brand of conformism is ruling his world, and he does it in a country where thought police aren’t even necessary: the direction of the satellite dish outside your apartment tells the whole block whether you’re watching television in French or Arabic.

In “Why I Am Not in ‘Solidarity’ With Palestine,” published in the midst of Israel’s 2014 attacks on Gaza, Daoud argued that unthinking devotion to the Palestinian cause only harms the Palestinians and was, on the contrary, blocking genuine solidarity and political analysis.

Last year, when a French judge at the Miss Algeria contest made a slip of the tongue and referred to “French Algeria,” a member of the government and other VIPs walked out of the room in protest. Daoud pointed out that the gaffe spoke to a truth: Algerian politicians vacation in France, seek hospital care in France, and maintain bank accounts in France. Daoud has begun publishing a column in the Paris weekly Le Point. The challenge, just as it was for Camus, whose political journalism stretched from the 1930s to the 1950s, will be to find the quiet place that allows him to continue to dream.

Meursault, contre-enquête has created a commotion that shows no signs of subsiding. Since last May, scarcely a week has passed for Daoud without an interview or appearance, even since the end of the literary prize season. Meursault, contre-enquête missed the Goncourt by a single vote, but won the Prix Françoise Mauriac and the Prix des Cinq Continents, a prize given by the international organization for French-speaking nations—of which Algeria, whose official, majority language is Arabic, is pointedly not a member, despite the persistence of French, especially in cultural life.

As Meursault, contre-enquête ends, Haroun imagines locking himself in a minaret and seizing the microphone, howling that the mosque is empty, the minaret is empty, while outside, people try to break down the door, screaming for his death. In December, the Salafist Imam Hamadache—an Internet provocateur and a former member of the deadly Armed Islamic Group of the 1990s, who appears regularly on satellite television—exhorted the Algerian state to mete out capital punishment to Daoud for Zionism and crimes against Islam and the Arabic language. At the time of this writing, there has been an outpouring of support in Algeria for the writer, but death threats and insults from militant Islamists persist, making public appearances dangerous. Daoud is seeking legal redress in the Algerian courts, and the question on the minds of Algerian intellectuals is whether the justice system will permit resistance to Hamadache’s brand of ideological violence where state power (in Algeria, people refer not to the government but simply to “le pouvoir”) has failed. France has provided other indignities, less dangerous certainly, but annoying. In a December appearance on French television’s Channel 2, Daoud was asked if he thought colonialism had been a good thing. “Let’s be serious,” he answered. “It was an act of violence, a wound that is part of our history.”

Daoud continues to avoid the various land mines, ideological and real, on both sides of the Mediterranean. The many forthcoming translations of Meursault, contre-enquête will provide needed relief from the twisted French-Algerian dynamic. Will Daoud’s novel be received in the United States as an Algerian Portnoy’s Complaint; a postmodern romp à la Pynchon; or a political novel, read through the lens of September 11? For the many Americans who grew up with “The Guest” and The Stranger, what lies ahead is a literary, political and cinematic revival of a writer whose work has found new urgency in the embers of the Arab Spring. For readers and writers throughout the world, Camus remains an open book.

External link: