If the formulation sounds simple, something out of Ethics 101, that’s because it is: When Camus wasn’t waxing lyrical or glossing the work of more rigorous thinkers, he displayed a gift (and a curse) for simplicity. And so while there is a certain timeliness with these two books, in that 2013 was the centenary of Camus’ birth and Algerian Chronicles—his last book to be translated into English—is newly relevant in light of the Arab Spring, they are also important for their reminder of a simple point that Camus held dear: Life may be shaped by ideology, but it is lived exclusively by men and women.
It was the defense of those messy, imperfect lives that Camus insisted upon with his friend Tar, and his editorial journalism, where he turned his private thoughts into public stances, records the decisions and revisions that led to his insistence on moderation above political expediency. As a world war ended and a cold one began—two superpowers as ready to kill as to convert—Camus floated the radical notion that he had no right to sacrifice another’s life for the greater good or a brighter tomorrow, and he questioned all who said they did. God and history are easily claimed allies, and life is often cheap when either is on your side. Camus hadn’t pulled any triggers during the postwar purge in France, but he called for the loading of the rifles—that was enough, for he came to believe that words well-aimed are as deadly as bullets and also the only defense against them. He decided his hubris could not bear repeating: too many mistakes of that caliber, and there won’t be anyone left to decide who was right and who was wrong.
Before camus tried his hand at journalism, he took to the stage. He completed his thesis at the University of Algiers in 1936 and graduated to running a theater company. This was during Camus’ two-year stint as a member of the Communist Party, and the theater donated ticket sales to unemployed workers in Algiers. The know-your-audience theory of programming led to the staging of Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound in 1937. The god who disobeyed Zeus and shared the prized power of fire with mortals had been a fixture of the leftist-hero circuit since at least 1841, when in his doctoral thesis Karl Marx called Prometheus “the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar.” Camus echoed the sentiment: “A revolution is always carried out against the Gods—from that of Prometheus onward.”
Camus was soon ready for his next role, one for which he could write and deliver his own lines, and he joined the young staff of the Alger-Républican. The startup newspaper in Algiers was in line with the Popular Front movement led by socialist León Blum, who coauthored the unrealized Blum-Violette proposal, which would have granted civil and voting rights to more than 20,000 Algerian Muslims. In one of his first signed pieces, Camus wrote of his visit to a docked prison ship filled with Arabs: “there is no sight more dismal than that of men who have become less than human.” It was in the same spirit, which came to animate his best writing, that in the spring of 1939 he began his multi-article coverage of a famine in the north, the first reported piece collected in Algerian Chronicles, called “The Misery in Kabylia.”
Camus wasted little time determining that the problem of the famine was economic not ecological, the solution not charity in the form of a few tons of grain but an overhaul of France’s colonial policies. Men need to work in order to buy food, Camus conceded, but they cannot work when they don’t eat. In response to the rightwing backlash his reports inspired, he wrote, “These days, it seems that one is not a good Frenchman if one speaks of the misery of a French territory. I must say that it is hard to know nowadays what one must do to be a good Frenchman.” Camus exhorted his countrymen to live up to the ideals of a republic that had once discarded the divine right of kings in favor of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. To him, the choice was clear.