Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston.
"Mother died today, or maybe it was yesterday." One of the greatest first lines of any novel. It's from 'The Stranger' or 'L’Étranger' by Albert Camus. Remember that book you read in high school and didn't understand? Albert Camus was born a hundred years ago today. He becomes more complex when you dig into his background. In his native Algeria, or rather French Algeria as it was known when Camus was born in 1913, novelist Claire Messud writes about Camus's complicated relationship with Algeria in the latest issue of 'The New York Review of Books.' Messud says she's had an interest in Camus all her life.

Claire Messud: Well, for me he's... there's a slightly personal connection, which is that he was a Frenchman from Algeria, a Pied-Noir, so his family were colonials in Algeria. And that's my own father's family's history, they were also Pied-Noir. So it always felt as though he was, you know, the family writer in some way. Extended family, but he was both a wonderful writer and a moralist in ways that have great staying power, even now.

Werman: We'll get into the moral part of Albert Camus in a second. But Pied-Noir, these French Algerian people. I mean, who were the Pied-Noir? That means black feet in French, right?

Messud: It does, and it was initially a disparaging term, because they were seen as, I think, impoverished and uncultured.

Werman: Who applied the term?

Messud: The French, the French.

Werman: The French, not the Algerians?

Messud: Not the Algerians. France colonized Algeria in 1830. You know, as in many places, the people who came - the immigrants who came from Europe - were people looking for a better life. So they tended to be people without much at home. And those people thought they were born in France, were told that Algeria was a department of France. Unlike the other colonies, it was one of the departments of France, and it was run as a part of France. However, the indigenous Algerians, the people who had been there since time immemorial, were not granted full citizenship.

Werman: So in a recent article you wrote for 'The New York Review of Books' on the staying power of Camus's moral force, is this amazing picture from 1920 when he was seven years old. Black and white photo. A group of his family in his uncle's workshop, and it really looks like the way you describe it. That was Algeria at the time, these faces. I mean, how does Camus figure into this whole French Algerian Pied-Noir background?

Messud: Well, his family was of Spanish origin. His mother was deaf and illiterate. The uncle, who was a barrel maker, was deaf and largely mute. He and his brother lived with his mom, his uncle, and his grandmother, who ran the household. His father was killed in the first months of the first World War, so very soon after Camus was born, he never knew his father. They had very humble stature in the community in Algiers, they lived in a working class neighborhood. Almost everybody he knew left school at the age of 11 or 12, and in fact it was his school teacher in elementary school who went and implored his grandmother to let him continue and go to the high school. And then he again had a mentor in high school, who encouraged him to go to university. And so he really came from a background where not even going to high school was obvious.

Werman: So how did that kind of rough-and-tumble background in Algeria, how did that affect Camus's own view of the colonial situation in that country? Whether he was French or Algerian, who had the right to be there, in other words?

Messud: Well, I think one of the things... at the time, he was seen... at the time of the Algerian war, which the first uprisings were in 1945, the war properly began as it - it was never declared as a war - but the really strong fighting began in 1954, and Algeria achieved its independence in 1962. So it was a long 8 year stretch, with a lot of terrorism that is familiar to us now, bombings, massacres, attacks of a kind that we now see in other countries.
And in that time, Camus was initially part of a sort of interracial moderate group. There was a moderate leader Ferhat Abbas, with whom he was allied, and they were trying to work for a solution that would allow a French Algeria to continue to exist, but that would allow citizenship and rights for all citizens. Camus had a hard time giving up that vision. I think it was very hard for him to imagine an Algeria that wasn't, in some measure, French.
And one of the things that I tried to write about in the article is, he came from a family without a father. And the paternalistic French state was very good to him. Without it he wouldn't have had an education, without it he would never have been Albert Camus. And so I think what he felt was, "Let's bring that gift to everybody," rather than, "Let's sever these two cultures and make them separate." And so he was not at all in tune with his times, and was vilified, increasingly marginalized and vilified, and from 1958 onwards he didn't say anything about the Algerian war. He was not part of the discussion.
That said, I think when we look now at what he wrote about it, we realize that even then, what he was seeking was justice for everyone. For all Algerians, not just the French in Algeria, but say, the Jewish community, who had... he wrote specifically about justice for the Jewish community, who had been there for centuries and ultimately left with the French because there was no place for them in the new Algeria. And he was looking for a solution that would provide rights for everybody. He was beautifully idealistic and painfully out of touch with his times.

Werman: Why do you think we should still read Albert Camus today? Does he still kind of scan as out of touch?

Messud: No, I think one of the curious things is that he scans as way more in touch. He was a moralist from the get-go. And you know, he was a resistance hero before he was 30. He was a hero for the French people, whose memory and reputation were somewhat tarnished by this complicated Algerian situation.
But when you stand with 50 years' distance, and the knowledge that we have now about the complexity of nation building, about the fact that independence isn't a simple good, independence actually brings with it... Look at Egypt right now. It doesn't bring happy answers. It isn't as though, you know, you got rid of Mubarak, and now all will be well. It's actually a much more complicated scenario, and I think when you read what he wrote at the time, you realize that he anticipated those complexities more than many of his peers, and he was trying to address what a moral path might be. A just path for all humanity. And I think that sounds idealistic, but we need those idealists.

Werman: Well, I love Albert Camus, Claire Messud, but you've really done a great job in filling in so many blanks for us. Thanks for coming in.

Messud: Thank you, Marco.