Global Politics

What Albert Camus can teach us about nation-building

Claire Messud has spent her life thinking about Albert Camus, the French-Algerian intellectual, philospher, writer and Nobel laureate who was born 100 years ago today.

Player utilities

(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

"Camus was a Frenchman from Algeria, a Pieds-Noir," says Messud, a modern-day novelist. "His family were colonials in Algeria and that's my own father's family history so it always seemed like he was the extended family writer."

Messud's father was French from French Algeria. Messud wrote about Camus and his relationship with the Algerian independence movement for The New York Review of Books.

Camus was lauded and celebrated in France as a hero of the resistance, a five-star intellectual. That was until the Algerian war, when Camus parted with fellow intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Camus wouldn't support an independent Algeria. Instead he wanted the rights of French citizens extended to Algerians.

Messud says Camus couldn't imagine an Algeria without France.

"He came from a family without a father," says Messud. "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 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.'"

Messud says Camus was "beautifully idealistic and painfully out of touch with his times."

But Messud believes Camus' unpopular views about Algeria 50 years ago have resonance today.

"The knowledge we have now about the complexity of nation-building, about the fact that independence is not a simple good," she said. Messud says you only have to look at Egypt. "It isn't as though you get rid of Mubarak and all will be well."

Messud believes Camus anticipated those complexities more than many of his peers and what he was trying to do was to address what a moral path might be for all humanity.

"That sounds idealistic, but we need those idealists," she said.

Comments