The First Man

by | 22 Jan 2017 | Art – Literature

I closed the book late in the night after the final page, with the strange feeling to have red it for the very first time.

Nevertheless, I thought I knew this novel by heart : childhood, schooldays, the life of the body, the power of the sun and the sea, the painful love of a son for his mother, the search for a lost father …

An incomplete manuscript he was working on at the time of his death, and which was found in the mud at the accident site : on January 4, 1960, at the age of forty-six, Camus was killed in a car accident while he was coming back from Christmas holidays in southern France. The driver of the Facel Vega, Michel Gallimard, who was Camus’s publisher and close friend, also died in the accident

At the time, his wife and friends decided not to publish the manuscript : though Camus had recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was out of favour with the French intellectual establishment, which, at the height of the Algerian war, decried his voice of moderation.

Camus, who was born and grew up in Algeria, opposed extremism and violence on both sides, favoured a multicultural Algeria and ultimately preferred to remain silent on issues that he felt were distorted by ideology.

The story is well known even if Camus was wrongly quoted : « between justice and my mother, I choose my mother » …

The true quote is a bit different : when he came to Stockholm to pick up his Nobel prize in December 1957, to Swedish students who were asking him to clarify his positions, he told : « At the present time, some bombs are launched into tramways in Algiers. My mother can be in one of these tramways. If THIS is justice, I prefer my mother ».

In 1960, it seemed unwise to publish an unfinished, unpolished manuscript that was, moreover, bound to incur the wrath of ideologues on both the left and the right.

Camus’s daughter, Catherine, later transcribed the handwritten manuscript to type press, and published the book in 1994.

Why this feeling to discover only today this novel ?

I knew and loved the author of “The Stranger” and “The Plague” the former editor of the clandestine resistance paper Combat, the public figure engaged in polemics in the Parisian arena.

But I didn’t have realized so intimately up to now his deep attachment to the Algeria of his childhood and adolescence, where he locates his roots and his most meaningful bonds. Seen from his point of view, France seems to be an abstraction. To a certain extent, it looks it remained a foreign country throughout his life.

As he puts it in “The First Man“: “The Mediterranean separates two worlds in me.” And what lies on the other side of the vast expanse of the sea is the world of North Africa, to which he feels his deepest being belongs, a world of wind and sand, open ranges and anonymity.

A novel “heavy with things and flesh” as he noted on the manuscript.

The recent world events – Brexit in Europe, Trump’s victory in the US election, Russia’s forays into Middle East to mention the most significant – are both symptoms and catalysts of an atavistic turn in violence in politics across the planet.

Camus knew more than everybody that war, not peace, is normal ; that Cain will always murder Abel ; just as Doctor Rieux in “The Plague” knows that the deadly bacillus will not disappear. And the time he was writing the book coincides, moreover, with the turmoil of Algeria at war. There are the sounds of bombs, glimpses of jeeps bristling with guns, the awareness that torture is a daily occurrence.

But there are still these brief twilights, the change of seasons, the departure of the swallows, labyrinths of vegetation, ravines full of scents, summer days when the sun grinds plaster and stone into fine dust and the sky is gray with heat. The teeming quarters of Algiers, vivid, with their narrow arcaded streets, peddlers’ stands, workshops, food stalls and intermingled ethnic and religious groups.

And the North Africa evening, descending on the sea.

Iconography : Casbah of Algiers, Algeria, October 15th 1970, Wikimedia Commons, Commons Attribution License. Post originally published on LinkedIn.