OBITUARY: Emmanuel Robls

Emmanuel Robls, novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, journalist: born Oran, Algeria 4 May 1914; died Boulogne 22 February 1995.

The intensification of terrorist violence around the world, in particular in Europe and North Africa, now lends a peculiar relevance to the works of the Algerian-French novelist, journalist and playwright Emmanuel Robls.

He was a man of the Mediterranean, full of that region's passionate humanity and yet with a profound hatred of violence and injustice. In over 40 books of fiction, poetry and drama, he wrote with absolute conviction of the necessity for individual freedom of thought, religion and culture in a style that was plain, but not without lyricism and humour, and always dramatically effective.

He was proud of his working-class origins as a pied-noir in the Maghreb but, as his family name indicates, he was of Spanish descent. He was brought up in the Spanish quarter of Oran, where his grandparents had settled after fleeing from persecution in Malaga. Emmanuel was an internationalist from birth, and his playmates were Arabs, Jews, Italians and pied-noir French. Among them was Albert Camus, another writer of working-class origins, who was to become his literary idol, and whose friendship was the most precious thing in his life.

Some idea of what their childhood and youth in Oran was like can be found in Robls' best-known novel, which in 1948 won the Prix Femina and the Prix Populiste, Les Hauteurs de la ville, and also in Camus's own posthumous fragments of an autobiographical novel, Le Premier homme (published for the first time last year), which he had been carrying with him in the car crash that ended his life in 1960.

Robls received an excellent formal education, first of all and perhaps most importantly in human relationships from his grandparents and from his parents, a mason and a washerwoman. They taught him honesty, kindness and the necessity for peace and social justice in a corrupt and violent society.

He attended the Collge Ardaillon in Oran and the faculty of letters at the University of Algiers, then graduated with honours after founding the first Francophone magazine, Forges. During his military service he formed his enduring friendship with Camus, who encouraged his writing and was able to help him publish his first novel, L'Action (1938). During the Second World War he served as a chief Spanish interpreter and war correspondent for the Supreme Allied Command of the Mediterranean, but still found time to compose his second book, Travail d'homme, in 1943. He also worked closely with Camus as a reporter on the independent daily Alger-Rpublicain, then founded and wrote for another liberal newspaper, Espoir- Algrie, which was indeed a light of hope in the search for peace. But the escalation of the war in Algeria forced him to seek exile in Paris in 1956.

Meanwhile, after the success of Les Hauteurs de la ville, he turned to the theatre in 1948 and wrote Montserrat, his most popular dramatic work, performed simultaneously in Algiers and Paris. It is the story of a young Spanish officer who elects to die for the liberation of Venezuela rather than betray the whereabouts of the great liberator Simon Bolivar. This play had an immense success and was played all over the world.

His next play, La Verit est morte (1952) received its first performances at the Comdie Franaise. In the same year, his novel a s'appelle l'aurore appeared and was eventually (in 1956) made into a film by Luis Buuel, one of this first Franco-Italian co-productions. Robls was always a great traveller, first as a journalist and then as a man of letters in demand as a lecturer. This is reflected in the variety of settings in his novels: Mexico in Les Couteaux (1956), Japan in L'Homme d'avril (1959), Italy in Un Printemps d'Italie (1970) and Venise en hiver (1980).

Norma ou l'exil infini (1988) is about the moral dilemma of an Argentinian exile in Paris during the Falklands war, torn between his loyalty to a land ruled by a military dictatorship and his admiration for Britain that is itself employing military force against his countrymen. It is an admirable novel whose dramatic tension never relaxes and which states clearly the author's humanist and pacifist stand. Robls' last published work before his death was L'Herbe des ruines (1992) in which he again castigates the folly of war in a terrifying description of the Allied air forces' annihilation of Pforzheim, an experience as devastating as Dresden's.

In Venise d'hiver, Robls had already written a fine love- story against a background of the Red Brigades' terrorist attacks in Italy. He had personal experience of terrorist violence in Algeria, and one of the young French-Algerian writers he had been encouraging and publishing in France in the Seuil series "Mediterrane" which he directed was Tahar Djaout, assassinated in May 1993 at Birmandreis. Robls had first met him a few years before on the occasion of an international conference in Oran dedicated to the work of Albert Camus.

Just one week before Robls died, he took the corrected proofs of his final work to the editorial offices of Seuil, a tribute to his friendship with Camus entitled Camus: frre de soleil, which is dedicated "to the memory of Tahar Djaout, brother of the sun".

James Kirkup