Stranger than fiction in Algeria

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A hundred years after Albert Camus was born, Edmund Vallance visits Algiers, the North African city where the Nobel laureate's novel 'L'Etranger' was set

"The academics think they know everything about my father. But they are not always right. They are rarely right, actually," giggled Catherine Camus, the daughter of Albert Camus, when I spoke to her over the phone.

Her father, the celebrated writer and philosopher, was born 100 years ago, on 7 November 1913, so I'd come on a pilgrimage to his home town of Algiers, nicknamed "La Blanche" for its grand, whitewashed buildings. Though born in the small coastal town of Dréan, Algiers was the city where he had grown up and where he later found his vocation as a writer. It was also the setting for his first novel, L'Etranger (The Stranger), the story of Meursault, a "solitary and sensual" office worker, who is thrown into prison after he shoots an Arab on a beach outside Algiers. The novel was published to worldwide acclaim in 1942.

With my guide and translator, Rabie, I set off for the sea-facing district of Belcourt, where Camus grew up. The first-floor apartment where he lived with his mother, brother, grandmother and two uncles at 124 Rue Mohamed Belouizdad was very small, with a simple blue balcony overlooking the main street; much like Meursault's apartment in L'Etranger.

Camus grew up in poverty; his mother was illiterate. As Catherine Camus later explained to me: "Most French writers at that time had access to culture, to books, from an early age. This wasn't the case for my father. He had to find these things out for himself."

Much like downtown Havana, Belcourt's cast-iron balconies, crumbling courtyards and impressive colonial façades, seem to lend themselves to elegant decay. Luchino Visconti's 1967 film adaptation of L'Etranger was shot here, and as I sit in Café Tamgout, next to Camus' old home, local resident Nouredine recalled the day the film crews came to town.

"I remember when Visconti came," he says, throwing back a super-strength espresso. "I was about 14 when they released it. The whole street was so excited. My father spoke to Anna Karina, but I was too shy." Nouredine introduces me to his neighbour, Yahia, who doesn't seem quite as enthusiastic about Belcourt's famous former resident. "Albert Ca-moose? He wasn't Algerian. He was European."

In fact, Camus was neither Algerian nor European. Like Meursault, he was a pied-noir: a French-speaking native, whose great-grandparents had emigrated from Europe under the French repatriation scheme. Throughout his life, Camus found it difficult to imagine Algeria as completely independent from France. As a result, his work has been widely dismissed by post-colonial governments – and by many modern Algerians. In Algiers, plaques and statues commemorating Camus – the first African Nobel laureate – are conspicuous by their absence.

Walking up the hill, we arrive at Camus' old primary school, Ecole Communale at 44, Rue Darwin. It was here that his teacher, Louis Germain, first spotted the boy's talent for writing and eventually helped him obtain a secondary school scholarship. A group of soldiers in mirrored sunglasses linger on the corner by the school gates.

Later that evening, we sit down for a plate of couscous at Brasserie des Facultés opposite the university campus. Camus came here to drink wine, talk politics and admire the local women.

No doubt he would have been disappointed had he lived to see the place now; these days, there are no outside tables, and the all-male clientele prefers coffee to whisky.

We head to nearby Bar Tono on Rue Claude Debussy. Knocking on an old wooden door, we are ushered quickly inside a tiny, smoke-filled den where we are immediately sucked into a debate about political corruption. "Well, bad politicians exist everywhere," laughed one patron, "just look at your Tony Blair!"

No one seems sure whether Camus had actually come to Bar Tono; but it's certainly possible – it's been operating as a bar since the 1940s. The next morning, we drive along the winding coastal road known as La Corniche, following Meursault's bus route to the city's northern beaches.

At the dusty seaside village of Deux Chameaux (Two Camels) I spot a man sunning himself on a rock in the glittering water, just as Meursault and his girlfriend, Marie, did in the opening chapters of L'Etranger. Perhaps this was the beach he had in mind when he wrote those scenes.

We leave the coastal road and veer onto the motorway. Speeding past craggy bays and leathery-looking mountain ranges, we eventually arrive at Tipasa, a Phoenician port 40 miles west of Algiers, and one of Camus' favourite picnic spots as a teenager.

The first-century Roman ruins dotted along this ragged stretch of coastline are impossibly beautiful: Camus wrote about them in his 1952 essay, Return to Tipasa: "Turbulent childhood, adolescent daydreams in the drone of the bus's motor, mornings, unspoiled girls, beaches … the evening's slight anxiety in a 16-year-old heart."

I was 16 when I first read L'Etranger, the same year I first heard Killing An Arab, The Cure's homage to the book. A scarlet sun hovers over the Mediterranean as we wind our way back to Algiers and I can hear the lyrics in my head, "I'm alive… I'm dead… I'm the stranger…"

Travel essentials

Getting there

Edmund Vallance travelled as a guest of Air Algérie (020 7486 8068; airalgerie.dz), which flies from Heathrow from £230. He was a guest of Expert Algeria (00 213 554 78 09 95; expertalgeria.com), which offers a five-day "In the Footsteps of Albert Camus" tour, from £895pp, including food, transfers and accommodation, but not flights.

Staying there

S T Hotel, 4 Rue Mikideche Mouloud, Algiers (00 213 21 63 80 65). Doubles from 6,500 Algerian dinar (£50), B&B.

Hotel El-Djazair (formerly Hotel Saint-George), 24 Avenue Souidani Boujemaa, Algiers (00 213 21 69 21 21). Doubles from 24,500 dinar (£188). Albert Camus stayed here in March 1958.

Eating there

Brasserie des Facultés, 1 Rue Didouch Mourad, Algiers (00 213 21 644053).

More information

British passport-holders require a tourist visa (020 7589 6885; algerian-consulate.org.uk) for £85.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

    £18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence