Stranger than fiction in Algeria
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
Wednesday 06 November 2013
"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…"
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.
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.
Brasserie des Facultés, 1 Rue Didouch Mourad, Algiers (00 213 21 644053).
British passport-holders require a tourist visa (020 7589 6885; algerian-consulate.org.uk) for £85.
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