- Building the Colonial Archive: The Case of Camus’s Le premier homme 1
[Les morts] vivent maintenant avec nous qui nous sentons leurs parents, leurs amis. Ainsi se fait une famille, une cité commune entre les vivants et les morts. [The dead] now live with us and we feel that we are their parents [their relatives], their friends. In this way, a city shared by the living and the dead comes into being.—Michelet 2
La “tristesse africaine” du père. The father’s “African sadness.”—Camus, Le premier homme (297/240)3
Camus was working on Le premier homme in 1959, in what was to be the last year of his life (he died in January 1960). In chronological terms, he was writing against the backdrop of the Algerian War. In political and cultural terms, he was writing against decolonization. This unfinished, fictionalized autobiography recounts the life of the Cormery family, seen by Camus as typifying the lot of those descendants of nineteenth-century French settlers of Algeria. Camus’s tactic is to defend the position of the pieds noirs, whom he regularly depicts as innocents, accidents of a colonial history that has not brought them economic and cultural advantage but rather hardship and the virtues of stubbornness and resilience needed to face up to such difficulty. In short, Le premier homme is an unapologetic defense and illustration of the French Algerians. 4
Were this unfinished novel to have been published in 1960, soon after its author’s death, it would have been an embarrassment for many in metropolitan France. Its unfashionable promotion of the “Français d’Algérie” ‘French Algerians’ would have jarred in a nation that was in the throes of a colonial war. Along the painful road towards decolonization, the protests of loyal, would-be innocent colonizers could only stand as an unwelcome reminder of colonial failure. On the other hand, 1994, when the book was first published, proved a more auspicious date if we are to go by the massive sales of Le premier homme in France and beyond. More than thirty years on, then, it was as though postcolonial France was in a better position to remember and perhaps to indulge its sense of colonial nostalgia, or nostalgérie, by revisiting a past that had been revered and mythified. “Settler self-mystification,” to borrow a term from Philip Dine, finds a latter-day correlative in contemporary nostalgia for the would-be glory days of empire. 5
In this paper, I wish to consider three central areas: first, the linkage Camus makes between commemoration and memory-loss. In that respect, we will see “l’oubli” ‘oblivion’ working circuitously—perversely, one might [End Page 176] argue—as a powerful weapon in the legitimization of the French Algerian legacy; in this connection I shall also briefly consider, by way of instructive contrast, Tahar Djaout’s reading of commemoration in a native Algerian context in Les chercheurs d’os [The Bone searchers]. Second, I want to examine the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intertexts that play a crucial role in informing the rhetoric of persuasion around which Le premier homme is constructed. And third, and by way of conclusion, I shall explore briefly the extent to which Camus’s selective memory may be read as an indirect appeal to irrationalism.
Le premier homme reflects urgently on spatial sensibilities in the colonial context. It strives to effect significant cultural reversals, in which the metropolitan center may, from the vantage point of the “littoral algérien” ‘Algerian shoreline,’ lose prestige or indeed acquire it, and the so-called outpost may become a place of peril and yet also a locus of heroism and beauty. Significantly, there is a regular turning away from contemporaneity. Repeatedly, Le premier homme summons up the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At one level, this is entirely to be expected since Camus’s aim is to celebrate his tribal ancestors, whose lives were shaped by such events as the 1848 Revolution, the Franco-Prussian War, and the First World War. Yet there is an abiding sense in which, for Camus, the past (heroic and sacrificial) is to be preferred to the...