by Michelle Hamadache
There are two men who share my heart. One is my husband, Amine, and the other is Albert Camus. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re both Algerian, and though I’d never tell my husband, I wonder if I’d have fallen in love with him, if I hadn’t have fallen in love with Camus first.
Amine and I met on New Years Eve 1991 on the steps of San Lorenzo, a medieval cathedral in Perugia, Italy. His lion-eyes, blue-black hair and fighter’s stance—poised, open-chested, heart first—were enough to tempt me down from the church steps and through the city streets with him, but then he said he was from Algiers, and like a shot fired to the heart, everything changed.
The Myth of Sisyphus, The Outsider, Camus’ essays had travelled with me to school, the beach, and to my first year of university, and they were in my jute backpack the night I met Amine. An idiot, the next day I pulled the editions out onto the table, setting them down with a triumphant tap between our short blacks and the ashtray where two smoking cigarettes, his Marlboro and mine Camel unfiltered, trailed delicious curlicues of brash and unadulterated youth.
‘There, Camus (yes, at nineteen, I did pronounce that ‘s’), do you know him?’
Of course, I meant have you read him, but Amine was rightfully nonplussed. The Penguin paper back of The Myth of Sisyphus has Magritte’s Le Monde Invisible on its cover—a painting of a man-sized rock staring out a French window to the sea.
It took me a little while to realise that Amine was the Arab Meursault shot on the beach, once. Then four more times.
Until that moment, I’d worshipped Camus. Lived without hope and yet remained happy; all the religions of the world were not worth a hair of a woman’s head, and the embrace of the world—the heat of the sun on the skin, the feeling of a lover’s flesh beneath one’s cheek, and the sea—was all. Because of Camus, I knew before I left school that it’s a privilege to be alive, even though suicide, like art, is an act prepared in the dark chamber of the heart. Yet, Camus had shot Amine, and I could never again read The Outsider as I had through high school, riveted, without looking up.
Arab belongs to the language of French colonial Algeria. It was the way of distinguishing between ‘French settler (AKA colon, pied noir—European)’ and ‘indigène’.
France invaded Algeria in 1830 and Algeria remained a colony of France until 1962, eight years before Amine was born. Algeria was settled by France, but also by the many, many migrants from Malta, Greece, Spain, the Balkans—anywhere poor enough to make the arid, mountainous, newly-colonised territory of Algeria look tempting. All these people living in Algeria, as well as indigenous and Sephardic Jews, were citizens of France. The only people who weren’t French citizens, or citizens of anywhere, were the Tamazight peoples (Berbers); the small number of Turks who remained in Algeria after Hussein Dey, the last regent of the Ottoman Empire, fled; the Arabs who had come in the 7th century; and the Bedouins who came marauding in the 13th and 14th centuries. Muslims.
Colonialism was the turbine for Camus’s absurd philosophical situation. What other system would have presented the possibility of acquittal after such a callous act? Meursault, if he’d played his cards right—played remorse, played repentant, and desired the freedom to return to the conditions of the world ordered by the courtroom—could have walked back to his job as clerk, to his weekends on the beach, and to his fiancé, Marie.
‘Would you like me to see if I can get you the French version to read?’
Amine flinched—looked at me as though I might have been a nightmare about to shape-shift into the varicosed French teacher, Madame Pagès, who slammed his head between triptych blackboards back in lycée.
‘Camus is, well . . . you’ll love it . . . you must . . .’ I began rifling through the pages—I’m not sure if I should admit to trying to translate a passage from English into my appalling Italian. Amine’s eyes glazed, I stuttered into silence, and we each returned gratefully to our patient cigarettes.
Blanchot thought Camus overwrote Meursault’s eloquence in the final pages of The Outsider; that the recalcitrant, indifference of the Meursault of the opening was impossible to reconcile with the fierce rhetoric of the Meursault facing death, but that’s not the case.
This is how the shooting unfolds:
Meursault stands blank and almost cavernless beneath the molten sky, revolver in his hand. The snoozing Arab stretched out on the sand, with his face shaded from the black light of the summer sun by a rock, object par excellence. Before the Arab brings the knife-blade into the light, before Meursault fires the first shot, that molten sky hardens and cracks in two—Arab and Meursault.
Camus knew. Arab and Meursault were already the last two pieces in an endgame playing out under the electric globe of a midnight room.
Almost, but not quite ground zero narration, Meursault’s flat insouciance is the only terrain that can lead you to the point—the point high enough to shatter glass and let the light spill down into your wormwood thoughts, into your wormwood systems. And so, your heart begins to beat again—the point at which you feel what it might be to have been happy; to call what you had before, ‘happiness’, and to crave its loss, as though that ecstatic state you’re in right now weren’t anything at all and happiness had been yours all along. Meursault’s Point. Amine dead.
Between shot one and shots twothreefourandfive, Meursault knew he had been happy. He had been happy. But that’s the lie. The man who refused courtroom terms, who refused the chaplain, who refused a sun-drenched world waiting for him outside his cell, deceived himself. The only two moments of happiness he ever knew were the two moments where he rose, lifted on a bed of words, to the precipice between the beating of a heart and the stopping of a heart.
The Meursault who chose to die knowing—without compromise—the brink of freedom was born in the pause after that first shot. Not the first man, but the new man, Meursault shook off the clinging veil of light and sweat and fired again, again, again and again. A man, devastated, made loving, cursed, born again, too late. A man who knew what he was doing.
The act of falling into taking a life is not the same as falling into bad company, or falling into a love affair with Marie. Camus knew it, and Meursault is the unreliable narrator who only began to live—to know, to feel, to be, to act: all at once— once his own indifference had taken him too far.
Of course most of the book is written close to the ground. How else to make the mountain appear, except out of the plains?
Camus is the man who wasn’t afraid to sign his name to his mistakes.
Meursault could have lifted his eyes and revolver to the sky above to fire those shots into the black stone heart of the sun. He could have turned the revolver to his own heart, beating in the soft chamber of his chest, but riveted to the page, he didn’t look up.
Camus fires the four shots of his despair into a corpse-Arab, so that his words could take on the effulgence of godless transcendence for the symbolic order of the initiated. And that can never be undone.
The same cheap, yellowed paperback editions with miniscule biro messages from my younger self to the dark winds of my future self sit beside me now, and though the thoughts of my child-self scrawled into the margins are indecipherable, the underlining has stood the test of time.
In Camus’s brash and unadulterated youth, he wrote, ‘Nuptials at Tipasa’, one of his lyrical essays. Hard and exultant with youth, Camus visits the Roman ruins at Tipasa, a seaside village 60kms west of Algiers. Under the black Mediterranean sun, with wild absinthe leaves pressed between his fingers, he writes that neither I nor the world count, but solely the harmony and the silence that gave birth to the love between us.
There’s one bullet left in the revolver.
Amine’s Kabyle, North African, Muslim—a father, a husband. A man, but not an Arab. Amine speaks Algerian, Arabic, French, Italian and English, but he can’t read. He doesn’t want to and I don’t want him to either. Not anymore.
Who knew that a fallen night would turn into twenty-four years?
Camus’s journalism captures the shocking poverty of the Algerian population under France. His dream of a federation between Algeria and France, where every Algerian was accorded a vote, where opportunities for employment and education were no longer restricted to French citizens, was an egalitarian dream, and of course, Camus’s refusal to condone either the violence of France or the violence of the Algerian uprising was the stance that isolated him from Sartre and Beauvoir, Fanon. Even winning the Nobel Prize was a conflicted experience for Camus.
Everything changes with the heart.
I know Meursault shot the Arab in his heart. Where else? Camus, afraid perhaps of being too obvious, of upsetting the carefully constructed poise of the prose, never mentions the bullet-mutilated body of the Arab, and so the Arab disappears, a hole in the page. As though he never were.
I can forgive Camus for calling Amine an Arab. I think I can even forgive him for shooting my husband—after all, the universe’s absurd and did Camus really think Meursault any better or worse than the Algerian?—but what I can’t forgive Camus for ever—ever—is that he spared not a word, not a single one, for the stopping of my beautiful Amine’s beating heart.
The works inextricable from this:
Camus, Albert, The Outsider, trans. Stuart Gilbert, Penguin Modern Classics (1966).
_____Lyrical and Critical Essays, ed. PhilipThody, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Vintage Books (1970).
_____ The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien, Penguin Books (1975)
_____ Notebooks, 1951-1959, trans. Ryan Bloom, Ivan R. Dee (2008)
_____Algerian Chronicles, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Belknap Press of HUP, 2013.
Deranty, Jean-Philippe, ‘The Tender Indifference of the World: Camus’ Theory of the Flesh’, SOPHIA, 50(4), 2011, pp. 513-525. Accessed February 24, 2016, https://mq.academia.edu/JeanPhilippeDeranty, doi: 10.1007/s11841-011-0273-1