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Loin des Hommes, We Are All First Men: Camus’ Algerians and Oelhoffen’s Camus

Camus brought to the big screen. Tribeca Film

Even Nobel-Prize winners can be melancholy. This is one lesson we can learn from Albert Camus’ life by the end of the 1950s.

Camus was catapulted to public fame in his late twenties by the uncanny novella The Stranger. Soon after, he became a hero of the French resistance and the celebrated author of The Plague of 1947.

Yet by the time Camus’ collection of short stories, Exile and the Kingdom appeared one decade later, Camus had come to feel acutely what his former friend Jean-Paul Sartre had charged against him. History had moved on since the war, and the tender-hearted pied noir was no longer on its better side.

The troubles in Algeria affected him as others suffer pain in the lungs, Camus once confided.

Sartre’s 1952 words to Camus are echoed by Slimane, the leader of the Algerian resistance fighters in Far from Men, David Oelhoffen’s extraordinary 2014 filmic adaptation of Camus’ 1957 story, “L’Hôte”. “This time you’re on the wrong side”, Slimane tells his old friend and comrade, the French-Algerian protagonist Daru, brilliantly portrayed by Viggo Mortensen.

It is one of many echoes from Camus’ life and later work that Oelhoffen’s script lets sound as he repackages Camus’ story for the big screen.

That Oelhoffen’s film has succeeded in remaining so true to the aesthetic, mood, and the spirit of Camus’ writing is remarkable testimony to the director-come-screenwriter’s abilities, as well as to his clear love of Camus.

Camus “L’Hôte” itself spans barely twelve pages. It is one of Camus’ most sparse stories, as minimal, dry and resonant as the windswept Algerian highlands that is its setting.

Daru is a reclusive schoolteacher bringing French language, culture, and wheat to the indigenous children in an isolated outpost. One day, he is presented with an unwanted guest. It is an Arab, bound by a rope and dragged by a horse-riding gendarme. The latter charges the teacher to deliver this ‘hostage’ to French justice in nearby Tinguit. Trouble is brewing, and “we are all mobilised, in a way”.

Daru wants nothing more than to wash his hands of the whole affair. He is disgusted alike by the Arab’s crime (this Cain has killed his cousin with a billhook, and been driven from his community) and the dishonourable demand of the cop to deliver him over to execution.

The Arab, meanwhile, tells us little about who he is, or why he has killed his cousin. Like Meursault’s victim on the beach in The Stranger, we don’t even learn his name.

Yet Daru hosts him. And despite himself, a solidarity grows between him and his hostage-guest. After dining (“Will you eat with me?”), the two men share rooms for a night. The following morning, Daru takes the Arab towards Tinguit.

Then, in a definitively ambivalent gesture, Daru leaves the stranger at the crossroads. He should decide for himself whether to go East towards captivity, or South towards freedom. The same nomads who have appeared on the horizon in Camus’ opening story in Exile and the Kingdom, like a furtive promise of happiness, will then welcome him “according to their law”.

In the story, when Daru turns back moments later, he sees the Arab making his way to Tinguit, and the judgment of colonial Law.

When Daru himself returns home in the gathering heat, he finds these words scrawled uncannily across the map of France on his blackboard: “You have betrayed our brother. You will pay”.

No more happy endings, someone said.

Camus’ 1957 story, critics have agreed, clearly expresses Camus’ growing sense of his own helplessness as an advocate for French-Arab cohabitation, suing for dialogue between independence fighters increasingly willing to deploy spectacular violence against civilians, and a colonial regime increasingly willing to use torture and reprisals to ‘send a message to the terrorists.’ _Plus ça change _…

Camus’ 1958 Algerian Chronicles, one of Oelhoffen’s source texts for the film, in effect signs off and inaugurated a silence which Camus’ untimely January 1960 death would make definitive. Camus knew his political proposal for a federalised French-Algeria, like Daru’s ambiguous offer of freedom to his guest in “The Host”, could “satisfy no one, and I know in advance how it will be received on both sides…”

Yet in the film Far From Men, things seem very different.

Camus’ nameless Arab becomes Oelhoffen’s ‘Mohamed.’ And as the film develops, his posture straightens, his gait lengthens, and a rounded human character emerges from behind this hostage-guest’s initial, taciturn silence.

The nameless Arab’s refusal in Camus’ story to provide Daru with a motive either for his murder, or for seeking the judgement of French Law, becomes in the film a sophisticated plan.

By turning himself in to the colonial authorities, Mohamed will break the cycle of blood-violence in his town. This “eye for an eye” legality is what is driving his cousin’s family to pursue he and Daru, in vengeance for what we learn was Mohamed’s initial act of self-defence. And it will soon enough require Mohamed’s brothers in their turn to shed the blood of his pursuers, unless something different is done.

“You figured it all out,” Daru reflects in the decisive conversation exactly half way through the film, after which the Frenchman ceases to be his brother’s keeper.

And then, at film’s end, Oelhoffen’s Mohamed chooses freedom and the nomads, unlike Camus’ nameless Arab.

In one of the best responses to the film, Alice Kaplan has commented that by these changes, Far from Men in effect changes Camus. Oelhoffen brings “’The Guest’ into the twenty-first century, into a world where living together through differences can bring hope for reconciliation …”

More critical readers have seen in the same adaptations something closer to a political whitewashing of Camus’ tale and the author’s position on the colonial issue.

Both positions seem to me to be partly right and partly wrong.

Postcolonial critics have downplayed the uneasy ambiguity of Camus’ politics in Algeria. In the late 1930s, as a journalist, he had been amongst the first to criticise colonial exploitation. He had door-knocked for the Communists to try to recruit Moslems, and participated in cultural initiatives to bring indigenous and French authors together.

His own family, far from being the cigar-smoking, Chevy-driving colons Camus’ Marxissant critics would soon imagine, were amongst the poorest Alsatian and Spanish stock. The Nobel Prize winner was the first of his family to even go to school.

Meanwhile, the expulsion of the French pied noirs in 1962 did not deliver the Algerian people lasting peace. In the 1990s, civil war would again break out. At the same time, Camus’ family finally published The First Man, the incomplete novel about his homeland the author was working on when he died.

In the second half of the film, with Mohamed now asking all the questions, we learn that Oelhoffen’s Daru was, like Camus’ beloved mother, from Spanish-Algerian roots: “for the French, we were Arabs; now for the Arabs, we are French…”

Far from being the one “at home”, able to host the Arab man from a position of untroubled cultural superiority, this Daru is as much an exile in this strange land as Mohamed.

The film has them taken captive first by the Arab Liberation fighters and then by the French Expeditionary forces.

And, as paradoxical as this sounds, it is in its powerful depiction of these two refugees wandering precariously between competing laws and armies that Oelhoffen succeeds less in changing Camus’ “Host”, for good or ill; than in going beyond Camus’ story’s letter to its spirit, and to the letter of what was emerging in these years as The First Man.

Camus’ notes for this unfinished autobiographical novel attest to his sense of the wider relevance of what was playing out in Algeria: on one hand, the end of colonialism and its founding ideologies of European, white supremacy; and on the other, the urgent need of different peoples in a post-colonial world to find ways to peaceable dialogic cohabitation, if the kind of cyclical, reparative violence between peoples—each citing the crimes of the other as sanction for its own excesses—is ever to be arrested.

Even Algeria’s dramatic geography, showcased in Far From Men’s distancing shots of the magnificent, inhuman desert landscapes, took on for Camus a symbolic significance in this last period, at once evoking the murderous violence inherent in peoples’ historical claims and the transient futility of all such rolling bids for exclusive territorial dominion:

The history of men, that history that kept on plodding across one of its oldest territories while leaving so few traces on it, […] evaporating under a constant sun with the memory of those who made it, reduced to paroxysms of violence and murder, to blazes of hatred, to torrents of blood, quickly swollen and quickly dried up, like the seasonal rains of the country…

Just so, if Camus’ Algerians are the “first men” his last novel’s title promised, it is to the extent that they had been placed in the interstices of history, between competing cultures. Just as Oelhoffen’s film’s wandering duo: “we were children without God or father … we lived without legitimacy – Pride.”

Far from the racist or colonialist some of his most uncharitable critics have accused, the last Camus instead dreamt of a new kind of “kingdom” of the disenfranchised. This royaume was blind to traditional and racial borders, bound instead like the heroes of Far from Men to landscapes none can lay exclusive claim to:

Give back the land, the land that belongs to no one. Give back the land that is neither to be sold nor to be bought […] Give back the land to the poor, to those who have nothing and who are so poor that they never desired to have and to possess, to those in this land who […] mostly Arab and a few French […] live and survive here through stubbornness and endurance, with the only pride that is worth anything in the world, that of the poor. Give them the land as one gives what is sacred to those who are sacred…

David Carroll is right to have reflected that such a vision of the Algerian people, skating over the Arab-French divide and its history, was never likely to find the institutional and political supports Camus hoped his writing and activism might win. Yet historical failure does not imply normative bankruptcy.

Nor, as David Oelhoffen’s Far From Men in effect says, does Camus’ political failure prevent his vision of “first men” like Daru or Mohamed from being of increasing prescience.

We live in a world wherein, amongst other things, the numbers of real refugees flooding the first world (including many Moslems from Africa) grows every hour. Increasingly like Camus’ Daru and Oelhoffen’s Mohamed – and whether we like it or not – we too are every day being cut loose from the moorings of our older, more impermeable cultures.

Our territorial and cultural boundaries in the period of ‘globalisation’ have been rendered increasingly porous not only to flows of moneys and capital. There are also the floods of exiled peoples, as welcome to most of us as is the rope-borne Arab, at first, to Camus’ or Oelhoffen’s Daru.

If we in these circumstance are to become not “men on the wane as they shout in the newspapers, but men of a different and undefined dawn,” as Camus could still write of his warring countrymen in 1959, it is to the extent that we become able to see in figures like Far From Men’s Daru and Mohamed not strangers to be taken hostage, traded on or turned away, but uncanny images of ourselves.

For, as Camus wrote in the remarkable unpublished notes for his 1957 short story which Oelhoffen’s 2014 film has brought so vividly to cinematic life:

Something united them, Daru and this Arab, across time and space always pushing them forwards; a solidarity of men across the generations, under the same vast sky, isolated on their immense island between the sand and the water, similar to their country, different from the rest of the world, accomplices and brothers, when they desisted from killing each other…

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