Humiliation, said Chekhov, is the worst thing that one human can inflict on another. It ruins the souls of those who act and those who are acted upon. The native peoples of Algeria had lived for a hundred years under the rule of the French, who despised, tormented, and, above all, humiliated them. Generations of natives were born into an inherited fear and hatred of those who had thus undone not only them but their parents and grandparents as well. For that accumulated insult: the fire next time.
In a way the tragedy of empire is to be found here, in Camus himself. With all the psychological intelligence at his disposal, he still could not permit himself to realize that between the Arabs and the French colonials there could be no rapprochement. Unlike Orwell, a loyal Englishman able to assume the undivided position of the honest dissenter, Camus was akin to the Anglo-Indian who is torn apart by his divided loyalties: on the one hand, the cause of his native countrymen moved him; on the other, he yearned helplessly toward the European culture that had formed him.
It was precisely this internal division in millions of people who grew up under colonial rule that empire was most guilty of fomenting and most adept at exploiting. It induced the kind of emotional paralysis that inevitably makes the successful revolt against foreign oppression take forever to cohere. Somewhere within himself, I am certain, Camus knew this to be the case with him. Nothing else can account for the longing and sorrow with which Algerian Chronicles is written.
See also (30.10.13):
Further update (03.12.13):
Robert Kaplan’s brief review of “Algerian Chronicles” in The Weekly Standard (of all places) is full of insight and compassion.
One can only conjecture, of course, but even had he stayed in the debate until his death in an automobile accident in 1960, Camus likely would not have had much influence. Which is, perhaps, the enduring lesson of this volume. Since the voice of restraint—what Camus liked to call the “Mediterranean voice”—cannot be heard in the midst of a savage war of peace, the greatest gift that a man of letters can offer is the example of courage: to stand on one’s own ground and speak, even if it means going against the conformism of thought that will, in the end, prevail.