This collection of three of Albert Camus’ essays was published by Penguin Books as part of their seventieth anniversary in 2005 and is a fascinating description of two cities and a town in Algeria, the country which was the birthplace of Camus. It is always interesting to read a locals perspective on places that you really want to visit especially if it is by a writer of the quality of Camus, and Algeria is the only country on the north African coast that I haven’t yet been to and this book moved it higher up the list of places to visit. This is the second book I have reviewed that is set in Algeria though, after Tartarin of Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet so clearly I need to go there sooner rather than later. As mentioned this has descriptions of a couple of cities, Algiers and Oran along with the archaeologically important town of Tipasa with its wonderful Roman ruins, the first essay concerns Algiers.
Summer in Algiers
Unlike the other two essays in this book, this is not a description of the place but the people of Algiers and especially the youth. He explains that here people start work and marry young and raise their children so that by their thirties men have largely done all that they have to do and it is a steady decline of their vigour that is all they have to look forward to. Summer in Algiers is a time of unrelenting heat so only the poor are left there, the rich decamp to more salubrious climes until the September rains bring relief. The young poor however gather on the beaches, for it is the culture of the body that reigns supreme and as Camus explains “Here intelligence has no place as in Italy” instead the men display their muscles and the girls their shapely legs in one fast summer before work, drudgery and motherhood claim them all far too early. It’s not a happy essay.
The Minotaur, or a stop in Oran
The longest, at 31 pages, of the three essays is possibly the most interesting, partly as I’d never heard of Oran despite it being the second largest city in Algeria, but mainly for the wonderful description of not just the town but also the people and what they do for work and fun, Camus worked here as a teacher for a while before ill health (tuberculosis) forced him to leave. The title’s reference to the Minotaur is an allusion to the labyrinthine network of streets in the city where it is easy to get lost and the walls of the old city which cut the centre off from both the desert behind but also the sea to the front. But everywhere there is the dust which seems to be the defining element for Camus whenever he thinks of Oran along with the odd collections of merchandise in the shops.
Here, presented in a casket of dust, is the contents of a shop window: frightful plaster models of deformed feet: a group of Rembrandt drawings ‘sacrificed at 150 francs each’, practical jokes, tricoloured wallets, an eighteenth century pastel, a mechanical donkey made of plush, bottles of Provence water for preserving green olives, and a wretched wooden virgin with an indecent smile. (So that no one can go away ignorant the ‘management’ has propped at its base a card saying ‘wooden virgin’).
There is also a detailed description of a boxing tournament, not just of the boxers but the crowd and building as well and a section on the construction of the new harbour walls which will eventually pull the city to face the sea, if not embrace it. It’s s great piece of closely observed travel writing although unlike the next essay it doesn’t make me want to go there.
Return to Tipasa
Tipasa is about seventy km from Algiers and had clearly been a regular destination when Camus was a child. He doesn’t care much for the modern town, it is the ancient Roman ruins that call to him and having looked up the town online I can see why, just follow the link here to Atlas Obscura. To his dismay on returning to the ruins as an adult decades later he finds them surrounded by barbed wire with a small number of designated entry points rather than the open site he remembered as a youth but once inside the magic returned and he revels in walking through the ‘bread-coloured stones’ feeling peace again and escape from the modern world as he does so.
I’d always been a bit wary of Camus, mainly because of his reputation as an existentialist writer, and having studied the works of his friend Jean Paul Satre at school that put me off that particular group of authors, but this short collection has made me want to read more Camus. He has a real gift for a phrase and an ability to take the reader to where he is writing about. I’ve explored several of the ruined Roman cities along the north African coast in both Tunisia and Libya and Return to Tipasa took me right back to those magical trips. There is a monument to Camus in amongst the ruins of ancient Tipasa which includes a quote from another of his essays set there ‘Wedding in Tipasa’
Je comprends ici ce qu’on appelle gloire : le droit d’aimer sans mesure.
I understand here what is called glory: the right to love without measure.Albert Camus memorial in Tipasa