Albert Camus, once decried as the symbol of reactionary French Algeria by Jean-Paul Sartre and other grands hommes of the mid-century French left, has been the subject of increasingly positive revaluations since the posthumous publication of his unfinished autobiographical novel, The First Man, in 1994. Camus’s account of his threadbare beginnings, his love for his deaf mother and his ambivalence about success and exile gave readers reasons to think that, thirty-four years after his death, they finally knew something about him. Meanwhile, Sartre’s devotion to violent revolution had lost much of its allure during the 1990s, when a civil war in Algeria between radical Islamists and the Algerian army threatened the survival of secular intellectual life itself. The centenary of Camus’s birth in 2013 was welcomed in France with an array of new work, including a fascinating documentary by Joël Calmettes about Camus’s readers in the far corners of the globe. In the United States, Robert Zaretsky’s fine intellectual biography and the Harvard translation of Camus’s Algerian Chronicles were widely reviewed. Now, in the wake of the centenary, two bold and original new works swap criticism for art: a film, Loin des hommes, or Far From Men, and a novel, Meursault, contre-enquête, remain faithful to the moral and aesthetic spirit of Camus’s fictions while setting his themes and preoccupations in the geopolitical present.
David Oelhoffen’s captivating Algerian western takes as its starting point Camus’s 1957 short story “The Guest,” though calling the film an adaptation would be a misnomer. Far From Men is closer to a new draft of a story that Camus had considered to be malleable and for which he imagined two opposing endings—as though the indecision crafted into the original story was an irresistible invitation to transform its essence in another medium.
To understand the alchemy of Far From Men, it helps to recall the story that inspired it. “The Guest” is not as well known as Camus’s classic The Stranger, but it is a favorite text for teaching the history of decolonization and the only work of fiction by Camus that approaches the conflict between France and Algeria head-on. “The Guest” is also Camus’s most perfect short story—taut and stark, with an ending that leaves room for a hundred interpretations.
For Camus, the story began with a memory. In 1934 or 1935, a native worker in the Sahara was arrested on trumped-up charges and dragged by rope from his village to the county seat. Secours Rouge (a communist health and legal-aid foundation, active in solidarity movements in the 1930s) publicized the scandal by printing postcards showing the prisoner, the rope, the horse and the gendarme. Camus would have seen copies of the postcard in 1934 or 1935, when he was going door to door in the working-class neighborhood of Algiers where he grew up, recruiting Muslim workers to a largely European Communist Party. He never forgot the image. Nor did he forget the misery he saw in Kabylia, the mountainous region east of Algiers. In 1939, he wrote a multipart exposé of “Misery in Kabylia” for Alger-Républicain. He described destitute children reduced to eating poisonous roots, dreamed of a time when Muslim and European students would study in the same classroom, and lambasted the colonial government, whose refusal to reform the region’s economy and political structure left the population living in dire poverty. By 1939, Camus had already left the Communist Party, but he remained faithful to the values of a popular front against fascism; he began to understand that essential reforms would never take place, and that France was bound to lose Algeria.
By the time “The Guest” appeared in the collection Exile and the Kingdom in 1957, the Algerian Revolution was in its third year, and the former anticolonial activist found himself in an impossible position, neither supporting the revolutionary party nor endorsing the die-hard proponents of French Algeria. By then he was living in France; a brief return to Algeria in 1956 to organize a civilian truce with a coalition of political parties had ended in failure. In Camus’s first notes on “The Guest,” he imagines a story set in the High Plateaus of Algeria, a region poised between two mountain ranges. It was the perfect literary setting for an author who was between a rock and a hard place.