By Geoff Wisner
What makes you an African writer? That is a subject for another day, and one that's not likely to be resolved anytime soon. One consideration, though, must surely be the ability to convey a sense of place when writing about Africa.
Albert Camus was born in Algeria, spent most of his life there, set his fiction there, and was the first Nobel Prize winner to be born on the continent. Mohammed Dib, author of The Savage Night (my review), said bluntly in 1995, íCamus is an Algerian writer.ë Yet we generally think of him as a Frenchman and an existentialist (though he disavowed that label), and regard his North African settings as almost beside the point: just backdrops for investigations of life and fate.
In the first line of The Plague, however, Camus takes care to establish where his story takes place. íThe unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran,ë he begins (The Algerian port of Oran, by the way, is also where The Sheltering Sky (review) by Paul Bowles begins and ends).
Having named his setting, he immediately undercuts the significance of the place.
The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug, placid air and you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centers in other parts of the world. How to conjure up a picture, for instance, of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves — a thoroughly negative place, in short?
Yet having invited the reader to dismiss the town, Camus proceeds to offer evocative local details that bring Oran to life in a very specific and often moving way (quotes are from the Vintage paperback edition of Stuart Gilbert's 1948 translation from the French).
We hear of the ítwo bronze lions adorning the Municipal Office,ë the ífig trees lining the boulevard de la Marne,' and ía back street redolent of fried fish and urineë (Oran, by the way, comes from a Berber word meaning ítwo lions.ë).
There are palms and pomegranate trees in the garden in front of the Cathedral's porch, and a bronze statue apparently stands nearby. íStill masked by the eastward houses, the sun was warming up Joan of Arc's helmet only, and it made a solitary patch of brightness in the Cathedral square."
The narrator tells us that outsiders trapped in Oran by the plague ífed their despondency with fleeting intimations, messages as disconcerting as a flight of swallows, a dew-fall at sundown, or those queer glints the sun sometimes dapples on empty streets".
Camus's characters are mostly French, and he has little to say about the Arabs, ethnic Africans, or other non-Europeans of Oran. But he does include this lovely glimpse of the íNegro districtë of the town:
"Their way lay through the narrow streets of the Negro district. Evening was coming on, but the town, once so noisy at this hour, was strangely still. The only sounds were some bugle-calls echoing through the air, still golden with the end of daylight; the army, anyhow, was making a show of carrying on as usual. Meanwhile, as they walked down the steep little streets flanked by blue, mauve, and saffron-yellow walls, Rambert talked incessantly, as if his nerves were out of hand."
For most of the novel, Oran is suffused with fear and cut off from the rest of the world. In several places (pp. 77, 109, and 244), Camus captures the sense of a town in suspended animation:
"Only a few ships, detained in quarantine, were anchored in the bay. But the gaunt, idle cranes on the wharves, tip-carts lying on their sides, neglected heaps of sacks and barrels — all testified that commerce, too, had died of plague."
"It was the time when, acting under orders, the café-proprietors deferred as long as possible turning on their lights. Gray dusk was seeping into the room, the pink of sunset glowed in the wall mirrors, and the marble-topped tables glimmered white in the gathering darkness."
"They found nobody on the terrace — only three empty chairs. On one side, as far as eye could reach, was a row of terraces, the most remote of which abutted on a dark, rugged mass that they recognized as the hill nearest the town. On the other side, spanning some streets and the unseen harbor, their gaze came to rest on the horizon, where sea and sky merged in a dim, vibrant grayness. Beyond a black patch that they knew to be the cliffs a sudden glow, whose source they could not see, sprang up at regular intervals; the lighthouse at the entrance of the harbor was still functioning for the benefit of ships that, passing Oran's unused harbor, went on to other ports along the coast. In a sky swept crystal-clear by the night wind, the stars showed like silver flakes, tarnished now and then by the yellow gleam of the revolving light. Perfumes of spice and warm stone were wafted on the breeze. Everything was very still."
Whether we accept Camus as an African writer or no, there are few novelists of Africa who can paint a scene so well.
Published Apr 10, 2009 Copyright 2009 Geoff Wisner