One day in the 1960s, during an uprising, the French government announced that French settler-descendants in Algeria would be evacuated. De Gaulle had previously promised to keep Algeria French. The pieds-noirs saw the decision as a betrayal; they were being forced to leave their homeland. Albert Camus tells the remarkable story of one ageing man, a winemaker, who had worked the land all his life, and was a born and bred French Algerian. He responded calmly and methodically to the crisis. But his calm is a chilling one, laden with silent rage at injustice, and the scene is intensified still more by Camus’ clipped prose. (There are shades of Wyatt’s torch from the very roughly contemporaneous Atlas Shrugged, here, too.)
In another twist, the novel wherein Camus relates the tale, Le Premier Homme, is lucky to exist at all. The manuscript for the book was pulled from the burning wreckage of Camus’ car, which had swerved on ice and hit a tree, killing both the Nobel laureate writer and his publisher, Gallimard, on 4 January 1960. The work was only published – complete with unfinished text and marginal notes – in 1994. Much of the sentiment of the time about the events, as expressed in it, is therefore still raw.
As so often with Camus, however, it is set out in plain language, concise, clear, direct. So here it is: the story of the vintner’s reaction to De Gaulle’s Algerian exit. I include first the translation (by Hapgood, for Penguin) and then the original text, from the manuscript.
When the order to evacuate came, he said nothing. His grape harvest was over, his wine was in the vats. He opened the vats, and he went to a spring of brackish water that he’d diverted long ago, and he turned it back to run into his fields, and he equipped a tractor with a trench plough. For three days, at the wheel, bareheaded, saying not a word, he uprooted the vines all over his property. Think of it, that skinny old man bouncing around on his tractor, pushing the accelerator lever when the plough wasn’t getting a vine that was bigger than the others, not stopping even to eat, my mother bringing him bread, cheese, and sobrasada, which he ate calmly, the way he had done everything, throwing away the last chunk of bread and accelerating some more, all this from sunrise to sunset, without even looking at the mountains on the horizon, nor at the Arabs who’d soon found out and were watching him from a distance – they weren’t saying anything either.
And when a young captain, informed by who knows who, arrived and demanded an explanation, he said to him, “Young man, since what we made here is a crime, it has to be wiped out.”
When it was all finished, he headed towards the farmhouse, crossed the yard that was soaked with wine pouring out of the vats, and began to pack his bags. The Arab workers were waiting for him in the yard. (There was also a patrol the captain had sent, no one knew just why, with a nice lieutenant who was waiting for orders.)
“Boss, what are we going to do?”
“If I were in your shoes,” the old man said, “I’d go and join the guerillas. They’re going to win. There’re no men left in France.”
– from p. 140-1 of Albert Camus’ The First Man, translation published by Penguin, 1994.
Quand l’ordre d’evacuation est arrive, il n’a rien dit. Ses vendanges etaient terminees, et le vien en cuve. Il a ouvert des cuves, puis il est alle vers une source d’eau saumatre qu’il avait lui-meme detournee dans le temps et l’a remise dans le droit chemin sur ses terres, et il a equipe un tracteur en defonceuse. Pendant trois jours, au volant, tete nue, sans rien dire, il a arrache les vignes sur toute l’etendue de la propriete. Imaginez cela, le vieux tout sec tressautant sur son tracteur, poussant le levier d’acceleration quand le soc ne venait pas a bout d’un cep plus gros que d’autres, ne s’arretant meme pas pour manger, ma mere lui apportait pain, fromage et soubressade qu’il avalait posement, comme il avait fait toute chose, jetant le dernier quignon pour accelerer encore, tout cela du lever au coucher du soleil, et sans un regard pour les montagnes a l’horizon, ni pour les Arabes vite prevenus et qui se tenaient a distance le regardant faire, sans rien dire eux non plus.
Et quand un jeune capitaine, prevenu par on ne sait qui, est arrive et a demande des explications, l’autre lui a dit: “Jeune homme, puisque ce que nous avons fait ici est un crime, il faut l’effacer.“
Quand tout a ete fini, il est revenu vers la ferme et a traverse la cour trempee du vin qui avait fui des cuves, et il a commence ses bagages. Les ouvriers arabes l’attendaient dans la cour. (Il y avait aussi une patrouille que le capitaine avait envoyee, on ne savait trop pourquoi, avec un gentil lieutenant qui attendait des ordres.)
“Patron, qu’est-ce qu’on va faire?“
“Si j’etais a votre place, a dit le vieux, j’irais au maquis. Ils vont gagner. Il n’y a plus d’hommes en France.”
– from p. 198-9 of Albert Camus’ Le Premier Homme, published by Gallimard/Folio, 1994, Paris.