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Matriculation Number 17.032
On September 22, 1913, on the Saint-Paul Farm outside the town of Mondovi
in Algeria, Lucien Auguste Camus wrote to his employer, "The grape
harvest at Saint-Paul ended this morning at 10 a.m." Mondovi is 420
kilometers east of Algiers, and Lucien Camus worked there for the Ricome
wine company as a cellarman. He lived on the farm in a low-built house with
a clay floor, two rooms and a kitchen next to the wine cellars.
In the production of wine, vineyard owners reigned at the top of the
economic ladder. Then came the estate managers; the directors of grape
growing, who supervised the vines; and the cellarmen, who worked with the
grapes after harvest. White laborers were used for disbudding, pruning, and
wine pressing. "Native" workers lived around the farms in tents that clung
to hovels made of wooden planks. Day workers might be local tribesmen and
prison laborers, who returned to jail after each day's work. Europeans and
Arabs worked side by side, but they had little social contact, except at the
bordello in nearby Bone, the hometown of Saint Augustine.
Once Lucien Camus recommended an Arab worker who wanted to
change jobs: in his letter of reference for this laborer, named Rabad Oustani,
who had refused to sabotage wine production despite orders from a French
supervisor, Lucien wrote, "Although he is a native, he has much more
know-how than the ignoble individual who urged him to sabotage the
filtering of the wine during the night. Because he refused to do it, he had to
quit his job."
Born in 1885 at Ouled-Fayet, outside Algiers, Lucien Camus was a
descendant of the first generation of Frenchmen to settle in Algeria. He was
not a rich colonist, but a simple salaried foreman. In his professional notes,
the cellarman would sometimes include a literary touch--for instance, during
the very hot summer of 1913 he wrote, "The birds are silenced ... by the
heat, and the wine tastes like a heated pond."
The vineyard employee Lucien Auguste Camus, twenty-eight years
old, had blue eyes, brown hair, and a mustache. He measured five feet six
inches, which was then above average height. He had served with the
Zouave regiment in Morocco as a second-class soldier in 1907 and 1908. His
military papers described him as a "coach driver."
Orphaned at the age of one, he had been placed by his siblings in an
orphanage. One of his grandfathers had come from the Bordeaux region, and
a great-grandfather was from the Ardeche in France. The Camuses had a
family legend that they were from Alsace, no doubt because in Algeria, a
political refugee from Alsace had more prestige than a poor immigrant from
On November 13, 1910, Lucien Auguste had married Catherine Helene
Sintes, who was three years older than he, and three months later their first
son, Lucien Jean Etienne, was born. In autumn 1913, Catherine Helene and
her small son traveled for eighteen hours by train from Algiers en route to
Bone. After the long train ride, on wooden seats, the pregnant woman and
her son were packed into a wagon that carted trunks and furniture to
Shortly after his family arrived, Lucien Camus wrote to a colleague at
the Ricome company, "Things aren't going well at home, the little boy and
his mother have fevers, bad luck, but they're a little better the last two days."
Malaria, a constant threat, was borne by the wind blown over from nearby
putrid swamps and the stagnant Lake Fetzara. Only fifty years before, an
epidemic of cholera and plague had killed half the colonists.
Lucien also had difficulties with his workers. He was "twice physically
threatened by a native driver." And he was bothered by Europeans who
lived in Bone, writing in a letter on June 24, 1914: "It's true that all these
people from Bone seem as sweet as lambs, but deep down they're deceitful
and treacherous as foxes." When business obliged him to drive his cart to
Mondovi, small boys would hang on to the vehicle just for a lark, and rather
than using his whip to get rid of them--other drivers would have--Lucien
simply cried "Emchi!"--Go away!
On November 8, 1913, Lucien Camus appeared at the mayor's office in
Mondovi to register the birth of his second son, born the day before. The
baby was given only one Christian name, Albert. The two witnesses to the
newly registered infant were Jean Piro, a merchant, and Salvatore Frendo, a
delivery man for a local grocer.
Mondovi had been designed by military engineers, who organized the
sharply rectangular city into twenty neighborhoods of twelve houses each.
The city offered hunting clubs, which Lucien Camus would have enjoyed if
he had had the time; he'd proved himself a good shot in military service.
Silent films were shown at Mondovi, but the Camuses did not use the farm
car to go into town for amusements.
Lucien Camus earned ten to twenty francs a day, not much more than a
common laborer. He complained to his supervisor at Ricome wines, M.
Classiault, that the manager of the Saint-Paul Farm "didn't hide his
displeasure that Ricome is only buying 131 barrels." When Classiault reacted
by chewing out the disgruntled manager, Camus, aware that employees had
guns and would use them if provoked, warned his boss, "I beg you not to
make a big deal about it, and not to threaten him, because this fellow is
capable of anything."
Around Algeria, there were debates over France's role in the country's
future, and what rights the Arabs should have. A month after Albert's birth,
the daily L'Echo d'Alger published a series of articles by a professor of law,
Emile Chauvin. He declared that France's purpose in Algeria was "to
substitute civilization and reason for barbarity and fanaticism, and to aim for
the assimilation, the unification of the races," in order to make them as
French as possible. Frenchmen like Chauvin believed that in the very distant
future, natives might be transformed into citizens of the French Republic. For
the time being, declared Chauvin, France "intends to energetically maintain
the principle of French supremacy, by not allowing native, non-French
advisers to participate in mayoral elections.... We cannot accept the idea of
giving French citizenship and thereby political rights to men who persist in
thinking and acting outside of all our legal and moral strictures."
Lucien Camus was much too occupied as cellarman to get involved in
such debates. He noted to his employer in the winter of 1913, "I sent out
1,553 full barrels, but got back only 1,543 empty barrels.... Something
suspicious may happen before the season's work is over.... I have to stand
guard during the day and part of the night."
The new year began badly. On January 4, 1914, he noted, "I plan to
move, when the weather is good ... we've had torrential rains here for
several days.... You can't even wash the barrels, there is so much mud all
That spring Lucien received a draft notice from the French army, but
his employer tried to intervene to have his military service postponed until
the quiet season in winemaking. Catherine and their two sons, three-year-old
Lucien and eight-month-old Albert, were threatened by malaria. On July 14,
the cellarman wrote to Classiault, "I plan to move my family to Algiers at the
end of the month, for health reasons."
Finally called up to the First Zouave Regiment, Lucien was just in time
for Germany's declaration of war on France on August 3. Wearing the
Zouave uniform--a fez, billowing red pants, and a blue vest--the dashing
Lucien had the matriculation number 17.032.
His regiment was sent overseas in a crowded ship, the Lamarsa. The
soldiers lived on a diet of beans and beef, and after a few hours at sea the
ship stank of vomit. They landed at the southern French city of Sete. From
there, the troops traveled in boxcars to Narbonne, got off at
Massy-Palaiseau, crossed Paris, and then looked for the German foe.
The Zouaves' red-and-blue uniforms made them an easy target for
German Maxim machine guns, and Lucien Camus was among the first French
soldiers wounded in the bloody Battle of the Marne. From the town of
Montreuil-sous-Bois, Lucien sent his wife, who had returned to Algiers on
August 30, a postcard that showed a municipal fountain in the city of
Noisyle-Sec. The message read, "A big kiss for you and the children and
hello to my friends. Send me your news, my health and news are all fine, no
A few days later he sent another card from Saint-Brieuc in Brittany,
showing a school that had been transformed into a makeshift army hospital.
One window was marked with an X, with the message, "My dear Helene, I'm
sending you a picture of the hospital where I'm being treated, just above the
X. Kiss the children for me, Your husband."
Lucien did not write this card himself, and he died of his wounds on
October 11, 1914. Of the 1,357,000 Frenchmen killed in the First World War,
Algeria contributed 25,000 Frenchmen and 22,000 Arabs who had served in
the French army. Of these, fifty casualties came from Mondovi, including
Lucien Camus's body was never sent home to Algeria. Instead, the
French bureaucratic system sent his widow the dead soldier's military
passbook, marked as having served in "the German campaign from August
28 to October 11, 1914."
Lucien had spent a tenth of his short life in the army. As the first man
in the life of his son, he would be the one Albert knew least. He left behind a
few documents and sepia photographs, his posthumous war medal, and
some shrapnel from the shell that killed him. They were sent to his widow by
the staff of the Saint-Brieuc hospital where he died.
Albert and his father, Lucien, had lived together for only eight months.
"Mosquito, You've Been Accepted."
On May 7, 1921, Catherine Helene Sintes-Camus was informed by the French
Pension Ministry that as a war widow, she was entitled to eight hundred
francs per year, plus three hundred francs for each of her children until they
reached the age of eighteen. At the time, a cleaning woman earned one
thousand francs a year.
As war orphans, Lucien and Albert were entitled to free medical
treatment. During the war, their mother had worked in a factory, stacking
cartridges in boxes. The workers earned up to five francs per day, but now
the widow Camus worked as a cleaning woman in private homes and
businesses, such as the butcher shop on the rue de Lyon in Algiers. She
lived in her mother's apartment with her brothers, Etienne and Joseph, and
her two sons.
The children, Lucien and Albert, felt that their grandmother talked too
much, and their mother not enough. Camus's mother came from a family of
Spanish origin, from Minorca. Dark, small, and partly deaf, she could neither
read nor write. Although she was able to read lips, some people thought her
mute, or mentally retarded. Others thought that she was suffering from badly
treated meningitis. Albert believed that his mother began to have hearing
and speech problems after a bout of typhoid fever or typhus. Still others
thought she had had a cerebral attack upon hearing about her husband's
death. She would slide over certain words, hissing instead of pronouncing
sounds like s or z, and say "coucou" when she meant to say "couscous."
She would use her hands to express herself, joining them to imply that a man
and woman were having a love affair.
Present and yet distant, this terrified woman would not intervene with
the children in the way Camus's grandmother did. Nor would she complain
when an aunt snubbed her. Catherine Helene, known in the family by her
second name, would neither laugh nor cry in front of her family, maintaining
a steady smile on her face. When Lucien and Albert quarreled, she
would only say, "I doan like arguments, I doan like fights."
She had red, rheumatic hands and wore black or gray blouses all year
long. She would lean on her elbow on the windowsill, watching the street
through the potted geraniums. In spring and summer, she took a chair out to
the sidewalk and listened to the neighbors' gossip.
Later, the family moved further down the rue de Lyon, from number 17
to number 93, in the heart of Belcourt, a working-class quarter in east
Algiers, on the border of the Arab quarter, Marabout. On the ground floor of
the house were a barber, a wine seller, and a milliner. Behind the building was
an orange tree and a rickety shack where the barber lived, along with the
Arab family of a street sweeper, whose son, Omar, played with Albert.
The Sintes-Camus home was a three-room apartment with a long
corridor. The name of the grandmother, Madame Sintes, was on the lease.
She occupied one room. The main room, whitewashed, had a table, a desk, a
sideboard, and a mattress on the floor, hidden by a covering. Albert and
Lucien's uncle Etienne, who was partially mute, slept there. Helene and her
two sons shared the third room, which was crowded with a mirrored
wardrobe, two iron bedframes--a single for the mother, a double for the
boys--and a night table between them. A net covering was draped over a
fiber trunk. Etienne's brother, Joseph, also lived in the apartment until 1920,
and at one point a woman cousin named Minette slept in the hallway for
On the landings the Turkish toilets--a hole with a drain--stank.
There was no electricity or running water, and jugs of water had to be
fetched from street faucets. Everyone washed in the kitchen sink and once a
week took a shower in a zinc tub. Above a table in the main room was an oil
Grandmother kept her coins in a cookie box, as no one in the family
had a bank account. On New Year's Day 1921, Grandmother explained to
Albert that now that he was "grown up," he would be getting practical gifts
from now on. Grandmother and Mother would get up early to do the
marketing, stopping to gossip with the delicatessen owner, as the trolley's
early morning runs along the rue de Lyon made the house shake.
Catherine Helene prepared dishes like jugged hare, and snails with oil.
She would wait patiently, while the snails disgorged, simmering her sauce of
lard, onions, tomatoes, and pepper. One of the children took the prepared
dishes over to the butcher's to get them baked.
Grocery stores sold tomatoes, figs, melons ripened in the sun, and fat,
juicy Algerian apricots, while fishmongers offered sea bream and mullet. On
Thursdays and Sundays, Helene would prepare desserts, flavoring pastries
with lemon and orange blossom, while the boys hovered around the kitchen.
Their grandmother would yell at them, but never sent them outside, because
she didn't want them "hanging around."
The mother's life was one of silence and work. She never remarried,
although in 1930 she did have one suitor, Antoine, a Maltese fishmonger, a
handsome, mustached man who wore a bowler hat. She put on makeup and a
bright smock, but Etienne made a scene--the typical North African
European protecting his sister. When Helene cut her hair, her mother called
her a whore. She wasn't given a chance to remarry.
Etienne used to hang out at a cafe near the house, where he would
drink anisette, a drink that according to a local saying "rolled off the tongue
like the piss of Baby Jesus." As Etienne gossiped and played cards, his
nephew Albert learned the rules of the French card game belote. In Belcourt,
on the left bank, lived the humble French people of Algiers. They were
joyous, generous, vain, quarrelsome, quickly excited and as quickly
discouraged. The lower-level French laborers of Belcourt often despised
their Arab neighbors, but at the same time they felt inferior to the ruling
class of French civil servants, who could afford to take vacations back in
In Belcourt, the lower-class French rubbed elbows with Arabs and
believed they understood them, speaking in condescending generalities of
"Ahmed" or "Fatma" instead of using their full Arab names. With Arabs they
shared the spit-roasted lamb mechoui during picnics on the beach, but they
would never think of receiving Arabs in their homes. Both lower-class Arabs
and whites had a hatred for the police, even during a baroufa, the typical
street brawl. The poor also feared unemployment. Arabs, Jews, Neapolitans,
Spanish, Corsicans, and people from Marseilles were all accused of stealing
jobs. Xenophobia flourished, with a kind of solidarity between Arabs and the
poor. On the rue de Lyon, French, Arab, Italian, and Spanish accents could
Afternoon was nap time, and Albert hated having to lie next to his
grandmother, with her rancid old-lady smell. Over her bed, Grandmother had
hung her own portrait. With her hair in a tight bun, a chain around her neck,
and clear, piercing eyes, the old lady was starchy.
Her daughter and sons accepted Madame Sintes's authority, and
when Grandmother whipped the boys, Catherine Helene would just stand
by, begging her not to hit them too hard. Lucien, the elder and thus the first
to be held responsible for mischief, took more beatings than his brother.
Grandmother was especially fond of Albert. With some talent for histrionics,
she would hide in her room, complaining of stomach aches, or ask the boys
in front of guests if they preferred Mother or Grandmother. And she
complained that her daughter didn't take care of her, and that her son Joseph
had gone far away.
Uncle Etienne would take Albert to the Sablettes beach, where they
played with the family dog, Brilliant. Etienne had a quick temper, and he no
longer spoke with Joseph, who called him "a rude beast." On Thursdays, Albert
helped Uncle Etienne in his work as a barrel maker. A careful
craftsman, Etienne was obliged to work a sixty-hour week. Once he
deliberately cut the palm of his hand and got sick leave.
Uncle Joseph had a better job, working for the railroad, and was
married to a piano teacher. As a railway employee, Joseph could travel
around the countryside free, buying chickens and rabbits from farmers and
reselling them, or giving some to his mother to raise in her courtyard.
Madame Sintes decided that Albert had become a man on the day he helped
her kill one of their chickens. Etienne agreed that the boy "had courage,"
compared with big brother Lucien, who had refused to kill the fowl. But
Madame Sintes was usually strict: when Albert hurt a finger by getting it
pinched in a seat at school and the blood was flowing freely, his
grandmother gave him a whipping for disturbing the household.
The family's favorite entertainment was going to the Musset cinema,
next door, or the Alcazar, nearby on the rue de l'Union. Albert was
embarrassed to have to read aloud the silent film titles for his illiterate mother
and grandmother. To cover up, his grandmother would say loudly, "I've left
my eyeglasses at home, so you'll have to read them to me."
Although Lucien was a friendly and sociable boy, he was a less gifted
student than Albert, but was more talented at soccer. Lucien would look
after Albert, sharing boxes of coconut candy with him. At the age of
fourteen, Lucien was hired as a messenger at the Ricome wine company,
with a starting salary of eighty francs per month.
In 1923, Albert was going to the boys' primary school on the rue
Aumerat, a ten-minute walk from the rue de Lyon apartment. Few students
played truant or arrived late, and they waited for permission to sit down. It
was a typical French school of the Third Republic. In winter, fires were lit in
cast-iron stoves. Each wooden desk had an inkwell containing a purple ink,
into which the children dipped their Sergent-Major pen nibs. Blackboards,
cluttered with white, pink, and blue pieces of chalk, were side by side on the
wall with Vidal de La Blache's geographical maps, representing France and
its Algerian colony in the same color. The standard world atlas, Schroeder
and Galouedec's, colored the entire French empire a uniform light purple. On
the classroom walls there were also photographs of the cathedrals of
Strasbourg and Notre-Dame de Paris and the Mont-Blanc--parts of a
country that to the Algerians of Belcourt seemed like a paradise with its
chateaux, kings, and revolutionaries.
Classes in history, geography, and civics hammered into the students
the idea of France as a maternal power. In 1923, the second-year courses
were run by an established instructor, Louis Germain. Tall and stiff, with
precise pronunciation, Germain played the clarinet as an amateur, but he
followed the musical score so strictly that some listeners said, "All Germain knows
is the metronome markings." The teacher used to slap unruly students and
spank their bottoms with what he called his "barley sugar," a fat ruler made
of red wood. Unyielding about spelling, punctuation, arithmetic, and
composition, Germain would organize contests of mental arithmetic and give
twice-monthly slide shows about geography and natural history to his rapt
students. A relative free-thinker, he would tell his students that some people
practiced no religion at all. As a social progressive, Louis Germain was aware
of the Socialist leader Jules Ferry's famous "Letter to Teachers," in which he
said that teachers "replace fathers of families." At the end of the trimester,
his voice subdued, Germain read aloud in class a novel about trench warfare
by Roland Dorgeles, Les Croix de bois, which described bayonet attacks, the
wounded, and war's horror. He later told Albert, "I've always considered
your poor father as a personal friend," although the men had never met.
At Belcourt, a few young Arabs were admitted into primary school,
and in Germain's second-year class, out of thirty-three students, only three
were Arabs. Germain wanted Albert to continue his studies into high school,
seeing that his student was happy in class, but did not realize how poor he
was. He would tell Albert later, "Your pleasure at being in class was always
apparent, and your face was so optimistic that looking at it, I never guessed
your family's real situation. I only had a clue when your mother came to see
me about entering your name on the list of scholarship candidates."
Grandmother was against scholarships for Albert, feeling that he
should work for his living the way Lucien did. But with Catherine Helene's
encouragement, Germain explained about the boy's skill in reading, writing,
and the spoken word, and that the scholarship would pay for a high-school
diploma, after which Albert could get a better job.
Albert was a good student, especially in French. Starting in January
1924, Germain, who had lots of free time because he had separated from his
wife, gave two free hours of supplementary lessons every day for four
students, including Albert, who had ranked first in his class the month
before. Once he was a scholarship candidate, Albert was treated with more
respect at the apartment on the rue de Lyon. Germain also spoke to Albert on
his grandmother's behalf, saying that her bark was worse than her bite.
In school, the boy discovered the world of words, as there were no
books at home. On Thursdays and Sundays, when there was no school,
Albert would walk by his friend Pierre Fassina's house and the boys would
go tree climbing in Essai Park. Young Camus had the reputation of being a
brawler: when one schoolmate took him to be Alsatian and called him a
boche, an insulting French term for a German, Albert insisted on having a
fistfight with the boy and gave him a black eye. Pierre and Albert would roam
through the streets, wearing espadrilles with holes in them, cotton pants,
and sweaters. In the spring the friends, along with brother Lucien,
would attend soccer matches, often preceded by a parade with a marching
The working people of Belcourt admired priests less than they did
teachers. Albert had been baptized, and was confirmed at the Church of
Saint Bonaventura in Algiers, but no one in his family was a churchgoer.
There was never any talk of hell, paradise, or purgatory, and when
somebody died, Grandmother would say, "Well, he's farted his last...."
Religious observance was limited in Belcourt, but still, most burials
were under the auspices of the church. The Algerian parish priests rattled off
the catechism, inspiring guilt in their young students. The priests stressed
the subject of impurity, that masturbation would cause deafness and
sometimes blindness or insanity, too. From the Belcourt point of view, the
Catholic Church seemed definitely on the side of the rich.
Madame Sintes did insist, however, that Albert have his first
communion before entering high school. When Albert talked during
catechism class, he was slapped by the priest, which he remembered far
longer than the lesson of the day. After the communion ceremony, wearing a
sailor suit and armband, Albert went back to school. Louis Germain later
commented, "I remember your coming to class with your communion friends.
You were so visibly happy and proud of the costume you were wearing and
the special day you were observing that I was sincerely happy at your joy,
feeling that if you made your communion, it was because you wanted to...."
The anticlerical leftists in Algiers, who had gained power in 1924,
plastered posters around showing Joan of Arc at the stake, being burned by
cardinals and monks. The poor folk of Belcourt were not generally
observant, and they were suspicious of priests. The Catholics of Spanish
origin would celebrate Mardi Gras by burning a priest in effigy. When they
passed a priest in the street, people would murmur "Tocaferro"--Touch
iron. It was believed that church people brought bad luck. Camus was
brought up on the outskirts of a superficial Catholicism. The priests in
Algeria spoke of heaven, but on earth they tended to pit their parishioners
against one another. To a Spanish congregation in Bab el-Oued,
Spanish-language sermons denounced the French in Algeria, claiming that
they did not attend mass, nor did they produce enough children. But the
young people in Algeria were more concerned with the earth, the sand, the
sun, and the sea.