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The Rebel

I imagine him as an adolescent at the streetcar stops, getting off near the beaches of Algiers, ready to "sock himself a bath" with the rest of the Arab kids, all united by the same light and the same poverty. "Sock oneself a bath," in the French slang of Algeria, is an expression that includes the element of combat in swimming when you go into the sea and let the water smack you around. He learned about the freedom of poverty. Everyone was poor in that dazzling stand of Algiers between orange hulled boats, the adolescent Albert Camus and his Arab friends from whose naked bodies slipped the same wet sun. Happiness still made sense: it began and ended with the skin.

I also imagine him sitting in the terrace of a cafe on the Boulevard of Algiers in that phase of his life when he was a student of philosophy, his eyes following the girls dressed in light weight garments of vivid colors who passed by while he savored his first anise of the day with its hint of cinnamon.

His father, a farm worker from Mondovi, died for France in the battle of Marne. Albert Camus, who was only one year old, was adopted by an uncle who was a cooper by profession, the guardian of his own silence, and a native of Minorca like Camus's mother -- who was illiterate and had also suffered much and said little.

Everything he knew about happiness he learned from the poor people at the sun-drenched beaches. All he knew about life beyond the undergraduate studies made possible by scholarships he had earned, he had acquired by playing professional soccer.

But in the middle of his struggle toward adulthood, he was stunned by the discovery of a spot in his lung which was like that dark abyss behind every white light. Absurdity was precisely this treason of the body before the spirit, a fissure in the spirit in opposition to the harmony of nature.

When I was 18 years old a bookseller in Valencia clandestinely offered me under the counter a red-covered copy of Camus's book Summer, which had been printed in Argentina. It came wrapped in brown paper and I read it in a hammock surrounded by the sound of cicadas and the odor of pine needles, sweltering in the summer heat. In its pages I discovered that the Mediterranean wasn't a sea, but rather a spiritual impulse that was almost physical, just as I had always believed without actually putting the idea into words: it emphasized pleasure in the face of an ultimately tragic destiny, morality without guilt, and innocence without gods.

Sometime later I saw a photo of the writer in a trenchcoat, cigarette between his fingers, the ironic expression and half smile hanging from the corner of his mouth -- it was an image from the times in which Camus reigned in the Cafe Flore in Paris, adored by women, still extolled for his struggle in the resistance against the Nazis where he had been editor in chief of the underground newspaper Combat. And now he was a friend of Sartre, embodying all the intellectual glamour of the left bank where existentialism was a style that was sung by Juliette Greco with that voice scorched by Calvados.


The first thing I did was to buy myself a black shirt and a white trenchcoat. I abandoned Lucky Strikes for unfiltered Gitanes. As soon as I had finished The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, I headed to Malvarrosa Beach, similar to the beaches of Algiers, and in the seaside resort of Los Arenas attempted to put into practice solar absurdity. I climbed to the highest diving board of the swimming pool like someone conveying his own body to the summit and from there I threw myself into the water without realizing that this act was a penance which obliges one to climb up to the summit within oneself again and again. From that lofty height, with the glare from the sand blinding my eyes, I understood that one could stab someone to death driven by the resplendence of the knife -- a conclusion without purpose, as if the absurd were a form of philosophical beauty.

Around that time to practice French I had translated a speech criticizing Franco that Camus gave when Spain was admitted to UNESCO. I kept a copy on onion paper which I took to Madrid with me between pages of Camus's novel The Plague. The owner of the boarding house where I was staying turned out to be a smuggler. One day when I returned from the cafe Gijón, I found all the things in my suitcase spread over the bed right next to contraband of gold rings, watches, bracelets and other trinkets with two policemen who were passing to one another the written translation of the Camus speech they had found among my papers.

"It's only a translation exercise," I told them.

"Tell that to the police commissioner," responded one of them.

They took me off to the precinct along with the owner of the boarding house. After a barrage of insults I was set free but this adventure made me feel an emotional connection with Camus to whom from that moment on I felt an absolute loyalty. I knew with whom I must side when there was an abrupt rupture between Sartre and Camus which was not only ideological but which ended their friendship as well and which took place before the world of thought and letters because of different perceptions of the idea of commitment. Camus had the courage to denounce the concentration camps of the Soviet Union and in the middle of a ferocious dispute the admirers of Sartre had surrounded Camus with a cordon sanitaire from which even a Nobel Prize couldn't save him. Only his death in a car accident on January 4, 1960, put him back into the pages of the newspapers. But afterwards, his work again fell into oblivion. Later it was the new philosophers and the neoliberal wood pigeons who moved from Marxism to the far right and tried to interpret that act of the rebel as the foundation of their own ideology. However, Camus was neither an ideologue nor a moralist, but rather a profoundly moral writer who managed to comprehend in due course that commitment should be not with those who make history but with those who suffer it, one-on-one, in a personal way, wherever they are encountered.

At first, it was an aesthetic attraction to his way of existing in this world that attracted me to this writer. But there came a moment amidst the shipwreck of all ideas that I chose him as a good guide in the face of my own doubts and against all kinds of misfortune.

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