I read The Plague for Algeria. It’s not the most definitive book about the country, but I had not read it despite its having been on my shelf for years.
(If you are looking for some books about the political and cultural history of Algeria, here’s a great list.)
Albert Camus set an examination of philosophy and human existence in a fictional plague in the real town of Oran, Algeria, which he describes as an ordinary, habitual place until the outbreak of bubonic plague forces everyone to come to grips with what it means to work together knowing that death is inevitable. Different characters deal with the crisis in different ways; the story is obviously a parable, but it isn’t nearly as heavy-handed as some I’ve read.
A book like this isn’t a substitute for a real history, but it does give some context about life in a place. Here’s what struck me: in the mid-1940s, when Camus wrote this, about 15 percent of the population was European. Reading the story, though, you’d think it was closer to 100 percent. The funerals are all Catholic, the people are all French or Spanish, and many conversations are about European soccer teams or how many flowers bloom on the Bois de Boulogne.
That’s an indication of lingering colonial resentments. Modern Algeria is independent of France. The official language is Arabic, although many people speak French. And, in the current era, the country’s leaders try to navigate between democracy and Islamic rule in a time of high unemployment. After being invisible for so long, the people are trying to figure out what it means to be a native Algerian.
Next up: Tunisia.