Le premier homme
I'd read other novels by Camus and enjoyed them, so when I saw that book peering at me from the dining room book shelf in the hotel on Lac Rose, I was reassured that it would make guaranteed quality reading, but for the simple fact it was such an unmissable trove, it would leave me dissatisfied in my desire to discover a new author.
Besides, the back cover review presented the novel as an unfinished work by the author, who died before reviewing the manuscript and well before giving it to print. The writing had been so rushed that there was practically no punctuation, which had to be added to make the contents intelligible.
For all this, I decided to read the novel and was delighted with the choice. I loved the atmosphere of colonial Algiers at the time French rule had not started yet to be questioned by the onslaught of the independence movements, although a climate of tension was beginning to weigh heavy in parts of the countryside, as well as the cities. The family members and friends who revolve around the central Camus child protagonist are so proficiently painted that you learn about typical traits of their character and know what reactions to expect from each at given situations. The winking hints the author drops here and there are so amusing and subtly ironic that I sometimes liked to read them over again.
The critics have it that the subject, which is largely autobiographical, would have been made less personal, if Camus had lived to release the final version of the book. I must say I was very glad the account was not only so true-to-life, but also deeply heart-felt and tremendously personal, with even actual names still sticking to family characters in the unrevised copy.
Then I came to the chapter when the author traces the family's history and talks about his father going out to the overseas colony as a settler, leaving his past behind and acting as the "first man" (hence the title of the book). The author also felt like a "first man" insomuch as he never met his settler father, who had perished during the war before Camus had been born. This father-son figure is described as someone who "cheminant dans la nuit des années sur la terre de l'oubli où chacun était le premier homme, où lui-même avait dû s'élever seul, sans père, n'ayant jamais connu ces moments où le père appelle le fils dont il a attendu qu'il ait l'âge d'écouter, pour lui dire le secret de la famille, ou une ancienne peine, ou l'expérience de sa vie […] et lui qui avait voulu échapper au pays sans nom, à la foule et à une famille sans nom, mais en qui quelqu'un obstinément n'avait cessé de réclamer l'obscurité et l'anonymat, il faisait partier aussi de la tribu […]"
When I read this passage I dropped my book with an eerie feeling, struck by a flash of revelation. It is obviously just a coincidence, but the previous night I had somehow remembered a very poignant moment, when my father had talked to me in a rare, if not once-in-a-lifetime spell of confidence.
Out of the blue, he had painfully recollected that a very long time before he was driving on a country road at night and knocked down a cyclist who was killed; my father was acquitted in court because of the thick fog that stopped visibility and because the man's bicycle didn't have lamps, but the burden of conscience must have tormented him for so many years until that very night when, awakened by an association of ideas, the memory burst forth into an inpromptu confession.
In the presence of my girlfriend D., I was more concerned by the emotional state my father was about to disgrace himself in, than realising how much this confession had cost him to give. I had always neglected going back to this episode, but now this book was giving me the occasion to return to it, one day after I had fortuitously recalled it to my mind.
I think I could hear my father's broken voice again and see the tears that wetted his eyes (he, that I regarded as a heartless and insensitive person), and felt all the grief that he was forced to be bearing at the simple recounting of that tragic event. I'm sorry I felt so many times like the "first man" with no father, when my father had tried at least once to let me into his secret. Camus was telling me how important these words had been, and how silly I had been to make nothing of them. From my English blog