Remembering Paris and Albert Camus

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

Last week, my German translator, Markus Ruckstuhl, introduced me to French expats, Ron Mage, Roger Ferrari, Olivier Motte, and their Filipina wives. We reminisced about Paris, French food and writers, Albert Camus most of all, whose influence is global.

The French anthropologist, Charles Macdonald, and his colleague, Dr. Fabrice Jollant, also visited. Charles studied the Palawan tribe, a community of about three thousand people on Palawan island. Among other things, the tribe had suicidal tendencies. He said goodbye to them.  

I was introduced to France in grade school, its French Revolution, and its writers, Guy de Maupassant, whose story, “The Necklace” was one of the first stories I read, and later, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert and, of course, Voltaire.

I first went to Paris in 1955. With its dark grey buildings, Paris looked bleak, but at night it bloomed with lights. Paris is a planned city with history entwined with its avenues lined with chestnut trees, parks, and museums. When the writer, Andre Malraux, was Cultural Minister, he sandblasted all those buildings, their grime of centuries removed. Returning to Paris, I missed those urinals for men, the buses with rear entrances, and the dog shit on the sidewalks – step on one with the right foot and you have good luck. And the Citroen taxis – they were the world’s most comfortable.

French cuisine is exquisite, the roast duck served by the wife of Jacques Decornoy, Le Monde Diplomatique editor was memorable, I know nothing about French wines, but Genevieve Perrin, my editor at the publishing house, Criterion, is a wine connoisseur says; Krug is the most expensive champagne, and expat Ron Mage supplies me with calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy.

Many Filipinos are weaned on French literature. To me, it is more profound than the literatures of other European countries. French literary criticism is so avant garde, it is almost occult; Derrida, Foucault, even Sartre, defy clarification.

I read Camus’s The Rebel, in the early-1960s. Much of his work is lucid, pithy and a powerful meditation on suicide, the meaning of life, and the melancholy absurdity of life itself.  He was reared in poverty in Algeria which was then a French colony. He played football and contracted tuberculosis in his youth. During the German Occupation, he joined the Resistance and edited an underground paper. He believed in freedom for Algeria, but in the Algerian war, he declared his mother mattered more. Many French intellectuals, like Jean-Paul Sartre, parted ways with him. He produced an august body of work which earned him the Nobel Prize. Eventually, time redeemed him.

I met more French writers in 1960 when I joined the international cultural organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, with its offices at the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, among them, the political philosopher, Raymond Aron, the poet, Pierre Emmanuel, and the bibliographer, Ivan Kats, who became my compadre. He and his wife, Evelina, lived in a house – actually the laundry of the French king – in Versailles. We were walking one afternoon in the woods nearby when he paused. “Listen”. I keened. “Is that a bird chirping? It is the nightingale?” Ivan asked. I told him we had birds in my village which sang sweeter.

The French Revolution influenced our ilustrados. Some scholars think that Rizal and his generation imbibed so much of the anarchist tradition which, to this day, survives in France.

Of the many French writers in the 18th Century, Voltaire influenced the ilustrados who led the propaganda movement.

Voltaire’s definition of liberty as a basic human right is echoed in Rizal’s life and writing. Through the years, we have borne witness to those mass demonstrations in Paris. There is something in Paris, in the electric air perhaps, that fires the mindset of the young. As my Russian translator, Igor Podberezsky, defined it – if you want your youth to be rightists, send them to Moscow. Send them to Paris if you want them to be communist.

I hope that a Filipino scholar will trace that influence to Rizal and his generation, the Luna brothers, and so many other Filipinos lived in France at the time. They were informed by anarchist ideas, the impressionist movement in art. It was no accident that in that posh dinner to celebrate the birthing of the Malolos Republic, the menu was French.

I stayed in Paris for a month in 1976 at this small hotel where I wrote Mass, the fifth and last novel in my Rosales Saga.

I conceptualized that novel on the flight from Hong Kong to Paris. The planned the saga as a quartet, the last being The Pretenders which ends bleakly with a suicide; this was my grim perception of our future in the 1960s. Then, when Marcos declared martial law, so many young Filipinos fought him, some risking and sacrificing their very lives. Such display of patriotism, I thought, must be recorded; Tony Samson, the major character in The Pretenders, who committed suicide has an illegitimate son, Jose Samson. I made him the hero in Mass.

I had little money, and I subsisted on apricots, which were cheap and in season, until my stomach was sour.

Finally published first in Dutch, Mass was a bestseller. As my son, Alex, who is a food biologist told me, the apricot is one of the best brain foods.

The truest and enduring image of a people, a nation is crafted by its artists, particulalry its writers. The shaping of that image is in progress, the creators eventually merging with it, because they are rooted, “engaged” (as the French writers would call it.) Their ideals resonate with that image; liberty belongs not just to France but to humankind; Voltaire and Rizal were in a sense, bonded brothers.

In 2014, I received the French Officier dans l’ordre des Arts et Lettres Award. I value it highly; that inspired me ditto with the compliment from my French translator, the poet, Amina Said, and her husband, the editor, Ghislain Ripault. They said my work reminds them so much of Albert Camus.



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