Spain and Its Culture in the Life and Work of Emmanuel Roblès (1923-1995)

Rafael Bustos

Professor of International Relations, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

This article reviews the relations of Emmanuel Roblès, an Algerian-French writer of Spanish origin, with Spain and its culture. Roblès, a highly renowned writer and playwright in France with a seat in the Académie Goncourt and numerous awards, is currently all but forgotten in Algeria and practically ignored in Spain, despite the interest he always had in our country and its culture and the works that link the Algeria of the last century with the history and literature of Spain. Roblès cultivated several genres and was a very socially and politically active writer. He made several trips that were fundamental to his work and his vision of the world. 

Emmanuel Roblès was also known as Manuel, as Camus called him, or Emmanuel Chènes (“oaks”, in French), his pen name in Alger Républicain and other newspapers. He was an Algerian and French writer of Spanish origin who lived during most of the last century (Oran, 1914-Boulogne, 1995), through the Second World War, the War of Independence and the decolonisation of Algeria, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated in 2012. He forms part of the so-called School of Algiers, along with Camus, Mulud Feraun, Mulud Mammeri, Kateb Yasin and Mohamed Dib. He founded the Mediterranée collection, which made many French-speaking Algerian writers known, in the prestigious publishing house Éditions du Seuil, which would release most of his work. In 1962 he went to France, where he lived until his death in 1995 but never stopped feeling that his homeland was Algeria and always maintained a brave and honest stance towards the drama of the anticolonial war. He received numerous awards for his novels and plays and was appointed a member of the Académie Goncourt (1973), although today he is almost forgotten in Algeria.

The purpose of this article is not to recall Roblès’ role in the War of Independence, naturally worthy of attention, but rather his relations with Spanish culture that were not well known to the Spanish and Hispanophile public, to which he felt very close. I think that these relations are much more interesting for any Algerian interested in the cultural history of his country and in the links with Spain, as they show how far a writer is both a creator and a vehicle between cultures, in this case a vehicle and bridge between Spanish and Algerian culture. 

The first time I heard about Emmanuel Roblès was in a conversation with a friend from Oran, with a degree in language and literature, or what in Spain we would call French philology. I was quite surprised to hear this surname of an Algerian writer, but less so coming from a person with that training. Moreover, it so happened that Roblès and my friend were both from the region of Oran whose connections with Spain have been close throughout history. I never heard about Roblès again but my curiosity about him never completely went away. 

So Roblès and Camus were from the same generation (Roblès was born in 1914 and Camus in 1913) and they maintained a close friendship. Roblès was, like Albert Camus, the son of a modest family, the former the son of a builder and the latter of a labourer. Their mothers were both Spanish, Roblès’ was from Granada and Camus’, Catalina, from Menorca, although she was born in Algiers. As women had very little education, both were almost illiterate. The former spoke Spanish, while the latter communicated in Majorcan, a Catalan dialect. Therefore, when Roblès met Camus’ mother and he spoke to her in Spanish, Albert asked him to speak to her in French, as she found it difficult to express herself in Spanish. This also explains why Roblès spoke Spanish perfectly, while Camus always wished to learn it without really managing to do so.  Moreover, Roblès enrolled in the Faculty of Arts to obtain a degree in Spanish. 

Both Camus and Roblès became orphans at birth. Camus’s father died in the First World War when he was one and Roblès’ died in a typhus epidemic, months before his birth. A similar epidemic to that which, a little later, would cause his wife’s illness and that through the correspondence and visits between the two friends inspired the famous Nobel Prize-winning novel, The Plague

Both young men met in Algiers in the 1930s, moved by similar literary interests, as well as their common origins, from poor families and with Spanish mothers. In this period, Roblès and Camus talked passionately about theatre and writing but also about the Spanish Civil War, which fervently angered and worried them both. They admired and praised the Spanish Republic and were astonished at a cruel war that ended the aspirations of Republican progress. It was then that both writers published in several newspapers such as Alger Républicain, of which Camus was Editor-in-Chief, and Oran Républicain, committing to the cause of the Spanish Republic and at some personal risk. Rising fascisms were widespread in Europe and also in French Algeria. In Oran, for example, the mayor placed a swastika in the city coat of arms. Therefore, Roblès had to use some of his pen names, such as Emmanuel Chènes, to avoid being identified. Years later, Camus and Roblès participated in fundraising for Spanish Republicans exiled in Algeria. The Vichy authorities threatened to hand them over to Nazi Germany and, from there, to Franco’s Spain. Those funds that they both helped raise were used to arrange passage to America for thousands of Spanish refugees who, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, left Alicante, Murcia, Valencia or Malaga for the Algerian ports. Years later, in a speech given at UNESCO in 1952, Camus criticised the international abandonment of Republican Spain and the rapid rehabilitation of Franco’s Spain.

During the War of Independence, Roblès, who had fought with the French army against the Nazis a few years earlier, adopted an increasingly more critical position towards the French authorities and increasingly more committed to the nationalist cause. In 1945, with the colonial massacre of the 8 May (Sétif and Guelma), he had protested over what he considered a mistake that would have irreversible consequences, a subject he covered in the novel Les hauteurs de la ville. Later, once the war had started, Roblès oscillated between support for acquaintances in the National Liberation Front (FLN), for whom he got pardons because they were going to be executed or had been arrested, and the attempts at mediation to obtain a civil truce for the conflict. This was the closest that Roblès came to adopting Camus’ stance and resulted in a famous lecture given in Algiers in January 1956. In the midst of an excitable crowd, Roblès introduced his friend and colleague Camus, before giving him the floor in a packed venue, with stones, insults and threats raining down, especially from the colonists, the pieds-noirs, who considered them traitors to France. This event was attended by the then very elderly and sick Sheik Tayeb el Okbi, member of the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulema (AUMA), and the FLN guaranteed the safety of the French participants, as explained by Roblès himself. 

As the war progressed, Roblès and many others realised, not without pain or resignation, that there would be no solution other than independence, the independence of a country that would do justice to men and treat them equally. But during this process of slow conversion towards the inevitable (the play Plaidoyer pour un rebelle, which tells of a real event that happened in Algiers, although it is set in Dutch Indonesia, is quite eloquent on this), Roblès kept asking Camus to intercede with Charles de Gaulle, to whom he was an adviser and close collaborator, to free his acquaintances arrested for acts related to the FLN, something not widely known.

In the play Plaidoyer pour un rebelle, Roblès gives the impression of returning to the novel of almost the same name by Camus (The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt), quite extensively criticised since its publication for its supposed revolutionary half-heartedness. Roblès defended the dignity of the protagonist, Keller, a Dutch worker arrested, sentenced and executed for planting a bomb, which he later deactivated, in a factory. The case, set in another country, was inspired by a real event that happened in Algeria, when a Communist party worker was surprised when he deactivated a bomb because, contrary to his plan, several indigenous workers had entered the factory who might have died in the explosion. Keller, the lead character, justifies his behaviour because of his sympathy with the Indonesian nationalists, for whom he is prepared to carry out an act of sabotage but not sacrifice human lives. However, the colonial court sentences him to death, without appeal. This play enabled Roblès to assert his ideological position on the Algerian War of Independence, as well as his sympathy for the nationalists but not for the principle that the end justifies the means. In this respect, Roblès was able to condemn the organised cruelty of the colonial system and its hypocrisy, while repudiating terrorism as a political weapon. 

Roblès saw Algeria as his homeland; as did Camus, despite the famous phrase for which he has been reproached: “Between justice and my mother, I choose justice.” Although they both lived halfway between France and Algeria, his preference and true homeland was Algeria, not the metropolis. As a worthy son of Algeria and a good Mediterranean, Roblès spoke, in addition to Spanish and French, Algerian patois and Arabic. He revealed this in an incident when he had to calm the crowd with the words “ashtena shouya”. 

Despite the deep impression made on his life by the Second World War and the War of Independence, Roblès remained tied to Spain and its culture. He made several trips in Spain before and after the Civil War. He particularly visited Granada, where his family was from, Madrid, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Seville and Córdoba before returning by ship from Alicante. He appreciated the Spanish music that he could listen to in bars and taverns in Algeria, especially in the west. He recognised good flamenco music and distinguished it from lacklustre musicians and flamenco dancers. He was not very partial to nostalgic or sad music and preferred happy music and dance. 

In his play Magallanes he uses historical news to characterise the Portuguese sailor at the helm of a squadron of ships sent by the Kingdom of Spain, as a figure who, given the circumstances, does not hesitate to sacrifice his men to achieve his ambition and circumnavigate the famous and dangerous South American strait that bears his name today. Magallanes is, in contrast to the worker Keller, who dies to avoid killing, an antihero who subjects the lives of his men to his determination and obstinacy. 

Another of his plays, Montserrat, has clear Spanish connotations, including the characters. This play was an immediate success and has been translated into over twenty languages, including dialectal Arabic. The novel La remontée du fleuve features an obsession of that generation of writers who experienced the absurdity of wars: death and existentialism. Perhaps infected by his friend Camus’ obsession with death, as he was always seriously ill, Roblès created a fatalistic character, enveloped in tragedy, maddened to the point that he shoots a stranger and takes flight. However, and in contrast to the hopeless fatalism of Sartre and even Camus, Roblès ennobles the character by rehabilitating him through a woman with whom he will share his secret. Hence the title, La remontée du fleuve, which allows the protagonist, Gersaint, to escape a rapid descent, a downward path that leads inexorably to perdition. For Roblès, man can redeem himself and recover his dignity, which is innate, for which he has to share with others or declare his support for them. His life-affirming and optimistic message brings him closer to his contemporary Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but his is less philosophical, more attached to real existence and to the drama of life, to the dilemma of transcendent choice.

It is precisely this tragic spirit that several friends and teachers of Camus and Roblès always attribute to his Spanish origin. Indeed, Roblès becomes interested in classical Spanish theatre (Lope de Vega, Fernando de Rojas, author of La Celestina and, of course, Cervantes) and with the Generation of 27, headed by Federico García Lorca, some of whose works he translated and adapted for the Algerian public. With some boldness, one could connect these individual but, in fact, also collective dramas (Plaidoyer pour un rebelle and La remontée du fleuve), with the drama Fuenteovejuna, in which a whole village unanimously assumes that the king’s captain, who has raped the daughter of the family he was lodging with, was killed by the whole village collectively, refusing to identify the culprit before royal justice. Dignity and honour are fundamental in this drama by Lope de Vega, as are the jealousy and mixed passions of Lorca’s tragedies. 

Roblès’ cultural connections with Spain also extended to cinema. Roblès was present at the shooting and film premiere, in 1956, of one of his best known works, Cela s’appelle l’Aurore, directed by Luis Buñuel and starring Lucía Bosé. He also helped out in the shooting of his friend Camus’ work, The Stranger, starring Marcello Mastroianni in the film directed by Luchino Visconti (1967).

There was an important paradox in the lives of Roblès and Camus. Notwithstanding the obsession with death, Camus did not die of his chronic illness, a pulmonary disease, but of a fateful car accident in which he was a passenger, as someone who hated speed, at the age of 47. In contrast, Roblès, who suffered terrible plane accidents and saw death close-up quite often during the war, lived a long life and died near Paris at the age of 81.

Roblès and Camus also showed another extraordinary capacity, that of narrating small details, intimate life. Both fatherless, as we mentioned, they were brought up by their mothers, grandmothers and aunts, surrounded by women. This strong feminine influence gave them extraordinary sensitivity, visible in their novels and plays. 

Roblès and Camus were also a product of the French school and the social ascent it allowed. Roblès went to the École Normale in Algiers before going to university, which he had to leave at the outbreak of war. Camus thanked his Algiers teacher when he accepted the Nobel Prize. From poor families, they both had to work very hard to earn a living. They soon had a family to care for and writing barely covered their needs. Camus regularly fell sick and needed absolute rest. Roblès saw his wife suffer from typhus and survive an epidemic of this disease in a village on the outskirts of Oran. Their social ascent was exclusively the result of their work, tenacity and education. For this reason they could not stand the racism of colonial Algeria, where, as Roblès says, “a poor Spaniard is as worthless as a Muslim or Jew.” He tells the anecdote about a French teacher who laughed in his face when, as a young man, he told him he wanted to be a writer: “Roblès a writer?” he asks him mockingly. Both Camus and Roblès, petty colonists, occupied intermediate positions in a discriminatory and unjust system collapsing by the moment. Hence their ethical and political positions were controversial but never lacking in honesty and commitment.