It’s the morning of April 16 194- in the French-Algerian port of Oran. Dr Bernard Rieux, leaving his apartment to begin his daily rounds, steps on a dead rat. It’s an ill omen, and indeed only two weeks later thousands of dead rats are being collected everyday, Rieux’s concierge has died of a terrible fever, and the doctor and his colleagues are uttering an impossible word: plague. Not long after, more than a hundred people are dying every day in a town of not much more than 200,000.
Camus’s 1947 novel, charting this small town’s battle with disease, is back on the best-seller lists, for obvious reasons. The parallels with our current situation are striking. Oran is a town that sounds familiar, centred on money-making, “treeless, glamourless, soulless” – “in other words, completely modern”. If the disease itself is perhaps marginally less horrifying (suppurating boils v drowning lungs), the response today is even more severe. Like us, the town of Oran is put under lockdown; no one can leave or enter. Those who fall victim are isolated, and close contacts quarantined. Public buildings are taken over as temporary hospitals. Public servants equivocate at first, unwilling to stir panic, until severe curtailment of freedoms is inevitable. There’s not enough medication. The morgues and cemeteries fill, until the unthinkable occurs, and the townsfolk are buried in mass graves.
The scenes are all too recognisable: Wuhan, northern Italy, New York. In some ways though, Oran has it better. The cafes and bars stay open, and in the evening the crowds come out. Although there are hints of economic strain it does not appear to be the same catastrophe decimating the arts, retail and hospitality sectors in Australia. We live in a more globalised world where the consequences of a shock to the system are swift and severe.
Camus identifies the enduring horror of the plague not as the sickness itself, but the “exile” it forces on the inhabitants. Separated from loved ones, from their normal routines, the townsfolk experience “that sensation of a void within us that never left us”. You begin to think Camus is not just talking about the plague, or at least not a literal kind, but a more fundamental scourge of modern humanity. Moreover, the plague has flattened experience, no individual is unique any more. Cut off from the past and the future, they come to live in an eternal present.
At first The Plague and its fictional outbreak ring horrifyingly true, particularly in the townsfolk only slowly waking to the realisation that their normal lives are over, and may never return to normal. In its forensic analysis of how the epidemic unfolds, The Plague has an apocalyptic, disaster-movie energy. And like any good disaster narrative, part of me read on in horrified fascination as the plague threatens to annihilate Oran.
But Camus is less interested in what the plague does than what it means. He explores through his characters. First, there’s Dr Rieux: he’s logical and practical, an atheist, and sees “common decency” as the best way of dealing with the plague. Then there’s Tarrou, a traveller and the novel’s philosophical heart, who identifies that a person has a simple choice in life, to be a pestilence or a victim, but we also can try to be healers. Tarrou sees in the plague that same forces that would execute a man by firing squad, and volunteers as a sanitary officer to do his bit to fight the forces of darkness.
The narrator cautions us against heroism, but names one candidate as Grand, a public servant who tallies the death toll by day and agonises over the first sentence of his novel by night. How is this heroic? I think Camus is saying his pursuit of artistic perfection for its own sake is worthy. Likewise there are no villains in the plague, although the local government cops its share of criticisms. But there is Cottard, who we meet attempting suicide and is probably a criminal on the run. Like Kirsten Dunst’s character in Melancholia watching an earth-destroying planet approach, as the plague intensifies, Cottard’s mental health improves, as everyone begins to feel like he does.
Rambert, a journalist, is the Romantic character, seeking to evade the town’s restrictions so he can escape and return to his lover in Paris. And Father Paneloux has the job of bringing religious fire and brimstone, and wondering at the role of suffering in human existence. It’s through these characters that the plague seems to become something else: a metaphor for evil, tyranny, the sheer awfulness of being alive. Camus and his narrator seem to think living is quite a burden – I suppose there were a few other things happening in the world in the 1940s that might have suggested this to him.
They’re all dudes. There are almost no women on the page, and if they are they are solely to motivate and support those men. The only woman with more than a couple of lines is praised constantly for her “self-effacement” and sitting quietly in a corner. So, don’t expect any Florence Nightingales in this story.
In the end, spoiler alert, the plague doesn’t annihilate Oran. Here, Camus makes some salient and reassuring observations. As worrying and inconvenient as the plague is, for most of the townsfolk it is simply dull. And, it ends. Life picks up where it left off.
The Plague is intensely serious, introspective and I have to admit, not much fun. It is though extremely beautiful. Like pretty much all the Nobel Laureate’s I’ve read, Camus’ sentences make me want to give up writing. Even if he gets bogged down at times wrestling with philosophical knots, he always returns to the town, sitting on its arid plateau above the Mediterranean. The descriptions of the sea, sky and seasons in this novel are exquisite, and it was those that I found myself returning to after the plague has passed. Which is perhaps a final resonance with our times. I’ve never spent so much time walking around my neighbourhood, noticing the trees, birds and sky, taking comfort in nature and those things that are separate from our own small lives.
Gay rating: not gay, although of one character it is said that “we may rule out women in his case”.