La Peste by Albert Camus (1947)
Set in the Algerian town of Oran in “194.”, Camus’ novel tells a story of a plague-infested town cut off from the outside world, and of individuals separated from loved ones. Aside from the specific circumstances of the individual characters (a doctor trying to treat, if not cure, the ill; a journalist separated from his wife in Paris; a ne’er-do-well profiting from circumstances by channelling in contraband), the story is simple and constrained: the plague arrives, thousands die, it ends; we never leave Oran, and never experience the feelings of those outside the town.
The story of the fight against the plague stands up in its own right, yet it serves easily, and skilfully, as a metaphor – for morality, for the human condition, and for occupied France in the Second World War.
The war metaphor can be clearly seen: the sense of imprisonment, both physical and mental, hangs heavily over the book, with the gates of Oran firmly closed and an ever-present sense of isolation and exile. In this town ‘occupied’ by the plague, the main protagonists respond by forming small, organised medical teams to resist the plague’s spread by helping the sick and improving sanitary conditions elsewhere. As for morality, we’re told that Oran is an ugly town, full of money-focused and fundamentally dull people, built with its back to the sea, ignoring its open expanses – as if, through its rejection of life, it were somehow inviting the plague to attack. Furthermore, as the plague takes hold, attendance at mass soars; later it becomes more an act of superstition and fear than belief, if it is attended at all.
I prefer the reading of the novel as a consideration of the human condition – let’s not stray towards the term existentialism, not because I don’t really know what I’m talking about (though I don’t), but because Camus reportedly distanced himself from the movement: “No, I am not an existentialist” (though with ambiguous statements like that, who knows what he was really up to?).
In effect, the plague comes and goes for no apparent reason; the local administration is ineffective (their optimism and pessimism are equally inconsequential); neither individuals nor organisations have any meaningful sense of control over the plague’s spread, while the successful recovery or painful death of its sufferers are a product of chance alone. Despite the futility of inconclusive serums and the realisation that the plague takes its victims indiscriminately, a curious kind of emancipation arises, the sense of efforts to take action being worthy in their own right, regardless of their outcome. Deep, yet emotionally restrained, friendships are forged on the back of these efforts, and our protagonists set aside their personal suffering to work for the collective good – the doctor whose wife was sent away to the Swiss mountains to recover from illness just before the plague struck, the exiled Parisian journalist who renounces his intentions to have himself smuggled out of the town in order to stay and help, the frustrated writer who divides his many sleepless hours between torturing himself over the opening sentence of a never-to-be-finished novel and recording the statistics of the plague.
In a strange way, optimism abounds in this novel – optimism in the shape of man’s willingness to continue to fight, to resist in the face of attack from a faceless, inhuman enemy. In an apparently capricious world, exerting this will elevates the characters above their daily horrors, into some sort of meaning. Appropriately enough, there is no firm conclusion to the book after the plague disappears, no trite, easy end. Instead we are left with a rather chilling (not to say lengthy) warning:
“Car il savait ce que cette foule en joie ignorait, et qu’on peut lire dans les livres, que le bacille de la peste ne meurt ni ne disparaît jamais, qu’il peut rester pendant des dizaines d’années endormi dans le meubles et le linge, qu’il attend patiemment dans les chambres, les caves, les malles, les mouchoirs et les paperasses, et que, peut-être, le jour viendrait où, pour le malheur et l’enseignement des hommes, la peste réveillerait ses rats les enverrait mourir dans une cité heureuse”
“For he knew what this joyous crowd did not, and what can be read in books, that the germ of the plague never dies nor disappears, that it can remain asleep for tens of years in furniture and sheets, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and paperwork, and that, perhaps, the day would come when, for man’s misfortune and learning, the plague would wake its rats and send them to die in a happy neighbourhood”