What you need to know:
- The Plague is a fictional account set in the French Algerian colony in the 1940s.
- A form of the bubonic plague suddenly hits the coastal town of Oran and turns upside down the normal lives of its residents.
- No reliable explanation is given for where the plague came from, other than the fact that it jumped from the rats to humans.
It is not every day you read a book about an epidemic amid a pandemic. The story hits too close to home.
Little wonder I had a recurring sense of déjà vu with every page I turned in The Plague. It happened when the people of Oran were slow to accept how serious the situation was getting; it happened when the borders of Oran were shut down to prevent people from taking the plague out of the affected Algerian town; it also happened when hospitals started filling up and the government resorted to makeshift isolation centers… it all sounded so much like 2020.
Later on, as the number of deaths soared and the government banned normal burial rituals to prevent contagion, I was reminded of the recent news headlines about loved ones not even getting a chance to mourn properly.
Some people didn’t take it seriously, and they paid a heavy price for their laxity.
But most notably is how the plague affected the minds and emotions of the residents of Oran. Some people didn’t take it seriously, and they paid a heavy price for their laxity. Others took it seriously but underestimated how long it would last. Yet some, like Dr Rieux, the main character, seemed to have no opinion of the plague. He simply took it in stride and did his best to “do his job” under these strange new circumstances.
The Plague is a fictional account set in the French Algerian colony in the 1940s. A form of the bubonic plague suddenly hits the coastal town of Oran and turns upside down the normal lives of its residents. No reliable explanation is given for where the plague came from, other than the fact that it jumped from the rats to humans.
No cure is found even though some concoctions help manage the symptoms. In the end, the plague simply subsides and retreats to wherever it came from and people start picking up their lives and embracing a new normal in the aftermath.
Cold hard facts
The tone of the book comes off as flat and objective. At some point, you cannot tell whether the narrator is sad, pessimistic, or even optimistic. This is not surprising for a book by Albert Camus.
Though he never describes himself as such, and he apparently hated people describing him so, Camus and the narrator in the story comes off as existentialist. To him, the world is irrational and absurd. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. There is no rhyme or reason to it all. So we should simply do our best to “do our jobs” in whatever circumstances life throws at us.
I enjoyed reading The Plague, probably more than I should have, and there’s so much more to glean from it. This review only scraped the surface. I particularly enjoyed how Camus writes in a way that gives the reader room for disagreement, allowing me to form my own opinions and conclusions about what is happening.
In one conversation Dr Rieux remarks regarding the local priest Paneloux and how he is handling the suffering of his parishioners amidst the plague:
“Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn’t come in contact with death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of the truth, with a capital T. But every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence.”
In this remark, the author is injecting a moral judgment on the priest and his handling of the crisis. But the judgment is subtler than one may think. He says everyone who comes in contact with suffering should think, act and react as the author presumes: “he’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence.”
While this is true and admirable (we should always prioritise relieving suffering over pontificating about the benefits of suffering), it does not then mean that anyone who acts like this can no longer “speak with such assurance of truth, with a capital T”. The strength of conviction about the truth is not always synonymous with a lack of empathy or love.
It is in this subtle difference that the cracks in the “objectivity” of the narrator and the author and many other existentialists like Camus, begins to show. It turns out the author may be a victim of more myths than the ones he tries to debunk. So read the book with discernment.