I thought that every so often I should post on a classic European novel and today I felt the urge to tell you about Camus’s masterpiece, The Plague. For years I avoided reading this novel because I thought it would be a grisly catalogue of unpleasant deaths. In retrospect this was a wholly unfair prejudice to hold (is there such a thing as a fair one?) when I knew what a talented and subtle writer Camus was. When I finally did get around to reading it, I discovered it to be one of those books that you cannot consume without it having some profound effect on your internal configurations. I think Camus has to be one of my all time favourite writers because he makes you aware of what literature can do, or at least that’s how he affects me. I’m not sure I entirely approve of the word ‘impact’ being used as a verb, but it’s an accurate description of the experience of reading Camus; he impacts upon me, leaving novel-sized marks stamped onto my soul.
So, The Plague concerns the Algerian town of Oran that is about to suffer as never before in the grip of a plague that will ravage its population and isolate it from the rest of the country, imprisoning its inhabitants with their fear and their grief. The story focuses on Dr Rieux and his struggle against the might of the plague, but it has none of the glamour, adventure or heroism we have come to associate with the Hollywood disaster movie. Most notably, this is a novel without the kind of clear-cut moral framework we audiences tend to demand if people are going to be dropping like flies. The courageous are not rewarded here, nor villains punished; it is not a citizen’s laundry whereby the weak, the evil, the cynical and the facetious are weeded out leaving only the strong to found a new community. Instead, arbitrary injustice rules. One of Dr Rieux’s oldest patients, a demonic little man confined to bed with chronic asthma, sits shelling peas and telling the doctor that he is unafraid of the plague because you cannot die of two things at once. He is prepared to view it as a spectator sport. Elsewhere in the town the priest rails against his congregation, declaring the plague to be a judgement by God on the sins of mankind. But then he is forced to witness the death of an innocent child, and the following sermon he delivers shows a marked change of tune. His religion is no longer there to punish but to provide a place of communion for the townspeople in their grief. The alteration in his philosophy seems to be too much for him, however, and not long afterwards he falls ill and dies. But we are never sure whether or not it is the plague that has killed him, and his body is labeled with clever ambiguity as a ‘cas douteux’, a doubtful case. As for the death of that child, well, that’s the only part of this book I’ve never been able to read. Camus is gentle with his readers most of the time, but for those few pages he abandons all constraint. It’s not that he becomes hysterical or emotional in his writing, oh no, but his cool, measured prose, when used to describe accurately the way the plague ensnares its victims, has an even more devastating effect. It’s in many ways the central part of the narrative, the point when the power and the ferocity of the plague reach their zenith, but it remains a small black hole for me.
If Dr Rieux is what we might call the hero in this book it’s because he can find a way to witness the atrocity of a child’s suffering and keep on relentlessly fighting the plague. He’s one of Camus’s cold fish; he won’t be drawn into discussing what the plague means, he won’t predict its progress, and he won’t waste his energy on compassion for the dying. At first he seems a bit repellent, but then his constant repetition that he must do his job and his tireless attempts to cure the sick and to co-opt the healthy into community work confers upon him a kind of authentic nobility. Rieux recognizes that concerns and anxieties beyond the immediate limits of his role are misplaced and ultimately self-indulgent. His quiet devotion to his duty, and the terrible personal losses he will suffer make him a profoundly moving character.
Yet part of Camus’s brilliance is to show us how the plague is not simply bad, for it forces the indifferent inhabitants of Oran into an acute self-awareness. It reveals the fragility and beauty of life, reawakening love and desire in those who have been separated, demanding a new level of understanding of existence, and creating a community of committed individuals who learn to fight together. The team that Rieux builds includes men like the journalist Rambert, who makes several aborted attempts to escape from the town before deciding to stay and help in any way he can. The community is not perfect, and it in no way transcends individual desires, but within the constraints imposed by the plague, it does at least offer some consolation. This is Camus posing his classic philosophical question – are we as individuals solitaire or solidaire? Is it true that together we are stronger, or is it down to each and every one of us to make a change? Can we transcend our individual limits to bond with others, and if we can, how are we to bear the grief and the frustration their loss entails? Camus is too ambiguous, too slippery to give us answers to these questions, but he poses them like the master of literature that he is.
One way Camus poses the question is in the developing relationship between Rieux and his friend, Jean Tarrou. Tarrou is the alternative hero of the piece, a man whose quirky accounts of the plague are included in the narrative, and who works closely with Rieux in the alliance of men who fight the disease. What’s surprising about Tarrou is he does all this and puts forward a theory about the plague, making him one of the very few Existentialists who can think and do at the same time. Tarrou’s theory arises out of a traumatic incident in his youth that forces him to recognize that he is not innocent but guilty. This trauma occurs when he sees his father, a lawyer, condemn a man to death. The shocking juxtaposition of his father’s calm pronouncement and the excessive violence of taking a man’s life, reveals to Tarrou the madness of society and the intrinsic aggression of men that, even if controlled and organized, cannot be eliminated. Tarrou recognizes that every individual is capable of causing mortal harm to another and for this reason we are all contaminated, to some extent, by the plague. Tarrou uses the term ‘plague’ here as a metaphor for a kind of violence than is born from having superiority or dominance over another. He shows a fierce desire to isolate himself from the violence of humanity, but recognizes how difficult this would be, and is obsessed with learning how one could become a saint, that is to say, someone who performs the miracle of hurting no one. His fate in this purpose is an ambiguous one, but I cannot reveal it for fear of spoiling the ending.
Suffice to say, Camus uses it in his ceaseless quest to explore the meaning of life when we have to die. Sometimes this book is read as an allegory of the Occupation, but it’s fundamentally about the terrifying possibility of facing an untimely and unreasonable death and not knowing how to deal with that. The Plague does not answer the pressing questions it poses, because one thing is for sure, whenever the plague visits us, we will be just as confused and unprepared as we were for the last crisis. This is a dark book, yes, but it’s one that engages your intellect as much as your emotions, and it is therefore bearable. That’s not to say it won’t wring your heart at moments, but its worth it to have the experience of reading it. It’s certainly on my list of books that everyone ought to read at some point in their lives.