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April 3, 2020 in Uncategorized

In 1947, the Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) published his book La Peste, subsequently translated into English as The Plague.  At first blush, it is a chronicle of events that occurred in the port city of Oran, in the north-west of Algeria, in the 1940s.  An outbreak of a virulent strain of bubonic plague, and fears that it would spread further afield, prompted the authorities to close the city gates and so place the city’s entire population in quarantine.  This period of sequestration endured for ten months.  In the chronicle, the narrator (whose identity is only revealed at the very end) describes the medical, social and psychological impact of the disease on the city’s inhabitants.

However, all is not quite as it seems.    As a matter of fact, there was no plague epidemic at Oran in the 1940s.  The city, which is believed to date back to about 900 AD, had experienced severe visitations of plague in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Cholera also wiped out a substantial proportion of the city’s population in the mid-1800s.  Since then, plague has periodically returned to the city (most recently in mid-2003: see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851531/).  On these occasions, however, it was diagnosed early and, with the benefit of modern prophylactics, the authorities were able to contain it to relatively minor proportions.  There was no significant incidence of plague at Oran in the mid-twentieth century.  So we know that the events related by the mysterious narrator of The Plague are fictitious.

Indeed, Camus himself alerted the reader to the fact that the chronicle set out in The Plague was not an account of events that had actually occurred at Oran, or anywhere else for that matter.  In an epigraph on the title page, Camus prominently quoted from the preface to Daniel Defoe’s epistolary novel Robinson Crusoe (1719): “It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!”  Thus we know that The Plague was not concerned with an actual episode of plague, or with events that had actually taken place at Oran.  And as the reader becomes absorbed in the pages of the book she discovers that it is a multi-layered allegory of more profound maladies afflicting human existence.

So, at a primary level The Plague is concerned with the palpably deleterious effects of the contagious disease, and of the resultant quarantine imposed on Oran, on the city’s citizens.  We read about the municipal and medical authorities’ initial denialism in the face of growing evidence that their community was being confronted by a potentially calamitous outbreak of fatal disease.  We read about the authorities’ dilly-dallying in adopting half-measures to address the growing crisis.  (“Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.  And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for a common cold.”)  We read about the selfless activities of Dr Bernard Rieux and his squad of civilian volunteers who “roll up their sleeves” in a seemingly hopeless campaign to deal with the medical aspects of the spreading disease.  We read about the apprehension, and then the panic, that spreads among the city’s inhabitants as the disease begins to claim an ever-increasing number of lives.  We read about the impact all of this has on the daily lives, and on the minds, of the city’s population as they finally have to face the uncertainty of being locked inside a disease-ridden city for an indefinite period and without hope of medical security.

In the early chapters of The Plague we read about rats dying in the streets of Oran in unprecedented numbers.  It was only when the townsfolk began to show “signs of uneasiness” that the municipality (which “had not contemplated doing anything at all”) convened a meeting to discuss the situation.  Initially, not everyone was alarmed.  Some had “other things to think about.”  Others thought it was somebody else’s “headache” to deal with.  After a brief period of “bewildering portents”, the situation changed to one in which “the perplexity of the early days gradually gave place to panic.”  Soon, panic gave way to fear.  Even when medical evidence pointed irrefutably towards plague, there was a reluctance to acknowledge that, or even to use the word for fear of causing “unnecessary” alarm.  Gradually, medical personnel began to recognise that “energetic measures were needed.”  It was understood by some of them that the deceased rats had emitted on Oran “tens of thousands of fleas which will spread the infection in geometrical progression unless it is checked in time.”  But even then the authorities hesitated to take decisive action.  Meanwhile, deaths began to mount but doctors were still waiting for consignments of anti-plague serum to arrive from Paris. 

About that time, the narrator tells us, the weather appeared set fair: “There was a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning … all seemed well with the world.  And yet within four days the fever had made four startling strides: sixteen deaths, twenty-four, twenty-eight, and thirty-two.  On the fourth day the opening of the auxiliary hospital in the premises of an infant school was officially announced.  The local population, who so far had made a point of masking their anxiety by facetious comments, now seemed tongue-tied and went their way with gloomy faces.”  Only then did the authorities begin “tightening up the new regulations.”  The next day serum was flown in.  There was enough for immediate purposes, but health bodies had insufficient quantities of serum to cope with a spread of the disease.  A request was made for additional supplies, to which the response was that “the emergency reserve stock was exhausted, but that a new supply was in preparation.”

But for the rats and the fleas, the parallels between the situation in Oran during the early days of the eponymous plague and the situation today confronting the world – on an infinitely larger scale – are manifestly obvious.  As such, it is not surprising that attention has recently been drawn to the scary similarities between Camus’s The Plague and the world’s present predicament (see e.g. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books/article-the-hope-at-the-heart-of-albert-camuss-plague-novel-la-peste/ and https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/28/albert-camus-novel-the-plague-la-peste-pestilence-fiction-coronavirus-lockdown).

But the perceptive reader of The Plague soon grasps that the book is not really – or not primarily – concerned with actual plague or, indeed, with any sort of public health emergency.  The plague described in the book, it transpires, is a symbol for something else equally, if not more, menacing.   What is more, and perhaps more frightening, is that one of Dr Rieux’s staunch associates in the campaign against the disease, the enigmatic Jean Tarrou, eventually says: “I have realized that we all have plague … each of us have the plague within him; no one, no one on earth , is free from it.”  And so the reader is compelled to wonder about the true nature of the pervasive “plague”.

We know today, thanks to many literary analyses of The Plague, that the disease described in the novel is probably, among other things, a metaphorical reference to the scourge of Nazism that had infected Europe in the 1930s and that ultimately led to World War II.  The quarantine imposed on the city of Oran is probably an allusion to the Nazi occupation of large parts of Europe during WWII.  And the “sanitary squads” organised by Dr Rieux and his volunteer assistants to fight the plague probably allude to the partisan resistance movements that struck back at the seemingly overwhelming force of Nazism.  Camus (who was to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957) himself participated in the French Resistance, and became editor of the clandestine newspaper Combat, whose contributors included Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux.

As now we wait for the coronavirus to unleash its full devastation, and as we enter the period of “lockdown”, we could do worse than re-read The Plague, which, at a superficial level, is an eerie account of the C-19 crisis avant la lettre.  In an amazingly imaginative and prescient manner, Camus holds up a mirror in which we recognise many elements of our own present predicament.  Or perhaps Camus was not quite clairvoyant because – and this is one point The Plague sets out to make – every outbreak of plague (or of “plague”) is essentially the same and, so, a predictable continuation of its predecessors.  Moreover the plague (or “plague”) bacillus “never dies or disappears for good; … it can lie dormant for years and years.” 

So what is the “plague” that, according to Tarrou (or Camus) afflicts us all, even if we don’t show outward symptoms of illness?  Who are the “rats”?  And who the “fleas”?  Reading and reflecting on The Plague, especially at this juncture in the history of the world, should give us pause.

To be continued

 [Quotations from The Plague are taken from the Penguin translation by Stuart Gilbert]

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April 3, 2020 in Uncategorized

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