The Plague by Albert Camus

by Lily Wren

The Plague by Albert Camus

First published: 1947

I’ve actually read something by Camus. Oooh Get me. Plus, I actually think it is really rather good. Get me even more. I’ve wanted to read Camus for some time, no, really, I have.  I have been somewhat intimidated by the name “Camus” – the absurdist, existential, philosopher and award winning writer whom many intellectuals have analysed, critiqued and philosophised over for years.  I bit the bullet and went for it.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the story and there are enough reviews and literary critiques online to fill a million plague infested towns. I won’t be going down that route. I’ll only embarrass myself. But, just in case you have lived in a concrete shoe for many years, The Plague is, as one would expect, about a plague taking over a town which ultimately leads to its’ complete isolation and separation from the rest of the world. This town is Oman in Algiers which is said to have suffered the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is set in the 1940’s and Camus wrote the book with the intent that it would also be an allegory for the French Resistance during the occupation by the Nazi’s. I probably wouldn’t have got that one if it hadn’t been pointed out to me but, once you know, it becomes pretty obvious.

The story is told in five parts by an anonymous narrator who provides his account of the events as they unfold. The account follows the experiences of the town as it’s inhabitants endure the various stages of the plague. Ultimately, it’s a story about the human condition relating to isolation, separation and death. Underlying the story is Camus own belief that as humans we have a profound resilience and adaptability which enables us to cope with most of the crap which is thrown at us – even when faced with exile and the threat of death. Camus constantly reminds us about the depth of isolation and separation people are subject to as a consequence of being quarantined from those they love and the outside world. In describing the habits of the townspeople at moments of such exile, the narrator tells us;

“Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars”(p.62).

Camus is a wonderful writer, prone to completing many beautiful passages which conjure up the atmosphere, sights and sounds of any particular setting and some which seek to have an alternative meaning. It’s also a book which confuses me a little. I would imagine that a story about a town being cut off from the rest of the world because of an epidemic which means many people suffer a painful and gruesome death would be sensational with a great sense of panic and chaos. Camus does not write in such a way. As beautiful and sparkling as some of the passages are, the story is often told in a matter of fact way and there are equally mundane passages and, dare I say it, there were a few occasions where I did feel a little…bored… However, these were few and far between. Camus would then raise the bar with the most delicate touch in describing something so simple yet beautiful. One of my favourite parts is the moment when two of the main characters are sitting on a roof terrace, getting some brief respite from their relentless care of the dying. For the first time they open up and let down their defenses. The sounds, sights and senses lift off the page as Camus describes the almost idyllic setting amidst a town gripped by plague.

“In a sky swept crystal clear by the night wind, the stars showed like silver flakes, tarnished now and again by the yellow gleam of the revolving light. Perfumes of spice and warm stone were wafted on the breeze. Everything was very still” (p.200).

How I wish I could write like that!

As we come to the end of the book the narrator, who so far has remained anonymous, takes away the cloak and reveals himself. Still speaking in the third person, he lets us know that his decision to remain anonymous whilst recounting the tale has been done purposely in order that the tale be told more objectively and to enable him to speak for the town. He says –

“To be an honest witness, it was for him to confine himself mainly to what people did or said and what could be gleaned from documents. Regarding his personal troubles and his long suspense, his duty was to hold his peace…. Whenever tempted to add his personal note to the myriad of voices of the plague-stricken, he was deterred by the thought that not one of his sufferings but was common to all the others and that in a world where sorrow is so often lonely was an advantage. Thus, decidedly, it was up to him to speak for all” (p.246).

So, I have read Camus. I can’t say it’s changed my life and there were a couple of occasions where it had felt like I had been reading the book for months. However, the smattering of beautiful passages more than made up for the times where I did become distracted.  Additionally, I have gone on to read more about Camus, his philosophies and views on life and think he must have been a pretty cool chap to know. I’ll certainly pick up some more of his work in the future.