It starts with one rodent, dead on the landing outside of Dr. Rieux’s clinic: “something soft under his foot” that he kicks away without a second thought. But soon there are thousands of dead rats turning up in the streets of Oran, a port town in Algeria. The concierge in the doctor’s building succumbs to a strange fever, then others in increasing numbers fall victim to the same fate, until contagion and fear gripped the entire city.
Replace rat with a virus, and Albert Camus’s masterly novel, written in 1947, sounds eerily prescient of our times. In the novel’s setting, as in today, an epidemic runs wild in a city run by governments who cannot coordinate relief, religious authorities rave ineffectually, and no one knows what today, much less tomorrow, holds in store. At first, the citizens of Oran panic and revolt, but before long, as if numbed by the summer sun, their alarm gives way to despondency and resignation. Bodies are piled high on the streets, neighborhoods stink of pestilential flesh, homes are burned, and citizens wander in a hopeless daze.
Yet (and this is a key subtle message of the novel), life goes on. In one astounding scene, Camus describes a performance of Orpheus and Eurydice at the local opera house, where the tenor collapses from the plague in the middle of an aria.
The Plague has the intensity of a medical thriller, but it is more than that. As Camus intimated in his first and most famous novel, The Stranger (1942), he saw humankind as alone in an absurd world, drifting aimlessly in a pointless universe. The quarantined citizens of Oran is a microcosm for society as a whole, one that was blasé about human dignity and mired in political oppression. The infection it portrays is both a metaphor for social disease as well as a biological one, and for Camus, both are symbolic of the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. And yet, through his matter-of-fact narration of this book’s horrors and their aftermath, Camus manages to convey a subtle message of hope, underlining his belief that lives validate many truths. Ultimately, we are taught not only by pestilence, but by existence itself.
About the Author
Through World War II and its aftermath, French author Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) grew in stature as a representative of moral probity and literary achievement. He wasn’t a philosopher in the stripes of his contemporary, Jean-Paul Satre and other savants of the time. He was a lyrical rather than an analytical thinker, something which led to his being marginalized by the French philosophical elites such as Satre. For his part, Camus came to dub Satre and his type, “professional humanists of the specialized cafes”.