Book Review: The Plague by Albert Camus

It is not every day you read a book about an epidemic in the midst of a pandemic. It is sort of like reading about the Titanic while sitting on a lifeboat, or less dramatically, reading about food poisoning while managing a stomach bug — the story hits too close to home.

Déjà vu

Little wonder I had a recurring sense of déjà vu with every page I turned in The Plague. It was difficult to distance myself from the current COVID-19 pandemic as I read the book. I kept relating everything I read to our current situation.

I had a recurring sense of déjà vu while reading The Plague. It was difficult to distance myself from the current COVID-19 pandemic. I kept relating everything I read to our current situation.

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.

“The most striking feature of our funerals was their speed. Formalities had been whittled down, and, generally speaking, all elaborate ceremonial suppressed. The plague victim died away from his family and the customary vigil beside the dead body was forbidden, with the result that a person dying in the evening spent the night alone, and those who died in the daytime were promptly buried. Needless to say, the family was notified, but in most cases, since the deceased had lived with them, its members were in quarantine and thus immobilized. When, however, the deceased had not lived with his family, they were asked to attend at a fixed time; after, that is to say, the body had been washed and put in the coffin and when the journey to the cemetery was about to begin.”

Camus, The Plague

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 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. The author and the narrator in the story goes out of his way to seem unbiased in how he relates the events. The story is therefore very didactic. At some point you cannot tell whether the narrator is sad, pessimistic or even optimistic. He simply relays the series of events as cold hard facts. 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.

However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.” “What do you mean by ‘common decency’?” Rambert’s tone was grave. “I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”

Camus, The Plague

If you recall in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us remarked at how the Coronavirus had become “the great equalizer” because both the poor and the rich were equally susceptible and that the rich could no longer fly out of the country to receive medical treatment. Everyone was grounded and equally affected.

The myth of equality

But this myth was quickly smashed especially when we realized staying at home for the poor and the rich were two vastly different (and unequal) experiences. Camus also touches on another angle to the myth of the pandemic as an equalizer in The plague:

“Meanwhile the authorities had another cause for anxiety in the difficulty of maintaining the food-supply. Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops. The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts. They were assured, of course, of the inerrable equality of death, but nobody wanted that kind of equality.”

Camus, The Plague

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.

Staying at home for the poor and the rich were two vastly different (and unequal) experiences. Camus also touches on another angle to the myth of the pandemic as an equalizer in The plague

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 more subtle 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 it’s excellence.”

While this is true and admirable (we should always prioritize 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”. 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.

All in all, it is a well written work, one I highly recommend.

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