Wednesday, May 24, 2017
The Plague by Albert Camus
When leaving his surgery on the morning of April 16, Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment he kicked it to one side and, without giving it a further thought, continued on his way downstairs. Only when he was stepping out into the street did it occur to him that a dead rat had no business to be on his landing [...]
In Oran, a city on the coast of Algeria, the citizens are only mildly alarmed by the appearance of dying rats, at the beginning of The Plague. First, a trickle of rats emerging from their hidden homes is taken by Monsieur Michel, the concierge of Dr. Bernard Rieux's building, as a sign that an unhappy tenant or a hooligan is leaving them for him to clean up after. But, then the rats begin to appear throughout the town. They stagger and then die, the number of dead rats growing until they're piled in heaps and the city struggles to keep up with their disposal. Then, Michel falls ill and dies in agony and gradually, the disease spreads.
Dr. Rieux is among the first to suspect that Bubonic Plague is the culprit. But, even he has his doubts and both the city officials and the other doctors in town are hesitant to declare an emergency for fear of panicking the citizens. As the crisis grows, eventually the city officials concede to the facts and begin to organize, separating the sick from the healthy, taking over schools and apartment buildings when the hospital overflows, and finally closing the town's gates to keep the disease from spreading beyond the town's walls. While news from outside the town walls becomes difficult to come by, local reporting focuses on the number of casualties, the shortages of food and other necessities, and the need for volunteers to help with the disposal of bodies. Slowly, the disease peaks and tapers off, leaving the survivors shaken but ready to return to normal. But, their world will never be quite the same.
During the time I was reading The Plague, I didn't give a lot of thought to the theory that the story is considered by many to be an allegory for the invasion by Nazis in WWII (there's another possibility about its meaning that I don't recall). The story is so focused on the logistics of the city's efforts to combat the plague, the doctor's efforts and exhaustion, and the longing for loved ones from whom many are separated that I found it a little difficult to step back and look at the big picture until after I finished the book. Instead, I observed it from the micro view of the individual characters and how the plague impacted their lives: a doctor exhausting himself, a journalist from elsewhere who desperately wants to escape Oran and return to his wife, a man with a small life but lots of optimism who has decided to write a book but can't get beyond the first paragraph, a tenant who attempts suicide and ends up unexpectedly thriving during the plague. The characters are pretty fascinating.
And then, well after closing the book, I got it. First, a few rats appear from obscurity and nobody is particularly alarmed. [Nazis appear but everyone thinks they'll fade away.] Then, the rats' presence explodes and they become problematic, but still the officials hesitate to acknowledge the danger. The rats' disease invades the city. [The city is invaded by Nazis.] The plague hits and people begin to die. [War.] Time passes and the plague continues to kill at a relentless pace; people are exterminated by the disease. [Hitler's extermination of Jews.] A small band of stalwarts continue the fight. Some are killed off. [Perhaps the Resistance?] Eventually, the plague ends and people celebrate, but things are not the same as they were before the plague. Many have lost loved ones and friends.
That may not be the best analysis but I can see how one might view The Plague as an allegory, now, whereas I was caught up in the emotion and the logistics while I was reading the book.
Recommended - A brilliantly written but ponderous story in which you can practically feel the painfully slow passage of time as a plague stretches out for months on end, locking citizens away from the rest of the world and separating many from their loved ones. Is it an allegory for WWII? I don't know. I'm not sure what the consensus is, either, as I only briefly skimmed information about the book. But, I can see now why people view it as such. The Plague was my classic choice for the month of April and won't be my last by Camus. I'm pretty sure I have a copy of The Stranger around here, somewhere. I'll be keeping an eye out for it.
For posterity: There was an interesting philosophy in few words that I want to write down for the sake of my own memory (so I can take the flags out of the book): "Big fish eat little fish." Interesting way of expressing "liberal ideas, as his pet dictum on economic questions". I won't comment on how I feel about it; I just liked the expression.
Last thought: The book could be a bit gruesome, at times, but Camus kept the more graphic scenes to a minimum, so it's not too bad if you're faint of heart and prefer not to read about the gory details of a ghastly disease.
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