Book review: The Plague

The Plague by Albert Camus.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

The Plague mightn’t have inspired a Cure song, but that doesn’t mean you should discount it. I mean, is it on the nose to be reading something with this title in 2020? It feels a little on the nose, but here I am, ploughing through Camus’s 1947 examination of the effects of bubonic plague on a city because frankly, there’s not much else to do in 2020 other than to try and avoid disease by any means necessary, as others seem hell-bent on playing chicken with it.

Camus: possibly anti-mask, but definitely pro-ciggie.

(Well. I suppose I could’ve come up with a radio adaptation and recorded it remotely but I guess I don’t have the funding or the spark of the BBC, so reading it was about all I can stretch to.)

The city in question is Oran, French Algeria, a city that – at least in the fictional portrait offered here – was designed by idiots (it faces away from the sea), is full of ratlike filth, and is run by morons. The ability of the plague to take hold in the city is predicated on the fact that none of the inhabitants, including the narrator of the piece, seem to be able to figure out how to act so as to avoid (at best) or curtail (at least) the rampaging infection.

It was as though the very soil on which our houses were built was purging itself of an excess of bile, that it was letting boils and abscesses rise to the surface, which up to then had been devouring it inside.

I’d read this novel some time ago, perhaps in a different translation. It seemed to flow more easily this time around, possibly because I was reading it out of interest, rather than as an attempt to appear interesting. But I suspect that the events of this year have made things that previous mystified me feel like old friends: the cack-handedness of the assorted organisations with fingers in public health pies is something we’ve seen played out on a global scale through 2020, and the bizarre belief that things will “be normal soon” is something that persists still, even after a year of deaths and closures.

The people of our town were no more guilty than anyone else, they merely forgot to be modest and thought that everything was still possible for them, which implied that pestilence was impossible.

Though he’s writing from almost 70 years distance, Camus’s portrait of a city in crisis, flipping from everything’s-fine to everything’s-fucked at a moment, seems particularly familiar. There’s the embrace of routine to ride out angst, the hopelessness of statistics and the seemingly endless distance between those who have been locked out of the bubble of infection.

The narrative focuses on a clutch of individuals – some doctors, a would-be suicide, a magistrate, a hopeful escapee, a black-market man, a priest, a government jobsworth and so on – and charts the way they react to the situation in which they find themselves. There’s a distinct sense of the smallness of each of these human lives, and their inability to influence their surroundings very much – they are stuck in what is essentially an absurdist cycle from which they cannot escape.

Ten thousand dead equals five times the audience in a large cinema. That’s what you should do. You should get all the people coming out of five cinemas, take them to a square in the town and make them die in a heap; then you would grasp it better. At least, one might put some known faces on this anonymous pile. But of course it would be impossible; apart from which, who knows ten thousand faces?

At heart, The Plague sees Camus presenting something as blackly funny and soul-crushingly sad as anything Kafka or Beckett might spin. It’s a story where any hope is small, any respite brief, a portrait of dazzling brightness but little actual detail. Reading it is a bit like looking at an eclipse: it’s simple, but blinding, and feels all the more real because of the way the world has been this year. It beguiles but doesn’t explain, not really.

Throughout the day, the doctor felt growing inside him the slight sense of dizziness that he got whenever he thought about the plague. Eventually he admitted that he was afraid.

The thing I took from Camus’s novel is that humans haven’t changed in 70 years, and probably won’t change. The book begins with a quotation from Defoe, writing on the plague in 1722. Perhaps it’s the case that our behaviours haven’t changed since then, either, at least in terms of how we deal with prolonged pestilential encounters. I suppose that’s hardly a very cheering take-home, but honestly: there’s something reassuring (to me, at least) in the thought that people half a world away both spatially and chronologically, are just as stupid as we of the here and now.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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