I got to read The Plague (La Peste) recently thanks to a book club. This is a novel by Albert Camus, whose short story collection Exile and the Kingdom I last read many years ago and quite loved it.
This novel is set in the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s and follows 9 months of a plague epidemic that ravages the city, killing hundreds of people every day. After the initial deaths and hesitations by the city council, the city is soon shut down, field hospitals are opened and businesses and social life are restricted. The story follows the daily life and observations of a few key characters as they endure and sometimes succumb to the pandemic in their city.
The depictions of city life, the social aspects of city dwellers and the characterization of the principal actors is quite good. You really get a feel for the daily routine of the city, the various parts of this port city and the culture and habits of the 1940s in it. The plague is depicted in all its intricate gory details. The novel mostly deals with bubonic plague, which causes swollen lymph glands (buboes) in the patients, which the doctors try to lance to treat them. The main character, Dr. Rieux, tries to obtain and later synthesize serum to aid the afflicted, but to no avail.
Apparently, Camus is the principal architect of the philosophy of absurdism and this novel is a prime example of that. That is, here the characters are powerless against the plague to control or change their destinies. All they can do is live it.
Camus’ literary skill is delicious, see excerpts below. There are quite a few memorable bits in the novel. My favorite is Father Paneloux’s sermon at the start of the plague, and how he is later forced to question his very religion. But the novel is also a slog and unnecessarily long in many places. A good example is the journalist Rambert’s plan to escape from the city which sucks up a large part of the novel. Overall, I would have loved this novel more had it not been this uninterestingly verbose.
Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.
From the outlying districts, as happens every evening in our town, a gentle breeze wafted a murmur of voices, smells of roasting meat, a gay, perfumed tide of freedom sounding on its way, as the streets filled up with noisy young people released from shops and offices. Nightfall, with its deep, remote baying of unseen ships, the rumor rising from the sea, and the happy tumult of the crowd, that first hour of darkness which in the past had always had a special charm for Rieux, seemed today charged with menace, because of all he knew.
… the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose.
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. Thus the only way of escaping from that intolerable leisure was to set the trains running again in one’s imagination and in filling the silence with the fancied tinkle of a doorbell, in practice obstinately mute.
… offices where human faces were as blank as the filing-cabinets and the dusty records on the shelves behind them.
The silent city was no more than an assemblage of huge, inert cubes, between which only the mute effigies of great men, carapaced in bronze, with their blank stone or metal faces, conjured up a sorry semblance of what the man had been. In lifeless squares and avenues these tawdry idols lorded it under the lowering sky; stolid monsters that might have personified the rule of immobility imposed on us, or, anyhow, its final aspect, that of a defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice.
… that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn.