"All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences" - The Plague by Albert Camus
Albert Camus was a major figure in 20th century literature and philosophy. He was a novelist, playwright essayist, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1957. Camus is connected with the philosophy of absurdism which is the belief that the universe is a meaningless chaotic place and therefore man's attempt to find meaning is futile since if there is no God what does it matter?
It's a bleak view of life and Camus who once described himself as "an atheist with Christian preoccupations" took issue with this mindset. He felt that despite the irrationality of the cosmos each of us should live a life of meaning and service anyway. He lays his philosophy out in The Stranger published 1942 which I read in 2017 and The Plague published 1947 which I have now finished. I much prefer The Plague but it's best to begin by reading The Stranger since these two books build on each other..
The Plague is set in the 1940's in the port city of Oran, Algeria. The unnamed narrator (who will be named at the end of the book) tells us about Oran which though it borders a beautiful ocean is a rather visually unappealing city and a citizenry concerned primarily with business. The narrator spends some time describing the ordinaryness of Oran possibly because a renarkable event is about to happen. It starts with rats coming out of their hiding places all over the city. Rats are suddenly everywhere and they are turning up dead. The citizens are alarmed and soon people in Oran start getting sick and dying with this mysterious illness. Soon the city is placed in quarantine. Nobody can enter Oran and no one can leave.
And so this novel is a kind of a petri dish of human nature and how people in a locked down city behave when an unforseen disaster occurs. The book zeroes in on a number of characters and their reaction to the plague. Raymond Rambert a journalist desparate to escape Oran so he can reunite with his wife. Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who is sure that the plague is punishment from God. M. Cottard who prior to the plague was wanted by the police and tried to commit suicide. He is a rather fascinating character because unlike the other citizens of Oran, Cottard is thriving during the plague.
And finally there is the main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux who works himself to the point of exhaustion treating plague-stricken patients. Dr Rieux becomes friends with Jean Tarrou who is visiting the city when the lockdown happens and decides to aid Dr. Rieux in his work. Both men are similar in that neither believes in God but both are deeply moral men and their discussions about what they are witnessing around them can get quite philosophical and are one of the highlights of the book. As Dr. Rieux explains to Tarrou at one point about why he became a doctor
"When I entered this profession I did it abstracted because it meant a career like an other, one that young men often aspire to. Perhaps, too, bbecause it was particularly difficult for a workman's son, like myself. And then I had to see people die. Do you know there are some who refuse to die? Have you ever heard a woman scream 'Never!" with her last gasp? Well, I have. And then I saw that I could never get hardened to it. I was young then, and I was outraged by the whole scheme of things, or so I thought. Subsequently, I grew more modest. Only I've never managed to get used to seeing people die. That's al I know".
I found The Plague to be a great novel and Albert Camus a remarkable man. He wrote The Plague around 1942 when he was living n France and a member of the French resistance working on the underground newspaper Combat. Critics have speculated that the plague which descends on the city of Oran is an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France. It's a novel that can be read on many levels and is certainly relevant during the times we are going through right now.
The Plague by Albert Camus fulfills the category choose a 20th century classic for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. The translator is Stuart Gilbert and he did a very fine job.