Wednesday, September 06, 2023

the last book I read

The Plague by Albert Camus.

Welcome to Oran, on the north coast of Algeria. Hot, isn't it? But you can always have a dip in the sea, and after that there's all the houmous you can eat. There is a small problem, admittedly: all the rats in the town have died and we're not sure why. Also, people seem to be getting sick with these weird black lumps all over them. Buuuuut, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. Have another kebab!

Wait, no, actually things are getting a bit serious and it looks like we actually do have an outbreak of bubonic plague on our hands here. So, as an unfortunate consequence, some pretty severe restrictions are going to have to be imposed on people entering and, in particular, leaving the city. That goes for everyone, even if you'd only popped over from the next town to drop off a lawnmower or something. 

The daily case numbers continue to increase, well beyond the capacity of the few medical professionals in the town to cope with, and even eventually beyond the capacity of the cemeteries to accommodate, and so bodies are just dumped in massive pits and covered with quicklime. 

Yes, yes, you'll be saying; I get the idea, but a faceless parade of ravaged bloated corpses only goes so far. Let's meet some actual, ideally living, people. So here's Dr. Rieux, gamely trying to keep up with the constant stream of patients, many of whom he can do nothing for other than make them comfortable and let nature take its course. He lives with his mother, his wife having gone out of town before the pandemic to be treated for some other (unspecified) medical condition. Dr. Rieux is a resolutely unheroic type, but nonetheless presses on doing what must be done, including organising civilian medical squads to relieve the qualified medical people of some of the burden and carry out basic logistical tasks. One of his volunteers here is Tarrou, motivated to acts of public service by his father, a prominent judge, and his keen advocacy of the death penalty. Another is Rambert, initially inclined to try to escape the town to be reunited with his fiancĂ©e, but ultimately unable to square such an act with his conscience.

Others react to the pandemic in different ways. Cottard, already possibly under suspicion for acts of violence outside the town, and having survived a suicide attempt in the early days of the plague, takes advantage of the breakdown of the normal channels of commerce to make a killing doing some shady black market selling, and then, when the plague starts to recede, anticipates being arrested for his prior crimes (whatever they were) and holes himself up in his apartment with a gun. Meanwhile Father Paneloux views the whole thing as God's judgment on his flock for not being devout enough, not donating enough to the collection plate, wanking too much, or something like that.

Anyway, the plague runs its course, as these things eventually do - Tarrou succumbs to it right at the end but Rieux survives, although he hears that his wife has died. Those in the town who have survived contemplate a return to normal life, in the knowledge that the plague is only lying dormant, ready to pop up again at some point in the future.

First thing to say here is yes, of course this can be read as an allegory of French occupation by the Nazis during World War II - Camus wrote it during the war and it was published in 1947. I think the non-allegorical reading where it's just a story of human reaction to some extreme circumstances probably resonates more now than it would have done, say, four years ago. The business of restrictions on movement, not being able to see loved ones, even in their final moments, and the general feeling of claustrophobia and powerlessness will be very familiar to anyone who lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, even if the disease itself was a bit less deadly to those who caught it.

One thing that struck me as I read the last paragraph was how similar it was to the last paragraph of Ian McEwan's Black Dogs, another novel that uses its ostensible subject matter as a metaphor for past and future existential threats to freedom. Decide for yourself:

I suspect it's almost impossible that McEwan wasn't familiar with The Plague when he wrote Black Dogs in 1992, so I'm going to conclude that the echo must have been deliberate. I see I've mentioned this before, so I won't dwell on it, but despite it being generally regarded as a minor item in his oeuvre I think Black Dogs might be my favourite McEwan of all. 

Anyway, back to The Plague, which I enjoyed very much; it tells a pretty simple story in a pretty simple and unadorned way, a story which despite the undoubtedly deliberate allegorical stuff can just be read "straight" without losing much (and, as I said above, has extra resonance now). Any reference to Camus' writing style being very readable, which it is, must acknowledge that The Plague was originally written in French and therefore part of the credit must go to the translator, Robin Buss. Anyway, don't be put off by Camus' literary reputation or the apparent grimness of the subject matter.

No comments: