The Plague by Albert Camus; translated by Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage International, 1948. 320 pp)

Born in French Algeria, Albert Camus was a renowned author and philosopher. He attended the University of Algiers. Camus is best known for his novels, The Plague and The Stranger as well as his view of absurdism in philosophy. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957 and died in a car accident in 1960.

Stuart Gilbert was an English literary scholar and translator. He translated into English works from André Malraux, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Georges Simenon, Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Awaiting the Big One

It seems every couple of years, a potential pandemic arises. Whether swine or bird flu, society lives in fear of the next Spanish flu, a robust strain of influenza capable of wreaking havoc in the world. Perhaps this phobia emerges from the fear of the unknown. If we can’t measure and experiment it, how can we ever be prepared? Such an illness reminds us of the powerlessness of humanity. No matter how advanced our technology becomes, a small virus can destroy society.

Interestingly, the portrayal of pandemics exists throughout the media of artistic expression. Just recently, we encountered the theme in the blockbuster, Contagion.

While most certainly not the first in this genre (though it might be—more research is required and I am too lazy to do it), I found Albert Camus’ The Plague fascinating.

The Plague

Photo by José Goulão

Chronicling the rise of a pandemic in the Algerian city of Oran in the early 1940s, The Plague follows Dr. Bernard Rieux and his fellow medical workers as they combat the bubonic plague.

Much like the devastating plague of the Middle Ages, residents begin the spiral downward when they notice the city’s rat population dwindling in dramatic fashion.

“Puffing a cigarette, Jean Tarrou was gazing down at the convulsions of a rat dying on the step in front of him. He looked up, and his gray eyes remained fixed on the doctor for some moments; then, after wishing him good day, he remarked that it was rather odd, the way all these rats were coming out of their holes to die” (13).

Soon, the strange rat deaths transfer to their human counterparts. What begins as a few cases emerging daily grows exponentially in the coming weeks. Very quickly, the plague overwhelms Rieux.

“And every evening mothers wailed thus, with a distraught abstraction, as their eyes fell on those fatal stigmata on limbs and bellies; every evening hands gripped Rieux’s arms, there was a rush of useless words, promises, and tears; every evening the nearing tocsin of the ambulance provoked scenes as vain as every form of grief. Rieux had nothing to look forward to but a long sequence of such scenes, renewed again and again” (90-91).

The grueling deaths from the plague create a miasmic atmosphere. Rieux and his motley assembly of volunteers traverse thequarintined city helping the sick. What follows is a life and death struggle between citizens and this faceless affliction.

Gritty Realism

For me, The Plague resembles Saramago’s Blindness and I wonder how much influence Camus provides for Saramago. The prose in The Plague displays a gritty realism reminding the reader of the ever-present danger lurking behind every breath, wheeze, and cough.

Camus vividly depicts this realism when describing the agony of infected Oran citizens. Recounting a young child, Camus writes:

“When for the third time the fiery wave broke on him, lifting him a little, the child curled himself up and shrank away to the edge of the bed, as if in terror of the flames advancing on him, licking his limbs. A moment later, after tossing his head wildly to and fro, he flung off the blanket. From between the inflamed eyelids big tears welled up and trickled down the sunken, leaden-hued cheeks. When the spasm had passed, utterly exhausted, tensing his thin legs and arms, on which, within forty-eight hours, the flesh had wasted to the bone, the child lay flat, racked on the tumbled bed, in a grotesque parody of crucifixion” (215).

Such prose is heartbreaking and horrifying. The level of detail strikes fear in the heart of men. What is keeping our modern society from facing a new strain inflicting damage such as this?

A Fight Against Terror and Its Relentless Onslaughts

Albert Camus

Truthfully, life will always be a fight against such unknown assailants. Camus poetically ponders,

“Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers” (308).

When such unknowns emerge, a robust resolve to heal is the only response humanity has. Epidemics come and go. Some exotic bacteria will wreak havoc someday. But humanity has a choice. We can either cower behind an inevitable deterministic attitude, or we can fight.

Camus’ The Plague exhibits the horrifying nature of disease. It also promotes the tenacity of humanity. If you are interested in gritty realism, check out The Plague.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards

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