Much has been written about Albert Camus and his acclaimed novel – La Peste - translated as The Plague in English. This article, therefore, does not intend to be a repetition of similar ones. A preliminary Google search reveals that several online publications have already come out with articles on the relevance of La Peste amidst the current coronavirus pandemic. BBC reports that the sale of the book has increased manifold in France, Italy and Britain in 2020 and that the book is currently in reprint.
The book came out in 1947. The purpose of this article is not to glorify Camus and his novel. The author of this article, having read the book again this week, is not on the lookout for philosophical, metaphysical or even literary gains from the book. That may well be reserved for another day. The focus is on essential key insights/takeaways from the book which would make us smarter during the pandemic as well as for life. The novel deals with an epidemic of plague striking the town of Oran in Algeria and the response of the town including the medical community and volunteers towards resisting it. It is in the form of a narrative or chronicle by Dr Bernard Rieux, who is one of the doctors of Oran in charge of treating the afflicted people. Though the central narrative is certainly about the plague epidemic, the novel tries to widen its scope to ‘pestilences’ in general, both natural and man-made, and to consequent human suffering and resistance.
The novel belongs to the philosophical novel genre though it can be regarded, in all respects, as an ‘open work’ or ‘Opera Aperta’ as Umberto Eco defines it. Openness indicates the capacity of the work to remain flexible to multiple simultaneous interpretations. There have been many reviews suggesting that Camus alluded to the Nazi invasion of France as The Plague, while few others have commented that the use of the term is a metaphor for life itself. However, the description of the plague as a disease in itself is so comprehensive and convincing that one cannot resist reading the novel in its most direct way possible, that of the narrative of an epidemic.
To waste no more time on introductions, here are some of the key insights from the novel.
1. The larger historical landscape
Through the narrative of Dr Rieux, Camus uses the initial chapters to position the current epidemic in Oran in a larger context by giving some details about previous plagues in history. This includes historical accounts from the Justinian Plague of Constantinople, the Black Death of Marseilles, the Great Plague of London, the Great Plague of Milan and the Plague of Athens. Also, in the final chapter, the author clearly mentions the possibility of recurrences of such plagues in the future. Thus Camus offers a model of understanding the catastrophe as an event in history rather than a singular challenge unmindful of time.
This is important because the current coronavirus pandemic appears as a pervasive and all-encompassing topic for all of us which seems to put every other event in the shadow. We are fully consumed by the thoughts of the pandemic while Camus suggests that need not be the case. Plagues are a part of human existence and disaster preparedness would be one of the best responses from our side.
2. An objective narrative
Many a time, in the book, the narrator seems to take extra effort to maintain the rigour of his narration, which reminds one of scientific pursuits. There are descriptions about the competence of the narrator, the kinds of data he has in his custody and his business being only to say “This is what happened”. The narrator clearly expresses his wish to adopt the tone of an impartial observer. He says he has confined himself to describing only such things as he was enabled to see for himself and has refrained from attributing to his fellow-sufferers, thoughts that they were not bound to have.
In another page, he describes the character of the chronicle, which is intended to be that of a narrative made with good feelings that are neither demonstrably bad nor overcharged with emotion in the ugly manner of a stage-play.
Thus, Camus underlines the importance of objectivity and rigour while narrating a catastrophic event of great social impact.
3. The nature of calamities
A paragraph from one of the initial chapters reads thus – “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that a pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is the men who pass away……”
And in the same page, “When a war breaks out, people say, ‘It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.’ But though a war may well be too stupid, that doesn’t prevent its lasting.”
Camus challenges our predisposition to attribute humanness to all events including calamities and to deny vehemently, the possibility of such events escalating into proportions fully beyond the scope of human imagination. In simple terms, he urges us to drop wishful thinking and self-denial of reality.
4. Optimal use of the resource of time
The author offers a defence against the repetitive unpredictable calamities which threaten our existence from time to time. That is a proper use of the available time at our disposal. To illustrate this point, he uses as examples Rieux’ silent and relatively unexpressed love towards his mother and his relationship with his friend who had died ‘without their friendship’s having had time to enter fully into the life of either’.
Camus suggests that an ever so valuable and fulfilling entity that one can sometimes attain, in an unpredictable world is human love. For people with greater and more abstract aspirations above the level of the human individual, time is a limiting factor. Our life is inherently unpredictable with the possibilities of recurring plagues and calamities and hence, finding time for love and happiness is crucial.
5. From heroism to decency
The narrative avoids repetitively the tendency to identify heroes in the town’s resistance against the plague. Rieux makes this clear when he says – “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is – being a man.”
Also in Rieux’s conversation with his journalist friend, Rambert, “there is no question of heroism in all this. It is a matter of common decency……but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency.” Throughout the narrative, people are portrayed in a realistic manner without any sort of hero/villain divide and there are efforts to visualise the plague through the eyes of different characters, with their own different meanings. While downplaying the ‘hero’ concept, Camus characterises the healers of the plague as people who, while unable to be saints, refuse to bow down to pestilences. By avoiding the propensity for idolatry, one is left with a much more realistic perspective on human responses in the wake of a disaster.
6. The significance of a chronicle
Many volunteers in the resistance against the Plague succumb to it including Jean Tarrou, Magistrate Othon and Father Paneloux. When the plague finally comes to an end, the dead are forgotten in the egoistic, but necessary celebrations of the living. Dr Rieux decides to compile the chronicle amid the celebrations ‘to bear witness to those plague-stricken people, so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure’. Also, he wants to state, ‘quite simply, what we learn in a time of pestilence’. The well-known medical information website, Medscape, has made an expanding list of all the frontline healthcare workers who succumbed to Covid-19. It is an effort to remember, and remember we must.
It may suffice to mention that the book offers a lot more insights of note. In conclusion, one is compelled, merely, to add a small conversation between Rambert and Dr. Rieux.
Who taught you all this, doctor?
The reply came promptly.
The author of the review is a Consultant Psychiatrist based in Ernakulam, Kerala.