Book Review – The Plague by Albert Camus

Camus’ allegorical tale of a town under siege from a pestilential onslaught is amongst his most famous works. Having heard much about the subject matter, and intrigued by the notion of the Absurd raised in the only other Camus text I have read to date – The Stranger – I was curious to see how the philosophy was played out in this narrative.

Set in Oran, the threat is swiftly announced by the gloomy portent of an ever growing number of rats dying across the town. A clinically arresting visual, that announces the severity of the impending threat graphically and succintly. Unfolding in 5 parts, the chronicle of this beleagured and endangered town is marshalled chiefly through the eyes of Doctor Rieux ( later revealed to be the narrator ), who interracts with and observes the many different ways the citizens respond to the mental pressures of being trapped within quarantine.

The philosophical message that comes through to my mind is quite clear, in a time of crisis, questions of purpose and resistance become narrowed down to core principles: resistance against any form of terror, regardless of how overwhelming the enemy force is, or how futile it may seem ,is not only essential, but simply inevitable in it’s effect on one’s sense of self-identity. Communal solidarity supercedes individual desires, an ethos exemplified by the character of Rambert, the journalist who spends much of the novel plotting an escape home to his partner, from whom he has been separated, only to realise when the opportunity does arise, he belongs at the side or Rieux and Tarrou assisting the plague. To have left, despite a sympathetic cause at it’s heart, would have involved an undermining of a more powerful tie to his humanity, that of solidarity – the levelling effect of the suffering of a force that does not discriminate class or motive in it’s attacks.

As a student of the second world war and the Resistance in France, one can make an evident parallel with the struggles faced by those trapped in Nazi occupied territories, and the dilemmas of those seeking to communicate with the outside world or those who despite limited abilities find a form of resistance sometimes merely in adopting a state of mind – the premise of solidarity as a necessary expression of identity here is quite clear cut.

It is wrong however to ascribe with any certainty one particular event in mind, the tale is written in a ‘pandemic’ fashion, that is to say that the underpinning of the message as a global allegory is rooted in it’s philosophical structures and of Absurdism. I am not sufficiently cogent in the philosophical language to elucidate further, though I will be endeavouring to read The Myth of Sisyphus  – the essay where Camus expands directly on such concepts to find out more.

In terms of reading pleasure, I will admit it took me a while to take to the style of writing. I don’t think the issue was with translation, whilst it also didn’t help I was forced to read the book only in very brief bursts sometimes as few as 10-15 pages at a time, which never helps one get into a ryhthym. However there is a classically ‘French’ element to the writing at times, which I personally find does require extra discipline to get through! That said, it is a text rich with ideas within it, and definitely should be on most people’s to read list!