26 April 2020

The Plague by Albert Camus

The PlagueThe Plague by Albert Camus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the start of the restrictions on "social distance" intended to prevent or at least slow the spread of the corona virus, I recommended some books to read during quarantine and social isolation, and this was one of them. And since it's about 60 years since I read it, I thought I ought to take my own advice and read it again.

When I first read it as a teenager various people told me that though it was ostensibly a story about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city of Oran in Algeria, then a French colony, which led to the whole city being placed under quarantine, it was really a kind of allegory of the Nazi plague that had devastated Europe a few years before it was published. I didn't really see it at the time. Sometimes a story is just a story, and that is what I thought this one was.

But now I am older I have read many more books and many more literary genres and have greater knowledge of history and experience of life, so perhaps I would see the allegory that had escaped me before. But I have to confess that I didn't. I thought it no more an allegory than The Lord of the Rings is an allegory.

Yes, a lifetime of experience enabled me to see things that I did not see before, so I was looking through different eyes.

One of the things I saw for the first time was that at the beginning of the book a journalist, who is trapped in the city by the quarantine, had come to write about the conditions under which the Arab population of the city were living, and that was practically the last mention of the Arab population at all. We are told nothing, absolutely nothing, about how the plague affected them. But when the Nazi plague came to France, the Jews did not cease to exist. I am sure many of them would have wished to be as invisible during the Nazi occupation as the Arabs are in Camus's book.

Camus himself was trapped in Nazi-occupied France, and when he writes of the plague as "exile", he writes from real experience. It makes little difference whether the exile is caused by political conditions, war or disease, the effects are the same. And it is not just those whose homes are outside and who are trapped in the plague-ridden city who are exiles; those who have homes in the city experience exile too, and exile, in Camus's view, is essentially separation from people you love and who love you.

Between 1966 and 1972 I experienced something like such exile four times in my life, and twice in one year. The first was when I had to skip the country to study in England in 1966. Of course I was planning to go anyway, but the haste of my sudden departure (on the road to Bulawayo within five hours of a phone call from a Security Policeman) left loose ends and unfinished business in relationships that made it feel like exile to me. Then after  my return when Bishop Inman kicked me out of the Missions to Seamen in Durban when I had only been there for six months, and I went to Namibia. After a couple of years there I was beginning to feel at home and was then deported by the South West Africa administration. I went to stay with my cousin in Pietermaritzburg and four months later was banned to Durban. But out of each of those events good things eventually came, lessons were learned, and I met people I would not otherwise have met (including my wife Val), so I would have been poorer for not having met them.

After the last of these exiles, in 1972, I read The Anatomy of Exile to help me to interpret the experience, and coming to The Plague with some experience of exile enables me to see a bit more of what Camus is getting at.

The other major difference between my first reading and now is that we are now in the middle of a "lockdown" because of an infectious disease, and it is interesting to see how what Camus describes compares. Many things he described are very similar, but in The Plague there is little social distancing. People are still allowed to walk the streets, frequent cafes and attend church services. Even when the pneumonic variety of transmission of Yersinia Pestis appears, no one seems to be required to wear face masks. Only sports fixtures are cancelled, though not so much for fear of contagion as because in Camus's book they have been requisitioned as quarantine centres for those whose family members have been hospitalised with the plague. In Camus's book there is a vaccine, though supplies are inadequate because no one had envisaged an outbreak on such a scale. And of course the plague is bacterial, not viral, so antibiotics are more effective against it nowadays.

At some points I thought I might give it five stars on GoodReads instead of my original four, but a couple of things put me off. One is the invisibility of the Arab population mentioned earlier. The second is a small boy, the son of a rather strict magistrate, who is taken ill. His name is Philippe, but later his father refers to him as Jacques. Not remembering the names of the people you love doesn't seem to be a good thing in a book about love and exile.

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