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Albert Camus

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Quarantine Reading: „La Peste“

Sales are soaring of „The Plague“, Albert Camus’ 1947 tale of privations, despair and heroism in a city under quarantine. It’s no wonder. This gem of a book deserves revisiting.

By Chris Cummins

St. Anton, Paznaun and Heiligenblut are in community quarantine and, let’s be honest, many of us in Austria have more time than usual to read books; so why not revisit the classic life under quarantine novel?

“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves,” writes the narrator in Camus’ „La Peste“, translated as „The Plague“ in English.

The novel tells the story of an imaginary bout of bubonic plague hitting the Algerian coastal city of Oran in the 1940s, when it was still under French control.

When I first read Camus’ book, as a student of French literature, I’d been told it was an allegory of life under the Nazi occupation. To be truthful, however, I enjoyed it on a purely literal level as a gripping story of the horror and heroism experienced by a city rocked by a creepingly deadly disease. Camus’ imagining of the anxiety suffered by the citizens and the consternation caused official decrees that curtailed the citizens freedom seemed to ring vividly true.

„A bad dream that will pass away“

And like many people who have read this remarkable novel, it’s been on my mind ever since we first heard of the strange pneumonia-virus bringing lock-down to the Chinese city of Wuhan.

It all begins with what would be news-in-brief in a local paper. Locals start to remark on the bizarre sight of rats dying on the open streets and in the corridors of housing blocks. It’s the subject of small-talk and grumbling. But then, as the sight of dead rats becomes less common, the human population starts to die; usually after fever accompanied by swollen glands and a rasping thirst.

At first it is a few isolated cases. Dr. Bernard Rieux, the main character, is among the first to realize the seriousness of the situation but the population is not yet overly concerned:

„We tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away,” writes the narrator, later revealed as Dr. Rieux himself. “But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away.“

Time Slips By

Scared, wary of panic, not wishing to put a name of the disease, the authorities are hesitant to react. Dr.Rieux, speaking at a hastily convened health commission meeting, grows ever more exasperated as the valuable time for action is slipping by. The bureaucrats warn against haste.

“It’s not a question of painting too black a picture,” retorts Rieux. “It’s a question of taking precautions.” He leaves the room followed by “scowls and protestations.”

The Collapse of Courage

But as the death-toll rises, the authorities do act and seal off the town. Immediately, the most disconcerting aspect for those trapped within the city limits is that there is no fix end-point to look forward to; no official date for the end of quarantine.

The townspeople fall into a deep depression. “At such moments the collapse of their courage, willpower, and endurance was so abrupt that they felt they could never drag themselves out of the pit of despondency into which they had fallen.”

At this early stage, they react with anger at the authorities: the death toll is still relatively low: aren’t the measures too draconian? Many drink themselves silly to escape the sense of anxiety, others start to horde food, hoping to sell it on at higher price. “Anyhow, we’ll all be nuts before too long,” remarks a character called Cottard.

As the period of quarantine and illness continue, the trapped citizens feel they’ve “been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment.”

Most significantly though, they have their minds on their own fate, their own worries. They look away when an ambulance arrives to take away a victim. They don’t want to be connected to the crisis.

Many people, at first, feel they have special reasons to be excluded from the strict ban on leaving the city but „it needed several days for us to realize that we were completed cornered; that words like ‚special arrangements‘, ‚favour‘ and ‚priority‘ had lost all effective meaning.“

The Tireless Doctor

A curfew is imposed and, at night, the city becomes a ghostly quiet; empty squares, empty streets and the eerie atmosphere of dread: „a defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice.“

Dr. Rieux, meanwhile, injects serum, lances abscesses, and tries his best to ease suffering and contain the spread of the disease.

„There lay certitude; there in the daily round... The thing was to do your job as it should be done.“

He works endless hours, barely sleeping; doing his work out of no higher motivation than that it is work that has to be done and therefore someone has to do it:

“Rieux had learned that he need no longer steel himself against pity. One grows out of pity when it is useless. And in this feeling that his heart had slowly closed in on itself, the doctor found solace, his only solace, for the almost unendurable burden of his days.”

"...helpless yet again under the onset of calamity.

He is the model of the selfless medic, and I’ve often thought of this quietly charismatic character when I’ve seen the faces of exhausted Italian doctors interviewed on TV.

Dr. Rieux is lonely for his sick wife exiled at a sanitorium, and without the crux of religion or even moral philosophy to fall back on, he cuts a heroic and sometimes tragic figure. He’s described as standing “unavailing, on the shore, empty-handed and sick of heart, unarmed but helpless yet again under the onset of calamity.”

His words, imagined by Camus, will be recognized by doctors and nurses in over-stretched medical facilities across the world; those calm men and women on the medical front-line with tired eyes and an unflinching sense of duty.

"This business is everyone’s business.”

If Rieux is an absorbing central character he also has a fine supporting cast: There’s Rambert, the young journalist cut off from his wife in Paris, who is initially desperate to escape, convinced that the struggles of the people of Oran are not his concern.

He helps Rieux and his allies combat the disease but simultaneously negotiates with criminals who, for the right price, might help smuggle him out of the quarantined city. Yet when it looks like he might achieve his goals, movingly, he abandons his plans out of a sense of solidarity.

“Now that I have seen what I have seen, I know that I belong here where I want to or not. This business is everyone’s business.”

Appreciating the Beauty of Life

Then there’s Tarrou, a disillusioned idealist, a secularist who is fascinated by the moral strength of saints, an outsider who happened to be in the city as the quarantine was declared.

He risks his life daily while keeping a quirky diary on the habits of a population faced with an emergency and is the human beating-heart of crisis management; urging his new friend Dr. Rieux to accompany him on a late night swim:

“Really, it’s too damn silly living only in and for the plague. Of course a man should fight for the victims, but, if he ceases caring for anything outside that, what’s the use of his fighting?”

“Right,” Rieux said, “Let’s go.”

Other recommendations:

Viruses, A Very Short Introduction - Dorothy H Crawford, 2001
From smallpox, to Epstein-Barr, to HIV to MERS. How viruses work and their impact on humanity. Concise, lively and erudite popular science from a top virologist.

The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris by Mark Honigsbaum, 2019
A history of recent epidemics and the often clumsy way governments have mismanaged them, by a journalist and medical historian.

What are your recommendations for lockdown reading?

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