••• The International Writers Magazine - 21 Years on-line - Review
La Peste (The Plague)
by Albert Camus, The Modern Library/Random House, New York, 1948, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert, 256 pp.
In his Notebooks, v. II, September 1937 - April 1939, Albert Camus made the following observation:
"The misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truths, but only objects for love. / Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it."
That in brief sums up the philosophical underpinnings of his timeless novel The Plague (Le Peste), written in 1947 and set in his native Algeria.
The novel’s unnamed narrator begins an account of unusual events that took place in the Mediterranean port city of Oran in 194_. After describing a city of indifferent ordinariness and inhabitants obsessed with making money, the narrator identifies when Oran took a tragic turn.
One morning, Dr. Bernard Rieux is leaving surgery, on his way down the stairs, when he steps on something soft. A dead rat. Thus begins the account of an outbreak of the plague: Rats emerge everywhere, only to die in the open. The scourge of millennia, the bubonic plague has come to Oran.
Hundreds of dead rats across the city must be disposed. Then people develop the swellings, the boils, the fevers Dr. Rieux must grimly acknowledge as Bacillus unleashed. At first, the narrator describes the fatalities as surreal and off-stage—deaths as statistics. The principal character, Dr. Rieux, must work tirelessly, with no time nor need to reflect on the irrational suffering brought on countless victims. The plague gives Camus the perfect metaphor for a world turned absurd.
Contact with the outside world ceases, and the port city is locked down. Infected patients are moved into quarantine.
Trapped in the city after the lockdown is a Paris journalist, Rambert. He’d come to get the "story," but is unable to leave, unable to rejoin his fiancee. He’ll negotiate with smugglers, who will get him out. But the ardor of Dr. Rieux's tireless work has its effect when the doctor asks Rambert, Why don't you want to leave and be happy?
Another character, Father Paneloux, must reconsider his sermon arguing the plague was God's punishment for people's venial sins. Will he be forced to lose his faith? Or find his faith has a new context?
Gonzales, the smuggler, finds the example of Rieux's love in action, tending to patients, as cause for a change of heart. One more for whom Camus illustrates the existential choice inherent in objects worthy of love.
The plague, of course, must eventually stop claiming victims, as it has done through the millennia, but with as much mystery and suddenness as with which it started. As mysterious as a cat, the first to reappear in the novel’s climactic pages.