How would I simply describe The Plague to someone who hasn’t read it? I would go for a popular analogy, in this case: imagine the early seasons of The Walking Dead, only without the zombies, in a single city in North Africa. It’s pretty much like that.
If people know the work of Albert Camus, it is generally through his 1942 novel L’Étranger (translated either as The Stranger or The Outsider), a book read by many alienated youths in their teens and early twenties (full disclosure: I read it at seventeen, and again at twenty-four). Camus, who after leaving university wrote for left-wing periodicals before the advent of World War II, went from being a somewhat indifferent pacifist to fighting in the French Resistance during the German occupation of France. Although he survived the war, he died in an automobile accident only fifteen years later, in 1960, at the age of forty-six. However, despite his short life, Camus’ literary output included short stories, plays, philosophical works, and two other novels completed in his lifetime: La Chute (The Fall), and La Peste (The Plague). In the latter, published in 1947, Camus has written a powerful, but sometimes over-labored novel, filled with echoes of the Second World War. It is also a book which may well have lost something in translation, particularly the 1948 version, rendered into English by Stuart Gilbert.
Broken into five parts, The Plague begins with a mysterious apparition of rats in the Algerian port town of Oran. The rats are driven from their concealment only to die violently, and the town officials must make arrangements to dispose of the vast numbers of dead rodents. Even as they are doing so, the first cases of mysterious deaths are observed by Dr Bernard Rieux and his colleagues, including Castel, another physician who is convinced that the bubonic plague has re-emerged in Oran. Rieux, who has just sent his wife away to a sanatorium to recuperate from an unrelated illness, meets the journalist Rambert at the station. Rambert is eager to return to Paris, for he is newly married. Although the numbers of victims continue to rise, there is little immediate response, and life continues as normal. The authorities of the town are slow to react, and couch official announcements in unrealistically optimistic language. As the number of deaths continues to rise, the town’s doctors are faced with the helpless task of attempting to care for the ill as the situation grows into a criss.
In the second part of The Plague, the town of Oran is sealed off. Trade ceases, no one may enter or leave, and a military curfew is put into place. The journalist Rambert, having been forbidden by authorities to leave Oran, connives with smugglers to escape, even as Rieux, Tarrou, and Grand establish a squad of volunteers intended to help the over-stretched doctors and hospitals deal with the infected, the dying, and the dead.
In the third part of the book, burials grow increasingly haphazard, and include descriptions of pits filled with bodies and then covered with caustic layers of lime, as well as special trains carrying bodies to crematoria. Both images are of course tragically reminiscent of events of the Second World War.
In Part Four, during September and October, Tarrou and Cottard go to one of the few entertainments left to the natives of Oran, a performance of Christoph Gluck’s somber 1762 opera, Orpheus and Eurydice (fittingly chosen by Camus, as Act One begins with the curtain opening on the funeral of Eurydice). When the singer portraying Orpheus collapses in Act Three, exhibiting plague symptoms, Camus then effectively cuts off the finale of the opera, in which Eurydice is restored to Orpheus, metaphorically demonstrating other instances where the plague is a greater force than “true love.” The picture painted by Camus of the crude camps of tents and buildings constructed by plague victims are again reminiscent of the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. By Christmas, the town has descended into little more than a shadow of its former self, with empty shop windows and children left to play with crude, hand-made toys. But, by the first of the new year, the numbers of new cases of plague are finally beginning to decrease.
In Part Five, Rieux’s friend Tarrou finally succumbs himself to what is described as a combination of both strains of the plague, and he dies in Rieux’s flat, while the doctor and his mother watch over him. And Cottard, at last sought once more by the authorities, goes mad and begins taking pot-shots at passers-by from his window in Grand’s house. When he is captured by police, one has a feeling that he is meant to be seen as another archetypical figure that Camus would have known from the war, that of the collaborator. Rieux reflects on the personal tragedies that have affected his friends and himself, in the light of the greater forces of history, plague, and rats.
Coming to the end of The Plague, there were many instances where I felt let down by the Gilbert translation. Although I’m no longer practiced enough to casually read for pleasure or edification in French, a comparison of certain passages made me think that Stuart Gilbert took some fairly substantial liberties with Camus’ original text: in some places adding descriptions which weren’t in the French, and in others stripping out some of Camus’ stark original prose. This made me wonder if I might not have found the book to be a livelier, or more enjoyable, affair if I had possessed a different edition. If I had the time to read the book over again, I would either work my way through the original with a good Français-Anglais dictionary or three, or try for the recently-published version published by Robin Buss, whose translation of The Count of Monte Cristo I greatly enjoyed.
But questions of translation aside, Camus was a compelling writer whose absurdist philosophy, as seen in The Plague, is a many-layered thing, full of subtlety and complexity. Whether you read The Plague as an analogue to World War II or as a novel of the human condition, it will leave it’s mark on you. Four stars.
Reviewed 29 October 2015.
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