Having a focus on African literature, it’s almost inevitable to give Albert Camus a special place in the limelight. Most people think that the existentialist, who always considered this label as rather inappropriate, was a French writer to the backbone, but the truth is that the roots of the Nobel Prize laureate of 1957 were North African, more precisely Algerian. What makes Albert Camus’ most popular and accessible novel The Plague an even better choice for today’s review is the fact that it’s set in Africa, namely in the city of Oran, Algeria.
Albert Camus was born in Dréan, Algeria, in November 1913. He studied philosophy at the University of Algiers and joined the Algerian Communist Party that later expelled him. From 1938 on Albert Camus worked every once and again as a reporter. When he moved to Paris in 1940, he got into fiction writing. His first books, The Stranger (L'étranger) and The Myth of Sisyphus (Le mythe de Sisyphe), were published in 1942 and well received in literary circles. In 1945 his first play, Caligula, was successfully put on the stage. The best-selling novel The Plague (La peste) was published in 1947 and made the writer famous. Several other novels and plays followed until 1957 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Albert Camus was killed in a car accident in January 1960. Two of his works, A Happy Death (La mort heureuse) and The First Man (Le premier homme), were brought out posthumously in 1970 and 1995 respectively.
The story of The Plague covers approximately one year in the 1940s, starting in spring. Before jumping into matters a nameless narrator describes the city of Oran at the Mediterranean coast in great detail and declares his intention to chronicle the events that he witnessed there. The main character is Doctor Bernard Rieux who is present and doing his job from beginning to end. The first signs that something is awfully wrong in Oran are the rats appearing on the open streets and in the houses only to die there in agony. In the first part of the novel the inhabitants are startled at the number of dead rats, but not yet really worried, and the officials are reluctant to take action in order to prevent an epidemic even when ever more people die from ‘the special type of fever’. Only by the end of part one the city is sealed off and the outbreak of plague is officially declared. Parts two, three and four of the novel show how the inhabitants of Oran deal with being trapped in their city that has become dangerous all of a sudden. Many turn to religion, some take advantage of the situation to make a fortune, others devote themselves to taking care of the sick, and others again plan their escape from the city because they miss their loved ones so much. The epidemic continues to claim ever more victims and the conditions worsen as summer reaches its height. A curfew and martial law are declared to protect the desperate and helpless inhabitants. In autumn the epidemic finally reaches its tipping point, but people are too worn out and discouraged to rejoice already. The plague continues to keep Oran in its grip until spring, but then things soon are back to normal.
Albert Camus’ The Plague is a captivating story about human behaviour under inhumane conditions, especially in times of helpless suffering and under isolation from the world. The parallels to German-occupied France and the French Résistance during World War II are more than obvious. Resignation, collaboration and revolt are present throughout the text. Progress and course of the epidemic – fascism - are mirrored by the four seasons. The style of the novel is very metaphorical and has often been compared to Franz Kafka’s The Trial (Der Prozeß). Many sentences and passages allow different interpretations. Despite all it’s easy to read, probably because Albert Camus put much of himself into the story.
I enjoyed reading The Plague very much and although more than half a century has passed since its first appearance, it’s more than just worthwhile the time reading the story of Oran and pondering about the different aspects of life and the human condition that Albert Camus so masterly expressed. Hence I highly recommend this novel to all of you.