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The Plague: My all-time favourite

23 September 2013 05:01 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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- By Gamini Akmeemana

Having been introduced to French literature early on because of my French language studies, I began reading French authors avidly. Among modern works, The Plague by Albert Camus gripped me like none other, and has remained a firm favourite to this day, remaining eminently readable.

The photogenic Albert Camus was easier to like as a person than any of his contemporaries. Almost every photograph of Camus I’d seen showed him with a cigarette on his lips, adding a cinematic touch to his good looks. You knew, too, that he had once been goalkeeper to the French football team. Then there was the fact that he had died relatively young in a car accident, after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.

That was a different image from the familiar gallery, from Dickens, Tolstoi and Balzac to Lawrence and Sartre, people whom you didn’t associate with football. Nor were they ever painted or photographed while smoking (unless it was a pipe, which is again symbol of high society). Therefore, one could say that I was already heavily biased towards Camus when I started reading him.

But I know I’d find him equally readable if the image showed a man who looked stern, wizened, stooping and peering at the world through thick lenses. But then, I doubt if someone fitting that image could have written books such as The Plague and The Stranger, because they exude a physical, almost animal vitality which is characteristic of the author.

Camus’ name is associated with French existentialism. Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1978) was the founder of existentialism, while German Philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) became a major exponent. The principal exponents of this school of thought (in fiction writing) were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

As an adolescent reading their works, I found the idea to be alien, because I had developed within a very different cultural mould steeped in tradition. But the dominant and related idea of absurdism, that people looking for meaning in life could end up not finding anything (a very nihilistic idea) struck a chord in me even then.
Today, having seen a lot more of life  and having personally witnessed political terror (both by the state and its enemies), having experienced mayhem and personal loss along with all the absurdities and vagaries of life in the third world, and having freed myself from the shackles of culture, tradition and political belief, I can now relate more wholeheartedly to these once alien ideas. Life does look absurd, and you don’t kid yourself any more that people have control over their lives.

" Today, having seen a lot more of life  and having personally witnessed political terror (both by the state and its enemies), having experienced mayhem and personal loss along with all the absurdities and vagaries of life in the third world, and having freed myself from the shackles of culture, tradition and political belief, I can now relate more wholeheartedly to these once alien ideas "
But my admiration for The Plague is not merely at the level of ideas. It’s admirable for its courageous vision, its poetic narration and the mythic scale of its action.  The fictional set up of a 20th century city invaded by the medieval spectre of plague, thought to have been eradicated by modern medical science, is daring. To make that setting work requires great writing ability and imagination.

Camus carries it off so well that so many characters and scenes from the book are etched in your mind. I still remain haunted by his description of the beaches, where the bodies of plague victims are burned as the contagion spreads. There’s something Homeric about those descriptions.

The Plague has a narrator, though it’s not a first person narration and the narrator reveals himself only at the end as Dr. Bernard Rieux, who is the first to realise that the mysterious fever which kills his concierge stems from no ordinary virus.

The city that is struck by the plague is Oran, in Algeria. Therefore, it’s a colonial setting with the Arab population living in their quarter, dominated by a cosmopolitan French population ruled by a French administration. Officials react with disbelief when Dr. Rieux tells them the truth about Oran’s mysterious illness. When they finally take the correct measures, the entire city is stricken and thousands begin to die.

Other characters include Jean Tarrou, a vacationer who is furious when the city is sealed and he can’t return to France. He’s a good-natured liberal-minded person who has fought for the Republicans in Spain, and is against the death penalty. Joseph Grand is a middle-aged clerk, who sees that his services are needed. They join Dr. Rieux and help him treat plague victims both at his home and at the hospital.

These themes of quiet heroism and cowardice run parallel throughout the narration. Cottard, a criminal, decides to exploit the quarantine and get rich by smuggling. Raymond Rambert joins the smugglers, so that he could escape to Paris and join his girl friend. Father Paneloux, a stern Jesuit, exploits the trapped inhabitants’ fears and admonishes them that they have been struck by the ‘flail of God.’

Camus uses the death of an innocent child as a literary device to negate this idea. If all plague victims are sinners, how is it that a child, too, could suffer horribly and die? He provides no answers   because, after all, his thesis is that life is absurd and people have no control over their lives. But his narration is dominated by people who achieve heroic status. For example, Dr. Rieux is no cynic and throws himself whole-heartedly into fighting the plague. Even the disillusioned Tarrou doesn’t give in to cynicism, and pays for his self-sacrifice with his own life at the end.
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