The Plague (La Peste), written by the French-Algerian Albert Camus in 1947, has, unsurprisingly, undergone a surge in sales in recent months (up 1,000 per cent).
It was his best-selling novel, and is considered by some to be an allegory of the wartime occupation of France by the Nazis.
It is set in the Algerian port of Oran where, at some unspecified time in the 1940s, there is an outbreak of bubonic plague. The disease spreads rapidly despite the efforts of Doctor Rieux (the main character) and a team of helpers. Eventually, after many months, thousands of deaths and severe quarantine conditions the plague dies down and the epidemic ends.
In the process Doctor Rieux loses some of his closest collaborators, and his wife, ironically sent to a TB sanitorium before the plague outbreak, dies many miles from Oran.
The idea of plague = Nazism is an easy one to take onboard and when I first read the novel (probably 50 years ago) this was how I understood it. On reading it again, two thoughts occurred to me: firstly that the parallel between the plague and Nazism is not very convincing; secondly – and this is hardly profound – it is impossible to read The Plague today without constantly thinking about the Covid-19 outbreak and looking for similarities and differences to the response to the plague in Oran.
The plague/Nazism dimension seems to rely primarily on the idea that plague is nasty, vile and a deadly killer and so is Nazism . Yet, once you go beyond this rather simplistic idea it gets complicated.
For example – the idea and practice of collaboration (a thorny issue in post-war France for many years) is complex and raises the question of how can you collaborate with a disease? Are you a "collaborator’" if you go to a cinema or a restaurant during the epidemic?
During the Nazi occupation of France, collaboration meant helping the Nazis, informing and pointing the finger at Resistance fighters, becoming a member of the French fascist party, supporting the collaborationist regime of Marshall Petain based in Vichy and so on. The Nazi occupation ultimately relied on brute physical force, manifested in various ways (military presence, torture, threats, beatings, deportations), but disease operates in a very different manner. It is hidden, covert and doesn’t discriminate between fascists, collaborators, communists, Gaullists or the editorial board of Combat – the underground resistance paper which Camus (to his eternal credit) wrote for and helped to produce.
Ultimately, what the reader is offered is biological causality instead of a political, ideological analysis. In this vein Simone de Beauvoir thought that the novel evaded coming to terms with what actually happened in France during the occupation.
With Covid-19 in mind, the novel, unsurprisingly, rings true at a whole number of levels. The city administration, the Prefecture, initially plays down the seriousness of the plague outbreak, saying people are being alarmist. Paris is slow in getting a serum to the beleaguered town and when supplies finally arrive they are pitifully small.
Eventually measures are taken and people are confined indoors, but most people in Oran live in apartment blocks of various sizes and they have no gardens. In the searing heat of summer conditions become unbearable and the beach area is out of bounds.
The slogan "Bread and air" is scrawled on walls, and there are demonstrations which the authorities brutally put down.
It is the poor who suffer the , while the wealthier outlying districts of Oran get away with only a few deaths and minor inconveniences. Racketeers pump up the price of foodstuffs, and again the poor are most affected as death by starvation becomes a distinct possibility.
Unsurprisingly quack remedies abound; there is, for example, a run on peppermint sweets, which are supposed to reduce the risk of infection. Alcohol is also believed to have medicinal benefits. Consequently, for a few weeks, half the town is in a drunken stupor until these supplies too run out.
What stands out strongly as a distinct parallel with the situation today is the efforts of doctors and other medics and particularly volunteer teams. Interestingly Camus never describes them as heroes. They are just people responding as best they can to a terrible situation.
At one point Doctor Rieux simply states that he doesn’t want to see children tortured. He doesn’t have much else in the way of motivation, but that is more than enough. They go to houses to take the sick to hospital, disinfect the properties involved, carry away the dead, bury and later, as graveyards fill up, cremate the corpses, all the time knowing they have a two in three chance of being infected. Several of them, friends of Doctor Rieux, die during the epidemic.
It is this lesson and example, in communal effort, team work and striving for the common good that stands out; all the things (and more) – in short the building blocks of socialism – that potentially could make our society a decent place to live in.
It transpires, so we find out almost at the end of the book, that Doctor Rieux kept a journal during the plague and this provides most of the narration. He writes that he has done this,
"…so as not to be one of those who keep silent, to bear witness on behalf of the victims, to leave at least a memory of the violence and injustice that was done to them, and to say simply what it is that one learns in the midst of such tribulations, namely that there is more in men to admire than to despise".
Whether one is talking about the Nazi occupation of France, the plague in an Algerian town or the Covid-19 outbreak today, these are worthy sentiments.