Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Article Thirty-Six - The Plague

Literature │ Just and Ordinary Day in and Ordinary Town

The Plague by Albert Camus

By Zehra Mustafa

Albert Camus (1913- 1960) was not only a novelist, but also an essayist and a playwright. He was also considered to be an existentialist, a tag that he refused to acknowledge, nevertheless, it was one that he had been branded with. Born in Mondovi, Algeria, Camus’s stories trace the lives from his home land, one that he loved so much that he had fought the French resistance during WWII.

The Plague was published in 1947 after the Nazi occupation of France. Camus places the fateful events that you are about to read, in the small town of Oran, Algiers. It is an ordinary town, with ordinary people who are suddenly faced with a slow and painful death as the plague steadily wipes out its residences. What happens after the outbreak of the plague is significant as it tears people apart and entraps them, forcing them to reflect upon their own humanity.
The Plague is a well crafted piece of allegorical literature. Each sentence is fully loaded and riddled with layer upon layer of meaning. Camus raises and tackles issues such as exile, solidarity, resistance, religion and most importantly, the individual and the community. The plague is narrated by one Dr Rieux, but even this isn’t done in the traditional way as he adopts a third person narrative which permits distance as well as closeness to the unraveling events and the people afflicted by them.

Dr Rieux is portrayed as an individual who uses rationality and abstraction as a way of coping with the plague, as he must find the strength from within to stay strong and look after the ill. Camus wittily presents a number of phases that the people of Oran go through when dealing with this disease. During the first phase, people find themselves turning towards god, seeking salvation for a punishment that they may have brought upon themselves, but once they find that this does not help their situation, they turn to pleasure.
Camus uses the changing elements to represent the irrationality inherent in human behavior. Humanity is fickle and debased as people are reduced to nonsensical animalistic behaviour. A great divide is rapidly drawn up between reason and issues of the heart as people become worn down by the officials.

It was only a few weeks ago that I focused on the detrimental actions of those in the post apocalyptic world of McCarthy’s The Road, and the last thing that I wish any reader to do, is to think that these books are the same. When reading, we must be consciously aware that our approach and expectation will differ. In Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?” she writes, “our attitude must always be changing; it is clear. From different books we must ask different qualities. Simple as this sounds people are always behaving as if all books were of the same species.” One must make it their duty to approach a new text from a new angle from the second that it is placed into your hands and on your laps, until the moment it is closed and put aside to rest.

The story told in The Plague is not an extraordinary one; it’s about the plague casting a dark, all-consuming shadow upon an ordinary town in the 1940s. This town could be your town, and these people could be your neighbours, your doctors and your loved ones, these factors and thoughts are what make this classic a timeless one.

©Zehra Mustafa

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