~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
Oran is a large French port on the Algerian coast (Northern Africa) with a population of 200,000. The Plague by French writer Albert Camus is a novel (a fictional account) of a plague that inexplicably strikes Oran in the 1940s. It begins with an influx of dead and dying rats into the city that nobody understands. The rats are found everywhere, in the streets, on the stairs in buildings, in private homes.
Rats, of course, have fleas, and the fleas bite people and spread disease. The plague (pneumonic or bubonic) is an especially nasty disease that usually leads to agonizing death. As the death toll mounts every day, Oran has no choice but to close itself off from the rest of the world. Nobody can leave the town and nobody can enter. (How this is accomplished is not explained.)
The town is understandably thrown into a panic. How does a town quarantine the sick from the well? How can the sick be cared for with a limited number of people to help? How does the town keep people who might be infected from escaping the town? How can people in the town communicate with the outside world since letters might be infected with the disease? How long will the plague last? Is there any reason to hope the plague will go away as unexpectedly as it arrived? How much help can the town expect from the outside world? How can the people of the town be expected to carry on in the face of such awfulness?
Dr. Bernard Rieux is the main character in The Plague and the narrator of the story. His life every day is a living hell. He stands by helplessly as his friends and neighbors die of the disease. People look to him for answers he doesn’t have. He’s an unassuming man not given to heroics. His wife is ill (with something other than the plague) and in a sanitorium in another location.
The people of the town behave the way people usually do in a crisis. There are acts of bravery and sacrifice, while many people in the town try to enjoy themselves any way they can, because who knows who will be the next to go? One man plots his escape from the town to return to his lost love. Another man is happy, somehow, for the plague and thrives during the epidemic. Others go the fatalistic, religious route, believing the plague is a judgment from heaven. Some of the very good people die from the disease, while some of the bad people go unscathed. Isn’t that always the way?
The Plague, first published in 1947, is one of the most celebrated novels of the twentieth century. It’s a timeless and relevant story that might be set in any country in any time. It’s not always easy to read. Not for the faint of heart. After you’ve read it, you’ll feel like you’ve been to hell and back.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp