In the French Algerian city of Oran, some time in the 1940s, the rats are coming out of the sewers to perish in the streets. Soon, the first people begin to die and it becomes clear that it is an oubreak of the bubonic plague. The city is subsequently sealed off and the inhabitants are left to fend for themselves.
I saw this on my shelf and thought, although I realize that this may sound a bit morbid, why not re-read it now, in the face of a global pandemic? I first read it many years ago but I couldn’t recall much about it. A reason for that may be that it probably left me as cold back then as it did now. People are dying in shocking manner and terrible numbers in this book, but it nonetheless fails to evoke almost any kind of emotional response. Mostly, it feels like an intellectual exercise, a detached examination of the way humans act in a crisis. It looks at the big questions of human existence but all too often neglects to recognize the complexities of an individual. The characters are diverse in their motivations but not fleshed out enough in any way to make me truly care about them which is disappointing, especially in the case of the main character, a doctor, who has so much potential. There is also a noticeable and annoying lack of female characters whose perspective was apparently not needed, and, curious in a story that is set where it is, not a single mention of the Arab population or any Muslim character.
For all these reasons, the examination of the plague’s impact on society is more arresting than its impact on the individual. The description of the decay of morale and social conventions, the numbness and apathy slowly taking hold of the city, the ambiguous role of religion, and the helplessness of the authorities in the face of such a potent enemy that kills indiscriminately is what makes this a good book. Camus absolutely has some powerful and relevant insights into the nature of humankind. The plague, of course, is only an allegory for any kind of invasion and occupation by an overpowering enemy, and as this, it works rather well, especially as it turns the focus not on the war itself, but on how those that are damned to survive go on despite being surrounded only by death and terror, and how it changes them forever.
Overall, I feel that this book is more interesting from a philosophical standpoint than from a literary one. The frequently included digressions in which Camus lays out his thoughts in-depth are compelling observations and conclusions of a general kind regarding the situation the city finds itself in, but they ultimately take away from the actual story.