CBR Bingo – White Whale
The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence. – The Plague
My reading froze up completely as I tried to read Camus’ The Plague. I think I’ve been trying to get through this book for a month. It’s not because it isn’t good (it’s really good) or too slow (a bit slow in places, but so worth it) or triggering me (nice time to read about a plague). It’s….I don’t know why. For weeks I just stopped reading any more than a couple of pages at a time, mostly snuck in on the bus to work. I actually started to panic. How can I make it to 52 books if I read one book a month??
I started this review while reading the first half of the book. Here ‘tis:
I’ve read a fair amount of Camus, but The Plague has been my white whale. I picked it up a number of times in the past but just couldn’t get into it. I decided to try it again for bingo, and I’m really glad I did. It was so good.
The Plague is narrated by an unknown character who makes a Dr. Rieux the heart of the story. The doctor is an even-keeled, competent doctor, who is able to see all the effects—medical, emotional, and psychological—a plague has had on the town he lives in. As the book goes on, the depth of his feeling in the face of so much suffering is revealed bit by bit. Other characters play a large part as well, embodying different coping mechanisms and connections to others. All of the characters are very much present in the narrative and fully fleshed out. One character, Tarrou, was particularly compelling—a philosopher and fierce fighter of death.
Though it’s never explicitly said, the plague seems to be the Bubonic plague, its symptoms including boils. The citizens are clear from the start that the plague’s effects are catastrophic. There is wide-spread agreement that it is something to fear and requires medical intervention. Dr. Rieux deals with the symptoms but also is insightful as to how the plague is affecting the spirits and minds of the populace. He is a silent witness, but he also shows a depth of feeling about love and healing. He is the ultimate listener of the other characters’ thoughts.
Needless to say, there are many parallels to our current situation. Camus perfectly captures every phase the town goes through as the doors shut and they are isolated from the rest of the world. There is isolation, but hope that they will soon see loved ones. There is panic and anger as time goes on. There is numbness and indifference. And of course there is great fear of the plague and its deadly effects. Camus manages to increase the sense of claustrophobia and despair a little at a time, so slow you hardly notice how things proceed from distress to terror. Everything is seen by Dr. Rieux, an observer as much as he is a participant. The character is both distanced and close. He can see the plague in the abstract and what it seems at times is a rational coldness. But in fact he is taking care of the towns people day and night. His own wife is outside the walls of the town at a sanitarium, and it is clear how tenderly he feels for her. Since Dr. Rieux is presented in the third person, there are levels of distance that are very important to the book. The plague has intimate, devastating effects but it also must be seen from above to get any clarity about its impact.
The second half of the book continues with great beauty, bleakness, and humanity. I admit I had some trouble getting through a few slow parts. In the middle things become more abstract (which perhaps is intentional, given the book directly addresses abstraction as a way of coping). I like the introspection of the book, but sometimes I wanted a little more action. But this is the most minor of quibbles; Camus’ brilliance is overall mesmerizing.
There is a passage at the end that, in our current circumstance, gave me some peace and hope:
“Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”