Summerbook #11: The Plague

The Plague, by Albert Camus

I've been meaning to read this book for something like 20+ years, and I finally got around to it, and it's about...the plague.  A real honest-to-goodness episode of bubonic plague.  Which is great!  But I had somehow developed the impression that it was a metaphorical, not-actual plague, so I was surprised when it really was plague.

In Oran, a largeish North African port city, in the 1940s, rats start staggering out into the street and dying -- by the thousands.  Nobody quite knows what this could mean, but pretty soon there are a few sick people...and then a lot of sick people. 

The story is told by four or five men, but primarily from the perspective of Dr. Rieux.  He sends his wife off to a TB sanatorium just before the outbreak, and he is the first to realize that the mystery illness is plague, and urges quarantine measures and closing the city to reluctant city councilors.  Throughout the epidemic, he works himself to exhaustion, knowing that hardly any of his patients will survive.

We also have:
  • Rambert, a young journalist visiting the city for a story.  Trapped by the quarantine, he is willing to do almost anything in order to escape the city and get back to his girlfriend; he feels it unjust that he should have to stay in a city he has no connection with.  Eventually he changes his mind and joins the work teams fighting the plague.
  • Tarrou is the developer of the work teams; a newcomer to Oran, he is a bit mysterious and says that he in interested in becoming a saint, despite his lack of belief in God.  His entire life has been driven by his hatred of capital punishment.
  • Grand, who wants to be a writer but can't get past his obsession with the first sentence of his novel.  He quietly perseveres with help during the whole epidemic, eventually becomes ill, but is one of the few to recover.
  • Cottard, an eccentric who has just tried to kill himself but finds the atmosphere of epidemic to be stimulating.  He's much happier, until the plague is over.
Through these five men, we see the entire course of about nine months of plague, until the epidemic runs its course and the city is re-opened.  It's all very realist and detailed about how people respond to dire circumstances.

I did not exactly find it an easy read, but it was interesting and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.  It also has references to both Kafka's novel The Trial and to Camus' own earlier novel, The Stranger, so that was fun.  Very well worth reading.

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