Time for something cheerful! Eh… Well, not so much. I got a copy of The Plague by Camus for my birthday and while it’s a good read, an uplifting and lighthearted tale it ain’t.
The story is set in the coastal Algerian town of Oran. It’s not a particularly special town one way or another, but it’s nice enough. The people there have their problems like the people anywhere else, but for the most part, they go about their lives without serious mishap.
One day, our narrator reports that dead rats started to appear. One or two at first, then in tens, then hundreds, until the entire town was overrun with the corpses of the rats. Then, as soon as it had begun it stopped. What followed was a seemingly uncontrollable outbreak of bubonic plague, it wasn’t long before the town closed its gates, and people were denied the option to enter or leave.
Not the most hopeful of premises, I grant you. In many ways, this book is about death and about how people handle it, but to see it as only being about death would be to miss a lot of the book. It’s also about desperation, relationships, perspective and how we choose to lead our lives. The people of Oran, like people anywhere, largely seemed to live their lives on autopilot until the plague set in and reminded them that there was more to life than their routines.
Since it was written shortly after the Nazi occupation of France, and given the themes with which Camus deals in the book, it’s no surprise that many see The Plague as an allegory for The Holocaust. Nazism is certainly a plague, arguably one of the worst kinds of plague, and a quarantined town full of occupants awaiting their death or rescue certainly has parallels to towns suffering Nazi occupation. However, I don’t think this means that The Plague loses its modern relevance. We don’t need a second Holocaust to remind us the value of living our lives to the fullest, or the value of working hard to fight evil and pestilence.
As with many books that handle these kinds of topics, it’s not a book that you’re even supposed to enjoy. Even so, I’d say that you are supposed to read it. You’re definitely supposed to think about it when you have.