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Review: La Peste

Char Haley explores why this piece of absurdist plague literature is flying off the (virtual) shelves from Italy to Japan

‘Nous sommes en guerre’, Macron said in his address to the French nation on 16th March. At the time, my mother and I thought he was being dramatic, amping up the crisis level to make himself into a peace-time hero. Now, a few weeks since that address, we understand why Macron used such inflammatory language. The COVID-19 health crisis has become a war against an invisible enemy, and against our own drive for personal liberty. 

“Love in the time of corona” has been on my Twitter timeline since the outbreak of coronavirus. Aside from being a fatuous attempt at humour in this time of great ‘uncertainty’ (the Queen, 2020), this modification of Gabriel García Márquez’s 1985 title is a good indicator of where people turn to in the face of a crisis. Literature and art are a spiritual comfort, one that we take for granted when we aren’t being oppressed by the fear of contracting a disease. So, when we are, we realise that literature and art are what can keep us afloat. This hilarious tweet could also be the tag-line of Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947). Set in the French Algerian town of Oran, and based on the 1849 cholera outbreak which decimated the town’s population, this mid-20th century novel sits at the top of the charts in Italy and is flying off shelves in Japan, as well as in South Korea. Understandable, really. We are living through the rampage of our own plague, an indiscriminate killer and, though not quite as gruesome as the illness that Camus gives his fictional characters, it is certainly as world-changing. 

La Peste is a long and winding tale of love and loss. It makes for quite a heavy read, considering the amount of death and suffering Camus makes sure to emphasize at every turn, but his characterisation is expert. If you’re looking for a helping of existential doom and gloom analogous to that of our own News channels, this is the book to read. There is also some comfort in its similarity to our own situation – and, of course, a great amount of discomfort, too. Camus began work on the novel while he himself was quarantined with TB.

Oran’s plague comes from rats, that old accomplice of ill-health. They start turning up in swathes: big, swollen rats. In the stairwells, in the gutters, by the bars and restaurants. And from the mountain of dead rats comes a plague the likes of the Black Death – bubonic and disgusting. Glands swell, blood is coughed up: the plague attacks the elderly and children alike. Hysteria erupts. The authorities aren’t keen to react. They’re panicked by the prospect of wide-scaled panic. Death tolls rise exponentially. The railways stop running. The town eventually closes its borders. Sound familiar? 

We follow Dr Rieux, a competent medical professional whose wife is out of town in a sanatorium. He is the first to identify the plague as an epidemic, and to urge the authorities to take it seriously. Rieux is the man standing next to Boris Johnson from the British Medical Association urging people not to go to family barbecues. Flanked by Jean Tarrou, a mysterious diary-keeper who eventually becomes a friend, the two navigate the pains and challenges of auxiliary hospitals with a band of other quirky characters, as well as trying to steel themselves against daily emotional challenges. There is a sensitive comparison between the church-going members of the town and the staunch atheists who treat the plague as a sad fact of nature: Father Paneloux, an opportunistic priest, is keen to emphasise that the plague is sent from a vengeful God. 

As Rieux and Tarrou attempt to help the suffering patients, a journalist, Rambert, is desperate to escape Oran and rejoin his wife in Paris. As someone who often views themselves as the protagonist of a French novel (thanks Françoise Sagan), I can’t help but relate my long-distance coronaship to that of Raymond Rambert and his wife. I resented him, at first, as I do those who ignored the quarantine and self-isolation advice from the government. But the yearning for contact with those cut off from me that COVID-19 has elicited has allowed me to understand Rambert’s fervid attempts to escape. 

Absurdism is a key feature of Camus’ work, and it is generally agreed that the plague can be identified as an allegory for the Third Reich, which Camus lived through. Fascism and absurdism are aspects of modern life that we are more than familiar with: with a steady rise in hate crimes in England and Wales since 2012, and far-right parties gaining popularity across Europe in the last 4 years, Camus’ political context isn’t so unimaginable. As far as the absurdism goes in La Peste, nothing is more bizarre than the repeated attempts of Joseph Grand, a city clerk in Oran, to write the perfect first sentence of his book – he re-drafts it hundreds of times, not managing to progress past that point. The futility of his attempts makes him a bit of a tragic figure, but in the flurry of productivity-prompting on the internet, pushing everyone to write their magnum opus in quarantine, Grand captures the anxiety of creation in a time of crisis. 
The book is perhaps not exactly what you want to be reading if you’re genuinely panicked by the outcome of coronavirus. Read a Stephen King thriller, watch some cooking videos, revise for your finals. But if you want some literary proof that the human psyche is stronger than the body, and that in our own struggle to stay inside, isolated from our friends and the wider world, we are not alone, then pick up La Peste. But make sure to give it an anti-bac wipe first.

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