Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Plague - Albert Camus


In an obscure, nondescript town on the Algerian coast, rats suddenly begin dying; crawling out from their hideaways onto hallways and into gutters where they spit blood and convulse before being trodden underfoot without due care. The numbers of these dying rats rapidly escalates causing murmurs of concern due to the nuisance of it all and the lack of any action from the municipality in dealing with clearing away the carcasses. It's only when people also begin to fall ill and start dying that the idea that there might be something more serious going on starts to take hold.
It's soon obvious that both rats and people are dying in the same horrific manner though it's only when the number of people dying escalates exponentially that it's decided this might be an emergency situation but even then a significant number are still loathe to believe it. By this time, however, it's too late and plague has taken hold.

The thing about the works of Albert Camus is that they never age, they're never out of step or irrelevant to the times they're being read in. When first published in 1947, The Plague was read as a metaphysical novel with the plague being a symbol of the German occupation of France during the Second World War. It can still be read this way, I guess, just as it can still be read as a straightforward narrative but this is 2017 and we're all living in a new age where a vote on membership of the European Union has led to Britain being delivered on a plate to the hard Right and where in America a sleazebag, millionaire, sexual predator has been made President. Both of these events, particularly the latter, begs the question: Are we living in neo-Fascist times?

There's a lot going on in The Plague and though some of it is unambiguous, most of it is subtext and between the lines, most notably the pursuing of some of the common themes found in other books by Camus such as the question of suicide. At one point, Camus describes a sermon as delivered by a preacher in the midst of the epidemic: 'If the chronicles of the Black death at Marseille were to be trusted, only four of the eighty-one monks in the Mercy Monastery survived the epidemic, and of these four three took flight. But when he read that chronicle, Father Paneloux had found his thoughts fixed on that monk who had stayed on by himself, despite the death of his seventy-one companions, and, above all, despite the example of his three brothers who had fled. And, bringing down his fist on the edge of the pulpit, Father Paneloux cried in a ringing voice: 'My brothers, each one of us must be the one who stays!.'
If, as suggested by another character in the book that plague is 'just life, no more than that', then what the preacher is alluding to is that one should not try to escape from life but to remain within it. Suicide is not legitimate.

At another point in the book, Camus describes another character reading what is taken to be a detective novel: 'I was thinking of people who took an interest in you only to make trouble for you. Only I've been reading that detective story. It's about a poor devil who's arrested one fine morning all of a sudden. People had been taking an interest in him and he knew nothing about it. They were talking about him and he knew nothing about it. They were talking about him in offices, entering his name on card-indexes. Now do you think that's fair? Do you think people have a right to treat a man like that?'
Detective story? Is Camus talking about Franz Kafka's The Trial here?

Elsewhere in the book, another character describes a conversation overheard in a tobacconist's shop one day: 'An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case which had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach. 'I always say,' the woman began 'If they clapped all that scum in jail, decent folks could breathe more freely.'
Clearly, this is in reference to one of Camus' own books, The Stranger. All these things (and more), however, are academic and for students of philosophy and literature to pore over because we're all now living in a new age and what's of greater interest (to me, at least) is the symbolism of plague to the election of President Donald Trump.

Since Trump's election victory there's been much talk about Fascism and whether we'd recognise it if it arrived tomorrow? It's a good question because Fascism is not going to come knocking at our door in jackboots, Sieg Heiling, with a Swastika on its sleeve. No, it would come in another form. In a suit and tie, probably, but just as ugly. And would it announce itself to be Fascist and wear the name like a badge of honour? Of course it wouldn't. So how would we know of its arrival or if, as suggested by some, that it's arrived already with Trump? The answer is that we wouldn't.
Like the rats appearing in Camus' novel, the signs would be there but we wouldn't pay them much attention. We would turn a blind eye and put up with the inconveniences until such a time that the truth is just too discomforting to ignore but by then it would be too late and plague/Fascism would have taken hold.

In Camus' book, when the town's gates are closed and a ban put in place to prohibit people entering and leaving, consternation ensues as people suddenly find themselves cut off from their families and loved ones. The situation is made worse by actually closing the gates some hours before the official order is made known to the public. The similarities to Trump’s Muslim travel ban and the subsequent chaos that ensued at airports is strikingly similar.
What Trump did that day was cruel and inept, serving as a warning shot of what his Presidency was going to be like. The subsequent protests triggered by the ban served, however, as an inspiration and as a sign of what might be expected as a response to such actions. Or as Camus puts it: 'What's true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you'd need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.'

Elsewhere in the book, Camus contemplates what the future might hold if the epidemic spreads: 'We may see again the Saturnalia of Milan, men and women dancing round graves,' he writes. 'Saturnalia', however, is how Margaret Thatcher described the inner city riots of 1981 that blew up in practically every major city in Britain two years after she came to power. So, might we be seeing whirlwind riots across the USA soon?
'We learn in times of pestilence,' continues Camus 'That there are more things to admire in men than to despise.' This is true, but if history teaches us anything it is that such concepts are not enough to prevent a nation state sleepwalking into Fascism. Once there, however, just as important as knowing what to do about it is to understand what led to it so as not to ever have it repeated. Or as Camus puts it: 'We might try to explain the phenomenon of the plague, but, above all, we should learn what it had to teach us.'

The Plague by Albert Camus is considered by many to be his finest book and I tend to agree. It's certainly his most beautifully written. It's a book that is unlikely to ever age and to be always relevant to the time it's being read in. It's organic and its symbolism applicable to all kinds of things: Nazi occupation of France, Ebola in Africa, turbo capitalism, the absurdity of life, and so on and so forth. Even the election of Donald Trump. It's a classic of world literature. Profound, astonishing, thought provoking and unquestionably brilliant.
John Serpico

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