Reading Albert Camus is a rite of passage into adulthood in France. Or so I read.
If life is a journey, then reading Camus is equivalent to embarking on the journey with a cartographic cartoon. A sketch of a smiley face. If the traveler is intrepid he will journey on nevertheless. If he is a settler he will settle. It is a simple and powerful reminder that destroys immutable interpretations of life.
When I first read The Stranger I was blown away by the sparse beauty of Camus. The Plague, I have to admit was a different experience. It is a work substantially broader in scope and in it’s use of literary devices.
The Plague as a BackDrop
Imagine a man walking up a cobbled casbah as the sun sets. Now imagine a man walking up a cobbled casbah as the sun sets on a quarantined plague ridden town. Do you see how the simple act of setting changed the import of the walk? Masters of the trade have always resorted to such stylistic literary devices. Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa both felt that rain intensifies emotions. Just as a band of ingenuous samurais brace themselves for a final face-off against rogue bandits the whole scene is intensified with a downpour. The rain fills the empty space with movement and sound, blurring the background, impeding actors and playing as important if not a greater role than the characters. Gaspar Noe’s psychedelic club scenes also come to mind. In The Plague, Camus sets everything against plague ridden Oran in Algeria.
The Language of Empathy
When someone says “sending along my wishes”, or “my prayers are with you at this tough time” or “wish you were here” do they understand this?
“Sometimes at midnight, in the great silence of the sleep bound town, the doctor turned on his radio before going to bed for the few hours’ sleep he allowed himself. And from the ends of the earth, across thousands of miles of land and sea, kindly, well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow-feeling, and indeed did so, but at the same time proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in the suffering that he cannot see. “Oran! Oran!” In vain the call rang over oceans, in vain Rieux listened hopefully; always the tide of eloquence began to flow, bringing home still more the unbridgeable gulf that lay between Grand and the speaker. “Oran, we’re with you!” they called emotionally. But not, the doctor told himself, to love or to die together– and that’s the only way.They’re too remote”
Camus writes about exile and isolation as a world weary traveler talks about his next destination. With a fondness that shines through his tired limbs. Many times I have noticed fear and apprehension at these thoughts by many of us. In the pink of health and with sufficient boisterousness I admit I seldom give them their due, but thoughts of death, isolation, poverty and irrelevance do not frighten me fundamentally. Prolonged physical pain might. A fascination towards death is not morbid. On the contrary contemplating mortality helps make peace with the time you spend on earth. Or as Camus points out, because we are all infected by the plague, walled and quarantined by the walls of birth and death, experiences should be heightened and willful.
Themes and Execution
If Camus does not have one thing, it is subtlety. Reading The Plague is like entering the boxing ring expecting a knockout sucker punch. But all we get are heavy fisted jabs that wear you down. No scalpel sharp insights and witticisms. No fleet footed rope a doping. This is a slug fest. Ugly and brutal and tiring and lasting the whole distance. Camus pens The Plague so heavy handedly that sometimes you feel you are reading a treatise. A dry rasping read. It does have its moments though, that after-reading-chewability, with a lot of themes and oddities boldly being stated and discussed.
“What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it”.