book-reviews

The Plague

by Albert Camus

Rating: ★★★★

The Plague is a story about the relatively boring Algerian town of Oran being struck by a violent and bewildering outbreak of bubonic plague. Camus' thoughtful writing takes great care to realistically depict human reaction to sudden and strange events, and is particularly poignant when you observe that the story is an allegory for the German occupation of France during World War II.

The narrative is presented via a slightly chatty narrator which withholds his identity until the end, writing in third person about events that the narrator has learnt of or witnessed, with occasional reference to other texts which give the perspective of other figures. While this device seems perhaps calculated to make the reader less sure about the survival of any particular character, it strikes me as one flaw in a fairly well-crafted novel. The identity of the narrator is fairly restricted to start with, and careful attention to the matter should swiftly narrow it down to the most obvious candidate.

The story progresses mostly through detached observations of the progression of the plague. This begins with rats pouring out onto the streets to die, which bewilders the town, to the eventual human disease and its diagnosis, to a quarantine state which gets ever more desperate and oppressive. The majority of reflection comes from the conversations of a small cast of rather mild-mannered characters, including a doctor, a writer and a journalist, with other figures in the narrative including a priest acting as the voice of religion, a magistrate, and some somewhat ineffective local government.

Alongside demonstrating the human reaction to the plague through his characters, Camus includes plenty of strange small details of ongoing life in the town, lightening the mood occasionally while drawing out a wider point about the absurdity of reality. He comes back several times to a point about people buckling under, trying to learn to live with the plague and the way it sucked all compassion from people.

Though I could understand people finding the story's outline a little bland, I would say that this is one of those books that hooks you when you start reading it and won't let you stop. The mild curiosity about how the plague will progress you find at the beginning, which gets you to give it a chance, leads you ever into new oddities until you find you're just plain enjoying the experience of reading it.