The seemingly turbulent year 2020 is causing many drastic and dramatic changes in our life through a series of international crises. Among these, Covid-19 is indeed one of the most crucial threats. Albert Camus' novel The Plague, the true projection of an outbreak of a pandemic lends itself to several levels of interpretations. Although Camus exhibits the context-specific event of the outbreak of bubonic Plague in 1944, it, historically, contains deeply the universal messages. Camus depicts the fictional discourses in terms of the pretext, the circumstances and after-effects of the epidemic of plague.
The Plague, published in 1947, is a metaphorical fiction that encompasses both the physical and moral degradation of the populace of the Oran city, a large French port on the Algerian coast. Alain de Botton in a recently published article about the novel said, "Camus was drawn to his theme because he believed that the actual historical incidents we call plagues are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man."
Camus gradually prepares his readers to penetrate inside the text beginning with the day to day life of the common people of Oran. The records and the discourses of the novel show how the inhabitants treat themselves, the surroundings and the world around, resulting in the catastrophic outcome. Meeting the money-mongers that Camus displays in his novel is nothing new: "certainly nothing is commoner nowadays than to see people working from morning till night and then proceeding to fritter away at the card tables, in cafes and small talk what time is left for living."
The current world of relationships is also reflected in Oran's community. "The men and women consume one another rapidly in what is called the act of love or else settle down to a mild habit of conjugality. We seldom find a mean between these extremes." Every aspect, even a relationship, becomes an act of "doing business". All that is to be conveyed is 'the banality of the town's appearance and life in it.' This weird normality turns into a habit which mirrors contemporary life. The initial discourses of part one is very telling about the setting and when the characters are introduced, their works and words, it portrays the silent rejection of nature. The protagonist and narrator Dr Riuex, deemed as the mouthpiece of Camus, one day passes by a dead rat and like the numbers of dead rats, the situation gets worse and gathers momentum.
'Still, if it was an exile, it was, for most of us, exile in one's own home'-what better expression can best describe the situation we are passing now? Because of Covid-19, the whole world is experiencing the same pulse of suffering and exile. The predicaments, the confinement and the social isolation have been shoved into our lives in the guise of imprisonment, which is the centre of absurd literature.
Camus, one of the pioneers of absurd theatres, inculcates the thought of absurdity in his novel The Plague. Absurdity concentrates on the fact that nothingness pervades everywhere; the notion and philosophy of Camus also emphasise that uncertainty of human life in his writings. Apart from that thought, Camus comprehends, what is yet to be realised, is that as nothing can provide assurances of life, we must try to cultivate goodness and virtues to be human, fighting against being denatured. To fight against prevailing uncertainty, we need to value life, relation and precious time 'thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky'.
To affirm his views, through his plot and characterisation, Camus creates timeless characters, especially Dr Bernard Rieux, journalist Raymond Rambert, the priest Joseph Grand and the volunteer Jean Tarrou- all fellow journey-men. They work for the plague-affected people. 'It is Tarrou who first comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague.' Sometimes a leader can change the surroundings which Tarrou proves, even before the authorities' initiative to enlist the number of the people he takes action, prompted by his code of morals; he feels that 'the plague is everybody's responsibility and that everyone should do his or her duty.' To be a changemaker is not an uphill task, rather it only needs initiative and willingness. In our country's context, volunteer groups such as these may bring some changes. It is not possible to change the situation overnight, still, hope lingers if the individual volunteer group pave the path of coordinating with others. Unlike Singapore and Korea, most of the affected countries bear the same sign of being indifferent at the initial stage, which might prove to be disastrous, like Italy and New York and the fictional city Oran.
The important lesson of history is "we don't learn from the history". What today USA, India and Spain are facing or we would have faced is nothing but the repetition of the events of Oran. To punctuate the aftermath of showing an indifferent attitude to Covid-19, we have to seize the moment to make ourselves conscious and vigilant. Everyone must do everyone's duty. Sometimes while chalking out a plan, we become either self-centred or get puzzled. Camus defines the task through the character of Dr Rieux who says, "but the only way to fight the plague is with decency." Does another character ask what decency is? "Doing my job", the doctor replies. So, here the importance of individual task is defined and echoed in Camus.
The universal conflict between good and evil is imprinted in The Plague. In our country, price hike and crisis are synonymous, both rising vertically. A character named Cottard in The Plague symbolises the community of our country who loves to take advantage of the emergency period. 'Cottard takes advantage of the crisis to make money by selling contraband cigarettes and inferior liquor,' eventually he becomes insane and gets arrested by the police.
Apart from this apparent parallel with our current world, this novel is worth a reread. Ed Vulliamy has found the words of the critic John Cruikshank worthy to mention: 'La Peste (The Plague) is also a reflection on 'man's metaphysical dereliction in the world.' Human being has an invisible alignment with nature but the modern, materialistic, heedless generation has ruined the connection with their genetic constitution and consequently, nature becomes repugnant, resulting in pandemics with multidimensional outbreak.
Throughout the world when, "The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" (W.B Yeats) – we become trapped, not because of the tyranny exercised by man but of our silence towards innocent's tears and toils.
Sometimes through purgation, we attain the purification as well, but we have to revise the lesson that Covid-19 has taught us to revitalise ourselves, to reconcile ourselves to the Almighty. At the end of the novel, though Camus concludes apparently with a happy ending, it leaves behind an ambiguity to remind us that human nature is full of perpetual uncertainty. When at last the bubonic plague disappears the way it appeared suddenly, a wave of happiness sweeps through the town with a long-expected festive mood, Dr Rieux 'adopting the tone of an impartial observer' pronounces 'that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good'. So, we have to strive our 'utmost to be healers'. Through experience if we can filter, purify ourselves, if we can be compassionate to the sore of others, only then can it bring the magical therapeutic effect, the long-desired tranquillity in us.
'All a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories.'(The Plague)
Farzana Zaman is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, MIU and Invigilator, British Council.