How many of you watched Contagion (2008) recently? About a week after the WHO declared the pandemic, I did. I wanted to see which of their dire predictions were coming to pass. For a disaster movie, it was pretty good, especially the twist at the very end.
For the same reason, I pulled my tattered copy of La peste off the shelf where it had sat for twenty years. Vague images were all that remained of my first reading: the dead rat in the stairwell, the old concierge with black bubonic boils in his underarms, the writer eternally reworking his first sentence…
Many more intelligent analyses have been written about this Nobel Prize-winning novel. I only want to reflect on Camus’s plague compared to our pandemic, and what wisdom we can gather from it to strengthen us in our long isolation.
The story is set in Oran, Algeria, a walled city on the sea. One day, rats start coming out in droves and dying on sidewalks, in stairwells, in gutters. Shortly after, the doctor Rieux is perplexed by a strange collection of symptoms he has never seen before: fever, vomiting, swellings on the neck, black spots on the sides of the body, devouring thirst. Then a short reprieve, usually followed by death.
After the first few cases, Rieux consults with an older doctor, Castel.
“Of course, you know what it is, Rieux?”
“I’m waiting for the test results.”
“I know what it is. And I don’t need any tests. I did part of my career in China and I saw a few cases in Paris twenty-odd years ago. Only no one dared give them a name at the time. And, as a colleague said, ‘Everyone knows it has disappeared from the West.’ Oh yes, everyone knew it, except the dead. Come on, Rieux, you know as well as I do what it is…”
“Yes, Castel,” he said, “It’s hardly believable. But it seems to be the plague.” *
As the number of dead continues to climb, the authorities slowly begin to take the disease seriously and make this chilling announcement: “Declare a state of plague. Close the city.”
Amazingly, the plague stays within Oran and doesn’t spread. Our lockdowns have not been able to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus. We closed our cities too late.
Only those showing symptoms of the plague and members of their household are quarantined in Oran, though some more infected neighbourhoods are isolated. The notions of asymptomatic carriers, or social distancing don’t make it into La peste. However, Camus envisaged large-scale quarantines in stadiums. Think of the hospitals built in China in the span of days and the sports fields used to shelter those suspected of illness. There is a scene where Rieux visits Judge Othon whose son has just died of the plague in his quarantine community in a stadium. Rows of tents are set up for sleep and privacy. Meals are ladled out from a type of golf cart. The men spend their days lounging on the bleachers, so bored and lethargic they hardly speak. Camus obviously couldn’t have predicted the rise of the information age. If he were writing today, the men would be silent because they’d be staring at a 3 inch screen in their hands to while away the hours.
In Oran, the bars and restaurants and sidewalks never close. People still work, though they try to avoid breathing each other's air on the trams. At night, they flock to restaurants and bars, though food and alcohol shortages gradually reduce the menus. Camus would have had a different story altogether if none of his main characters were allowed to be together.
The Church’s response
Churches stay open in Oran. The priest Paneloux gives a fiery sermon early on in the plague. But he begins to change his tune as he devotes himself to caring for the ill. The death of Philippe Othon, the judge’s young son, touches him so deeply that his second great sermon is an almost total turn-around. The religious rhetoric during our pandemic has been very similar. Naïve preachers telling their flock they are under some kind of spiritual protection from the virus. Church gatherings causing mega-spreading of the virus in France and South Korea. Other preachers saying the virus is God’s judgment. Another similarity: a profitable business in prophecies arises, either spiritual or journalistic, as people grow desperate to find out if they will live and when the scourge will end. I bet telephone psychics are making a killing these days.
The doctor Castel spends his energy trying to find a cure for the plague. He tries various serums to be injected. None have consistent success. Until I read an article about doctors trying this old method of taking blood from survivors of an illness and injecting it in people still fighting coronavirus, I didn’t know about this therapy. While we hope for a vaccine to be developed soon, no such measure ever saves lives in Oran. The doctor Rieux doesn’t put much stock in the preventive vaccine available.
The only person who cheers up during the plague is Cottard, a small-time crook for whom the epidemic means reprieve from imminent arrest. He grows rich selling on the black market. Real life criminals are not having such an easy time during the pandemic. If you normally meet “your guy” in the park for quick exchange of cash and goods, you risk being fined for breaking physical distancing laws. Supply chains from China have been disrupted, quintupling the price of crystal meth in Mexico. Mercifully, there is no black market in food or booze yet. Highly publicized cases of price gouging or re-selling on goods like Lysol wipes, masks or hand-sanitizer are meant to deter people from trying the same stunt.
Camus is frighteningly accurate, however, when he recounts how the city struggles to deal with the dead bodies. He was born in 1913, and must have had memories of the Great Influenza of 1918-20. Just as we’ve seen around the world, in La peste, Oran is soon overwhelmed by dead bodies. Funerals are impossible. The family is called to sign papers in a back hallway of the hospital before the closed casket is loaded onto the hearse, or ambulance. Soon, however, the body count is too high for even this much time to be accorded to each family. Empty streetcars are put back into service to transport the dead to their terminus far away from the centre of town. Mass graves give way to mass cremations.
The big question
Of course, comparing the coronavirus pandemic to La peste has its limits. Camus is not really writing about a plague. His epigraph is from Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year: It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not. The disease seems to be more of a physical prop for philosophizing on death, misery and injustice than a "what if" kind of scenario as it is for Contagion. The book is considered “absurdist”, because there is no real happy ending: the plague comes, kills lots of people, and eventually disappears. There is no hero per se, though Rieux the doctor certainly puts his life in danger for others. Through the characters of Tarrou and Rieux, Camus explains why he thinks doctors continue to fight illness, even if they don’t believe in God.
Camus ends with this thought: Rieux decided then to write the story that ends here, to not be among those who keep quiet, to testify in favour of the plague-ridden, to leave at least one memory of the injustice and violence that were done to them, and to simply say that one learns in the midst of a scourge that there are in men more things to admire than things to despise. *
How’s that for a bit of coronavirus inspiration?
*All translations mine
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!