Saturday, March 28, 2009

'The Plague' by Albert Camus

How does one review a classic? I have always had major issues with doing that. I do enjoy reading classic literature, probably more than any other genre, but when it comes to actually reviewing it, I get anxious. Classic literature is, after all, art. And I do not consider myself an art connoisseur or an art critic in any way. Therefore, I struggled with an idea of writing a review of The Plague by Albert Camus. My inclinations were to dive instantly into analyzing, interpreting and playing that torturous game of ‘what the author wanted to say’. In the end, I realized that such approach was not going to work unless I would be writing a thesis on Camus, which I have no desire to do.
The action of The Plague takes place in the ‘40s, in the town of Oran. It is a town just like any other all over the Western world. The inhabitants are busy living their materialistic lives consumed with careers, successes, money and goods that can be bought for it. The lives they lead are, in short, industrial lives with no place for emotions, existential thoughts and spiritual insights. Until, one day the rats start coming out and dying right in the open. The reader already has an idea of what’s to come but not the residents of Oran. They are still preoccupied with their orderly lives and the phenomenon of dying rats is nothing more than an inconvenience and an annoying intrusion upon their ‘in the box’ reality. However, slowly, but surely Oran drowns in the plague, people, instead of rats are dying by hundreds every week and those who are not infected yet find themselves imprisoned in their own homes, their own town, having no choice but to look on their lives from a different, emotional perspective.
Camus tells the story through the eyes of an objective narrator, intertwining it with accounts of personal experiences of major characters: Tarrou, Dr. Rieux, Cottard, Rambert, Grand and Father Paneloux. They are all very different people, who would otherwise never have met and gotten close, but the disease devouring the town brings them together in many, sometimes unpredictable, ways. As it goes with almost all classics, there are various ways The Plague can be looked upon. And not one single opinion will be the correct one. My thoughts on it are many. But the most important one is that it has to be read. Whether one likes it or not, whether the writing seems tedious or there is not enough action going on, and whether it seems difficult to comprehend or not deep enough, it is a novel that is worth the time and effort. Besides Camus’s word artistry, the universal theme is what everyone should have the time to ponder upon at least once in their lifetime. The plague is not just a medical affliction, it is a phenomenon which, in its cruelty and indifference, cuts those afflicted with it off from the rest of the world, from their own families even and leaves them utterly alone with their individual suffering. Now, with death glaring at them and coming ever so closely, they question their lives, their morals, they ask who brought it upon them and why, and they never really get one satisfactory answer. How many plagues have afflicted our world since The Plague was written? I think that every misery that brings death, isolation and suffering of the innocents is that plague.

Favorite quote:

“Doubtless today many of our fellow citizens are apt to yield to the temptation of exaggerating the services they rendered. But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding…men are more good than bad…but they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.”