After an unsatisfactory taste of existentialism with my nineteenth book of the year, I decided to give the movement’s literary arm a try. Although he rejected the label, Albert Camus is generally considered to most significant existential author. My exposure to Camus has so far been limited to The Stranger, which I read a part of my 100 Book Challenge in 2010. I enjoyed that novel tremendously, and the memory of it inspired me to pick up The Plague at Half Price Books. I finished reading it several days ago but have been a bit lazy about posting.
The Plague is a novel set in the Algerian port of Oran during the 1940’s and is narrated by an anonymous citizen of the city who wants to give an impartial picture of events. On an otherwise ordinary April day, the rats in the city begin emerging from their hiding places and dying in the streets. This rat epidemic is treated as a mere curiosity by the populace (apparently unaware that they were in a book entitled The Plague) and this warning sign is largely ignored. When a strange fever begins to spread amongst the human population, the town again fails to recognize the danger. Despite warnings of plague from a few of the city’s doctors, the administration is slow to react. By the time the threat is recognized it is too late to stop the epidemic. The town is placed in quarantine and the gates shut, effectively cutting off the population from the rest of the world. The plague rages through December, leaving huge numbers of dead in its wake.
That is the basic plot of The Plague. This is definitely not a novel that revolves around plot alone. Instead, this is a study of humanity under duress. Camus creates a diverse cast of characters that respond to the ordeal in many different ways. Each character has an authentic quality that lends realism to the entire work. They seem like people the reader might actually know, rather than characters invented by an author. They seem so real that the reader cannot help but emote with them as they struggle to retain some understanding of life and humanity in the face of utter despair. Camus keeps the identity of the narrator a secret until the very end of the book, which creates some interesting questions of perspective.
I found The Plague extremely engrossing and highly enjoyable. Despite a very morbid subject matter, the book is somehow hopeful and even occasionally humorous. I can’t vouch for Camus’ existentialist credentials, but I can definitely say that he is a wonderful writer.
The Current Count
20 Read, 80 To Go