The words of a true writer

By Rhonda Dredge

A book that has strongly resurfaced from its 20th century cave is The Plague by Albert Camus, an account of an imaginary epidemic in the African town of Oran in Algeria. 

The current popularity of this 1947 novel among Melbourne readers attests to their tough-mindedness.

One bookseller told CBD News that The Plague was more clear-sighted than other epidemic stories. 

The Plague is written from the point of view of Dr Bernard Rieux, the chief medical officer of Oran whose job is to diagnose patients who have contracted the plague and isolate them. 

The disease is spread by fleas and the symptoms are gruesome, including large swellings of the lymph glands which the doctor lances. 

During the trajectory of the novel, the only resting points for the reader are the friendships Rieux forms with other members of the community.

The doctor enlists the help of a journalist, historian, civil servant and a suspected criminal, who put aside their private concerns to work on health teams with him. 

The conversations between these characters as they tend patients through the harrowing fevers and predictable ups and downs of the infection drive the moral perspectives of the book. 

The disease was seen as an allegory for the German occupation of France during the Second World War and perhaps makes predictions about the way all pestilences exact their tolls plus draw people together. 

There are specific similarities between the situation faced in Melbourne and the one Camus’s narrator documents so meticulously in Oran with its analysis of statistics, graphs and government policies.

We, too, are bombarded with regular updates on cases. We, too, suffer from despair before bouncing back. We, too, are locked up within a city and there is no foreseeable cure on the horizon.

During the Second World War, Camus was trapped in Oran, a town he reportedly disliked, being a native of Algiers. Here, he contracted tuberculosis, and was sent for convalescence to the French countryside then joined the French resistance. 

He had lived through a harrowing time, separated from his wife and mother, and being an exile is a major theme in the epidemic Camus created. Both the fictional doctor and journalist were separated from their wives while living through the terror.

There is a strong message at the heart of The Plague that not everyone will buy.

Dr Rieux makes the point that there is no use being a saint nor a hero. The job of everyone is to fight the pestilence and survive. The doctor does this with a calm objectivity in which pity is of no use.

An even stronger point is made by a member of his team, Jean Tarrou, who has taken a stance against any form of killing including execution of criminals, and says that it is imperative to side with the victims. 

While these positions were directed at the Vichy government and its appeasement policies under the occupation, they also have relevance for our own contemporary problem. 

If you deliberately side with the victims of COVID-19 then your priority is elimination of the virus over all other concerns. 

The economy of Oran suffered during the quarantine period with food shortages, escalation of prices and some smugglers making a tidy profit.

But the doctor makes no judgments about these responses and also refrains from eulogising those who formed the health teams with him.

Instead, he aimed to be an “historian of the heart-aches and soul-searching that the plague imposed on all fellow citizens at this time.” •

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