First, there is a dead rat at a doorstep. Then large numbers of rats begin to die in the Algerian harbor town Oran. But initially the citizens of the town do not notice what is going on. When they do, a panic takes over the municipality and authorities slowly respond by ordering the collection and cremation of the rats. And this gives the disease, the bubonic plague, an excellent opportunity to launch a large scale assault on the borough’s human population.
The town gates are locked, no more ships, trains, or cars are allowed to enter Oran, and communications with the outside world are limited to a minimum. Schools and other official buildings are turned into hospitals and quarantine facilities, and a doctor Bernard Rieux – who initially was dismissed by the authorities and most colleagues – gets involved in a Sisyphusian struggle to defeat or at least limit the impact of the disease.
How do humans react when they are exposed to extreme circumstances? What happens to people when they lose their freedom to move and communicate freely, when they cease to be individuals and are transformed into a collective that share one feeling, and that share collective circumstances? There is despair and “the habit of hopelessness,” but also the will to help out, which – according to doctor Rieux – is not a heroic but a logical response to a potentially lethal situation. However, this book is deeply multi-layered, and dialogues, events, and actions tend to have many meanings – that is, if there is any meaning at all.
Albert Camus’ The Plague was published in 1947; two years after the defeat of Nazi Party governed Germany and just a few years after the end of the occupation of France and Camus’ native land, Algeria. And the novel is often read in this context, but over the years the book has proved to be a (perhaps) timeless tale of human responses to threats to human civilization.
In 2013, it is 100 years since the birth of Albert Camus. The Plague was the author’s second novel, it is a literary and philosophical masterpiece, and Oran is a place worth visiting many times in the span of a life.