No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.
I probably would not have chosen to read “the Plague” if we were not in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic and had I not found the novel on a bookshelf. But it seemed an appropriate read, tucked between my rereading of the most important novels in my life.
I had just finished re-reading one of those on my list (not sure it still belongs), “The World According to Garp.” As different as they are, I found a parallel between the two novels. In Garp’s world, we’re all terminal cases. In Camus’ world, we all have the plague.
Written in 1947, the narrative unfolds in an almost thriller-like fashion, although not with the pace of contemporary thrillers. A plague descends upon the city of Oran in Algeria, and the town’s citizens arc from denial to cautious hope to fear and acceptance over the course of a year as the disease ravages the population.
The idea is that the plague can come and go, and will, at any time, without warning, just as being human means you can die, at any time, without warning, and even with warning you will die at some point. There is no escaping the plague. Now that’s existential.
A number of choices made by the characters and by the city’s administrators mirror some of our own decisions today. The town closes down, the sick are isolated, those who came in contact are quarantined, scientists race to discover a vaccine (serum), the bodies pile up, some live in fear while others flaunt restrictions.
An essential novel for our times, “The Plague” should be on everyone’s reading list.