"Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky."
The unusual events occurred in 194- at the town of Oran, which is merely a sizeable French port on the Algerian coast, headquarters of the Perfect of a French Department. An unknown narrator begins his story by describing his town Oran as ugly, dull, and it's habitual residents' primary focus is earning money.
On April 16, Dr Bernard Rieux found a dead rat under his foot when leaving his surgery. He felt strange as there never have rats in the building. On that evening when he returned from work, he saw a huge rat in sopping wet, and it's mouth was slightly open with blood spurting out from it. On the next day, he saw the concierge Michel holding the rats by legs when he was leaving to work. Dr Bernard assumed it must be some young boys dumped the dead rats in the hall, and the blood must be caused by the strong springs from the traps. On his way to his patient's house, he can see rats on the sidewalk, and the rats were the great topic of conversation in that part of the town.
Around April 17 to 18 onwards, massive amounts of dead or dying rats were found everywhere, including municipal office and hundreds were collected in the big factory. Also, the townspeople began to show signs of uneasiness. Since the fourth day, an order has been issued to the sanitary service for daily clean-up during sunrise. Then, the municipal trucks were taken to be burned in the town incinerator. But it got worse as truckloads of dead rats were getting bigger every morning.
On April 29, the number of dead rats started to decrease. However, on the same day, the doctor found a hard lump on the Michel's neck. Michel's eyes were fever-bright and were breathing wheezily. He started feeling pains in all parts of his body. When the doctor examined him again, Michel began to vomit pinkish bile, the ganglia of his neck and limbs were swollen, and two black patches were developing on his thighs. The internal pains caused him to felt like fire burning inside, his eyes are bulging, and his headache had suffused with tears. On the next day, despite the entire town feels hopeful after a week of fear, Michel's condition has a brief improvement in the morning but got worse in the afternoon. He experienced constant delirium and started to vomit again. He was sent to hospital but died after that.
"So long as each individual doctor had come across only two or three cases, no one had thought of taking action. But it was merely a matter of adding up the figures and, once this had been done, the total was startling.
In a very few days the number of cases had risen by leaps and bounds, and it became evident to all observers of this strange malady that a real epidemic had set in."
I think most of us can reflect on our current lives if we read this story at such time. It's so mesmerising and unbelievable when this story was written in the 1940s, but it can be tightly related to the current situation we are experiencing now.
I know it's odd that I'm trying to relate to a story which I had recently read where the homunculus or a mutant subject looks down on humans and saying humans are so predictable. After reading this book, I feel ashamed and hate to agree with the homunculus. This story was written in so many decades ago, but there are so many things occurring right now, which have a lot of resemblance with what the author mentioned in the book.
"It's not a question of painting too black a picture. It's a question of taking precautions."
Doctors were arguing whether to admit it's a plague. Bernard highlights the importance of precautions and to prevent its killing half of the population in the town. In contrast, Richard mentioned that the disease hadn't been proved to be contagious as some relatives of his patients living under the same roof had escaped it. Richard is hesitant to apply the strict measures as this will lead to the admission of the plague outbreak, but there was no absolute certainty at that stage. Bernard's point is not about strict measures. But it's whether applying the appropriate steps to prevent the death of half of the population; they should not act as if there were no possibility that half the population would be wiped out.
"In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.
A pestilence isn't a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn't always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven't taken their precautions.
Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silicones the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences."
Crowds continued when the epidemic seemed to be on the wane; on some days, only ten or so deaths were notified. Then, all of a sudden, the number shot up again. On the day it reached thirty, Bernard received an official telegram:
"Proclaim a state of plague stop close the town."
Stricter measures and new regulations were issued:
"One thing, anyhow, was certain; discontent was on the increase and, fearing worse to come, the local officials debated lengthily on the measures to be taken if the populace, goaded to frenzy by the epidemic, got completely out of hand. The newspapers published new regulations reiterating the orders against attempting to leave the town and warning those who infringed them that they were liable to long terms of imprisonment."
The second part focuses on how the townspeople dealing with the closure of the town, separated from their loved ones and to adapt the new normality of life.
"Most people were chiefly aware of what ruffled the normal tenor of their lives or affected their interests. They were worried and irritated, but these are not feelings with which to confront plague. Their first reaction, for instance, was to abuse the authorities. The Prefect's riposte to criticisms echoed by the press. Could not the regulations be modified and made less stringent?"
In the fifth week, there were three hundred twenty-one deaths and three hundred forty-five in the sixth. Yet it doesn't prevent the townspeople strolling about the town and sitting at the cafe. They still believe it was just an accident and it will be only a temporary order. When the end of the month comes, the Perfect controls the traffic and food supply. Gasoline was rationed, and restrictions were placed on the sales of food. Shops and many offices are closed, and there was a lot of heavy drinking. A grocer has stockpiled canned provisions so that he can sell them later at a huge profit but died later in the hospital.
Then, myths about the plague began to surface around the town. Lozenges were out of stock at drugstores because someone believed that sucking lozenges can prevent the contagion. Empty rooms in a hotel as the epidemic spelt the ruin of the tourist trade. M. Othon, who is a magistrate at the town reappeared in the restaurant with his children, while the wife was in quarantine after nursing her mother who had died of the plague. The hotel manager despises M. Othon's action -
"Quarantine or not, she's under suspicion, which means that they are, too."
Meanwhile in restaurants:
"Many of the customers spend several minutes methodically wiping their plates. Not long ago some restaurants put up notices: Our plates, knives, and forks guaranteed sterilised. But gradually they discontinued publicity of this order, since their customers came in any case. People, moreover, spend very freely. Choice wines, or wines alleged to be such, the costliest extras, a mood of reckless extravagance is setting in. It seems that there was something like a panic in a restaurant because a customer suddenly felt ill, went very white, and staggered precipitately to the door."
The third part describes the townspeople began to act unusual, and myths and rumours continue spreading around. Looting started to occur, and a resident returned from quarantine had burned his house, believing such an act will kill the contagion. The rapid increase in the death rate has also changed the tradition and the efficiency of funeral management.
"Actually the most striking feature of our funeral was their speed. Formalities had been whittled down, and, generally speaking, all elaborate ceremonial suppressed. The plague victim died away from his family and the customary vigil beside the dead body was forbidden, with the result that a person dying in the evening spent the night alone, and those who died in the daytime were promptly buried. Needless to say, the family was notified, but in most cases, since the deceased had lived with them, its members were in quarantine and thus immobilised."
A journalist who is not one of the town's residents was trapped with the closure of the town. He was eager to smuggle out of the town so that he can reunite with his wife. In another story, the magistrate's son was suffered by the plague while the family has to be in quarantine. This leads the narrator began to question the existence of God or the importance of religion at such a difficult time; the different perceptions about this plague between a doctor and a priest.
"So the only thing for us to do was to go on waiting, and since after a too long waiting one gives up waiting, the whole town lived as if it had no future."
This is the only part of this book which we can't relate to our real life but only hope that it will come soon. It sounds hopeful, but it's a doubtful hope.
"Tarrou thought that the plague would have changed things and not changed them; naturally our fellow citizens' strongest desire was, and would be, to behave as if nothing had changed and for that reason nothing would be changed, in a sense. But to look at it from another angle, one can't forget everything, however great one's wish to do so; the plague was bound to leave traces, anyhow, in people's hearts."
I felt heartbreaking when reading this part and dumbfounded after I finished reading this book. It feels hopeful in certain ways, but the message that the author is trying to relay to us is there is no absolute ending of the plague, and there are effects after the plague. There are always traces left which remind us not to forget its existence, and it will be with us for a very long time.
Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
More reviews can be found on Goodreads: The Plague by Albert Camus.