The corona virus has led to Albert Camus‘ novel „The Plague“ selling particularly well again. Many recommend the book as an informative read about epidemics and their social consequences. And indeed, there is much in this novel that concerns us especially in these days, from the challenges of everyday life, the struggle against time, fears and suffering, to the role of religion and other real or supposed sources of hope. It is therefore easy to read as a stand-alone work about a spreading disease, and it is thus a great literary experience. But Camus is about much more: it is about the meaning of life, about revolt, solidarity and freedom. This is precisely why the book is relevant far beyond the cause of the corona virus.
Camus wrote it in the 1940s. It took him several years to write it. It was published in 1947 as the first part of his three-part revolt cycle. This included texts of different genres on the subject of revolt. In The Plague, the later Nobel Prize winner for literature uses the novel as a style. He also wrote the philosophical essay The Rebel and the play The Just Assassins. The author had previously published his first cycle, the one on absurdity. This includes the novel The Stranger, the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus and the play Caligula. One could also say that the first cycle was dedicated to the loneliness and strangeness of the individual, and the second to the question of the solidarity of this lonely, alien individual in society. The third cycle, which Camus wanted to write about love, remained unfinished, because he died in a car accident in 1960. In any case, knowing that Camus worked in cycles helps to put the novel The Plague in a better perspective. Only then can it unfold its full meaning for the reader.
The Plague is at first sight the fictional story of the disease of the same name in the Algerian city of Oran. Camus begins with an imprecise, yet unambiguous date: The strange events to which this chronicle is dedicated took place in Oran 194x. So the novel takes place in the 1940s, from which one of several allegories can be derived, namely the Nazi occupation of France. Camus, who himself fought in the resistance against the Hitler regime, alludes quite unmistakably to a totalitarian regime that occupies, tyrannizes, terrorizes and robs a society of its freedom. The plague is, according to this reading, another word for the Nazi occupation. All the questions that arose in the resistance also arise in his novel: to flee or stay; to submit, surrender, resign or revolt; to look to one’s own happiness or to remain in solidarity and help others? All this and much more is addressed in impressive dialogues. In one of the strongest passages of the book, the journalist Rambert, torn between fleeing to his beloved and showing solidarity with the citizens of the city, declares that if he left, he would be ashamed. And that would disturb his love for the waiting woman. When Dr. Rieux answers that there was no shame in choosing happiness, Rambert says: „But there may be shame in being happy all by oneself“ This statement underpins the idea of solidarity, then as now, in the face of war, suffering and oppression. It has inspired many people, including Rupert Neudeck, founder of the refugee rescue organisation Cap Anamur. When he started a relief operation for the Vietnamese Boat People in the 1970s, he gave his staff the plague in their hands. Neudeck described the book as a kind of Bible for humanitarian work. A work in the service of the weakest in this world, in the service of refugees who have lost everything and only want to ensure their survival. It is a pity that Camus‘ work is only now being rediscovered in its more profane and immediate meaning in light of the coronavirus. It could just as well have been discovered much earlier in the wake of the tragedies in the Mediterranean.
But there are even deeper readings of the novel. Anyone familiar with the philosophical essay The Rebel will find a metaphysical statement and understand The Plague as an allegory of man’s existential dilemma. A dilemma that revolves around the question that Camus had already posed in the philosophical essay of the first cycle, namely: Why should we continue to live in an absurd world at all? In The Plague this absurdity is presented in all its tragedy. Camus has his protagonist Dr. Rieux say to a fanatical priest, in view of a child stricken by the plague: „And, until I die, I shall refuse to love this order of creation where children suffer and die.“ Only as absurd one could feel such a world. And yet: the struggle for the life of every child, of every single human being is the reason to live on. Camus understands this revolt as absurd, but only it justifies life. Therefore, in the philosophical essay The Rebel it says: „I revolt, therefore we are.“ The revolt of the individual against death, against human suffering in all its forms, against illness, war and authoritarianism, establishes a universal solidarity among human beings. It is equally a struggle for freedom and thus the basis for democracy and human rights. Yes, indeed: the plague is not just a book about an epidemic. It is a book about global, cosmopolitan humanism, against all forms of oppression.
Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Just in the last few months one could have remembered his speech in Stockholm in which he said about the task of a writer that he cannot place himself at the service of those who make history: He is at the service of those who suffer it.