In the town of Oran, rats begin to appear – in the houses, in the streets and scrabbling around the dustbins. But the creatures bring with them a deadly plague that consumes and contaminates the population, forcing them into their beds, to the hospitals and finally the morgue. The central character, Dr Rieux, strives in his own way to make a difference, to combat the medical and psychological effects of the disease. With the aid of a few friends, he observes how each individual responds in different ways – with fear, isolation and apathy, while others surrender themselves to whatever is to become of them.
There’s no plot as such, and much of the book focuses on the organisational aspects of dealing with an outbreak, such as collecting the dead rats, arranging beds for the sick and dying, and placing the town under quarantine.
Although there are some beautifully written passages in ‘The Plague’, the characters are generally a little wooden and don’t really do much to promote themselves to a hopeful reader. Much of the dialogue is tedious and I was often distracted by a text that would have benefited from a bit of editing (though this may have been more to do with the translation).
So, on the whole, I found it a bit of a slog and I’m afraid the only thing I felt on finishing it was relief. Sure, it’s interesting and thought-provoking, particularly if you take on board the apparent allegory of the French struggle under the Third Reich, however, there was a cholera epidemic in Oran in 1849, which resurfaced several times (to a lesser extent) after the turn of the century, and as Camus knew about this, who’s to say what the real story is?
If you’re into existentialism and absurdist ideas, maybe this one will do it for you. I’m sure I’ll dip into the work of Camus again, but he’s no longer at the top of my reading list.