City Gallery

Man Reads The Plague during the Plague

Wellington writer John Summers was one of the panelists for the special Coronavirus edition of our recent Book Club, on Wednesday 13 May, on YouTube. The panel discussed what the world has been reading during the Covid-19 lockdown, including Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague, which recently soared back into international bestseller lists. Here, we republish Summers’s excellent Newsroom essay about re-reading Camus’s novel in lockdown.

Watch City Gallery’s Coronavirus Book Club.

All those movies, those books, turned out to be accurate despite my doubts. They answered that question I never really asked my grandparents: what does history feel like? It turns out it’s the first burst of news giving way to more and more, snowballing to avalanche so that turning on a radio at any time is to hear about one thing, the same thing only. On a single walk to the shops, I pass people who, every one of them, talk about it. Some joking, some hissing anger, some fearful. ‘Town’s empty’, says a woman. ‘We’ll all going to die anyway’, says her co-worker.

But people are friendlier too, nodding and saying hello to strangers on a city street. In the supermarket, a note apologises for the absence of certain things due to ‘heavy trade’. These things are tinned beans and lentils—the dreary food of the apocalypse. I take one or two of the remaining tins for myself, FOMO is my fear. And, as I wheel them to the counter, the lights dim, the music comes to a stop. ‘Attention customers’, the loudspeaker begins, and I brace myself. What now? But it turns out to be an act of kindness too, a quiet time for people with autism and the like. An hour they say. How long will it last?

Quite a while, as it turns out. I wrote the above a week before the lockdown began, and I write this about half way in. Going for a state-sanctioned walk, people smile, nod more vigorously than ever. After two days of heavy rain, we emerge blinking, a friendly horde. And I, happier for the fresh air and exercise head home for some light reading, The Plague by Albert Camus, his 1947 novel about Oran, a city in French Algeria, overwhelmed by pestilence.

It’s a book I first read years ago, thinking it was one of those novels, like Animal Farm, that you read once, and then never again, its lessons taken like a tablet. Except here I am, back already. I had bought a copy in that week before lockdown so I might read again of the rats that come scurrying through city streets to die in the open, first one or two, and then whole swarms. Everyone talks about it until they don’t as it becomes clear that the rats were only the start and now the plague has come for them.

I’m not alone in my choice of reading. Overseas, The Plague is selling in droves again. Amazon was out of stock, it was reported recently, and it has enjoyed a moment as a bestseller again in South Korea. Normally we might read for distraction but distraction is impossible now, and so we delve in, looking for clues. Camus is not the only option, of course. I could have chosen Stephen King’s The Stand, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, or maybe the movies Contagion or Outbreak. Well, not Outbreak, it really runs out of steam about half way through. But the rest could have done the same job, offer something, anything to answer the question: what next? They are the animal entrails, the stars, the clairvoyant offering appointments at her home in an outer suburb. This looking to the page for answers, Camus himself predicted. His townspeople ‘built imaginary hopes or felt unfounded terrors on reading the views that some journalist had set down more or less by chance, while yawning with boredom’. (Bonjour Monsieur Hosking!). He himself wrote from experience, although not of plague. It’s generally acknowledged that his novel is allegory, the disease a stand in for something he did know first hand, the German occupation of France. He knew then how a way of life could be upturned in an instant, and knew that some, like the character of Doctor Rieux in his novel, like our own doctors nurses, supermarket workers, and the like, would fight it, not with the sort of heroism we see in films, but something closer to duty, to routine even, that dusty old virtue of decency.

Decency, explains Dr Rieux, means doing his job. He is a protagonist, although not a hero, and is one of the first to suspect that bubonic plague has come to Oran, only to find that the word is resisted by the city’s authorities as if to speak it is to make it real. Similarly magical thinking is shown by the townspeople who ‘forgot to be modest, and thought that everything was still possible for them, which implied that pestilence was impossible. They continued with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions.’ But as the number of deaths rise, such thought is no longer an option, and Oran is quarantined, cut off from the rest of the world. A state unlike our lockdown—people still go to bars and cafes, and to movies, even if they can only show the same films again and again. They are trapped within this city on the sand, only allowed to send brief telegrams to loved ones in the world beyond, which for Rieux includes his wife, sent to a sanatorium before the plague descended. Still, he does his job, even as his job seems like nothing more than identifying those who will die. But as one character explains, ‘there are pestilences and there are victims—and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence’. He is joined in this by others. ‘Health teams’ are formed, although what they do exactly is never very clear—the important thing is that they resist and stay stubborn in the face of this creeping, silent thing, the plague.

Among Rieux’s colleagues in the health team is a journalist, Rambert, a visitor to Oran, whose first impulse his to leave and so attempts to bribe city guards to get out. His is one response, for another the plague is an opportunity to profit—a nod to the collaborators of the Second World War— and, for others, the reaction is fear, desperation, or resignation. A strait-laced magistrate softens, longs to be close to the son he has lost. The only common ground is that all must respond in some way. The plague is indiscriminate, a leveller in this sense, and, when it does come to an end, the survivors will all be changed, revealed to themselves.

This we learn through matter-of-fact prose, and Camus maintains a curious flatness throughout his novel—as in the plague, the horrific becomes everyday. Oran’s trams are commandeered to cart bodies to a crematorium and the locals are soon used to them trundling through the city gates. This flatness I remembered from my first read and wondered what to make of it, even if I enjoyed the novel. Reading now, I wonder that it too is a mark of its accuracy. Thank god that, in this country, we are not yet and may not have to become blasé about the horrific, but still people have a way of saying phrases like ‘panic buying’ and ‘social distancing’, as if they’ve been on their lips for years. The term New Normal reeks too heavily of LinkedIn and corporate life for me to say it out loud, but inwardly I have to admit that it holds truth.

Big things, things we might have guessed at, are happening: the closure of the borders, the categorising of industries as essential and not. But those small things, the ones that creep too low for imagination, characterise this moment just as precisely for most of us, at least for now. On outbreak, our minds lurched to the worst, and so never stopped to consider that the word ‘bubble’ might be used repeatedly and solemnly by so many people. We might have expected martial law, but few of us would have anticipated a website where we dob in our neighbours for driving too far to take a walk or that that website might crash from over use. The number of these small unpredictable details rises, like Corona cases, daily; all reminders that this is the great not knowing that we are moving beyond and to the side of any imagining. 

‘That’s the worst thing, not knowing’, the woman at the shop said when she sold me this book. But she said this, and then she thought for a second, and corrected herself. ‘Well, maybe not.’

I think she was right the first time, the second time too.

—John Summers

John Summers is the author of The Mermaid Boy, a collection of non-fiction stories. His essay here is shared with Newsroom‘s kind permission.