Published in 1947 by Nobel Laureate and philosopher Albert Camus, La Peste, was an allegorical story that warned Europe about Fascism and how the plague was always hanging around the corner, waiting for an opportune moment. However, in the days of Covid-19, rereading La Peste, is like reading the book for the very first time. Under the light of our confinement at home, social distancing and everything else that Covid-19 has unleashed on humanity, La Peste has become a best seller again in 2020 in countries like France and Italy.
The parallels with Camus’s plague in Oran were unimaginable to us, his readers, maybe just a year or so back. “From that moment on, our only real event in the world, was the Plague,” says the narrator in the book. In another part of the book he says, “All of us were in exile. And if this was exile, the for most, it was exile within our homes.” It is hence, difficult now, to see La Peste as allegory and avoid a literal reading.
The plague hits the unsuspecting town of Oran, Algeria, in a story set around 1940. The disease paralyses the city and isolates it from the rest of the world. Rieux, the doctor and the key protagonist of the tale, stands for the superhuman and extraordinary fight that some put up to defeat an unseen enemy. Families live separated. Greed pushes some to hoard and to indulge in profiteering. Death is often a solitary act, away from loved ones. The dead are just numbers to be manipulated, hidden or cast aside. Misplaced scientific hypotheses and hypocrisy collide to add to the feeling that life itself had lost all meaning.
However much that La Peste invites literal reading in our times, it is above all a reflection on the philosophy of the absurd. It contemplates survival, fear, responsibility (both individual and collective), solitude, hope and failure. It urges you to take a stance, a side, to define yourself in a world filled with absurdity. Because, what we choose to be, is what we are.
Perhaps, this choice, made a necessity, is the very essence of La Peste and makes it an essential read, in time of pandemic or any other.
La Peste is available widely in translation as “The Plague”. Needless to say it is best enjoyed in its original French. In case you would like to start reading French literature in French, you can always enroll yourself for an online French Course at Babel School of Languages 🙂