My Book World
I read this book, in part, to see what light, if any, it might shed on the world’s 2020-2021 Covid pandemic. I found some interesting parallels. The city of Oran, Algiers, 194_ of Part One seems to echo our country’s actions concerning a local epidemic, the first signal of which is the estimated death of 40,000 rats: lack of clarity about what the disease is and what needs to be done. In Part Two, the gates of Oran close: “One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gates was, in fact, this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it” (67).
The natural impulse seems to be to shut out the rest of the world. People, indeed, do not know what is happening. Go to work or not? Keep my children out of school? Oh, the schools have been closed. “The Prefect’s riposte to criticisms echoed by the press—Could not the regulations be modified and made less stringent?—was somewhat unexpected” (78). In 2020, we demonstrate similar behavior: “At first the fact of being cut off from the outside world was accepted with a more or less good grace, much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But, now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky, already beginning to sizzle in the fires of summer, they had a vague sensation that their whole lives were threatened by the present turn of events, and in the evening, when the cooler air revived their energy, this feeling of being locked in like criminals prompted them sometimes to foolhardy acts” (100). Indeed. Partying at crowded bars and restaurants? Attending large political gatherings?
In Oran, the number of deaths seem to increase exponentially day by day. There is conflict about how to handle their situation: “Cottard stared at him in a puzzled manner, and Tarrou went on to say that there were far too many slackers, that their plague was everybody’s business, and everyone should do his duty. For instance, any able-bodied man was welcome in the sanitary squads” (157). Sounds similar to 2020: Just wear the damn mask. Or, You can’t tell me what to do, you’re infringing on my freedom.
By Part III the people of Oran, Algeria realize that the plague has swallowed up “everything and everyone.” There are no longer individual destinies, only a collective destiny, burying the dead, recycling coffins because enough new ones cannot be manufactured fast enough. Cemeteries are outgrown as it were. In 2020, CNN and MSNBC mount graphics each day of the number of Covid cases, the number of deaths. People of Oran become apathetic: Que sera, sera. If I die I die. Sound familiar in 2020?
Part IV of the novel depicts the exhaustion—physical, mental, and emotional—that the people of Oran are now experiencing after months of trauma. “Whenever any of them spoke through the mask, the muslin bulged and grew moist over the lips. This gave a sort of unreality to the conversation; it was like a colloquy of statues” (209). No wonder everyone becomes sick of masks! We can’t always understand one another, can’t see other’s expressions as to what they are thinking. Though protected by the mask, we are dehumanized by it as well. Part IV is highlighted with a touching moment between Dr. Rieux and his friend and patient, a Father Paneloux, after a child dies by way of an excruciating but tender description by Camus. You know more death is coming. Yes, the priest, too, dies. It is in Part IV that the plague becomes a larger thing, a metaphor for the decay potentially inherent in all humans.
Provided for readers in Part V is a sad denouement in which the plague whimpers to an end, but not before the good doctor who has worked tirelessly experiences the loss of his wife (who is caught in another town throughout the entire epidemic) as well as a close friend. Dr. Rieux ends the novel’s narrative with these thoughts: “And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city” (308). Whoa! What? you say. We could face more pandemics in the future? Simply, yes, if the rats shop with us.
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