To tie in with Arnolfini Bookshop’s call out to ‘what are you reading during lockdown?’ Arnolfini’s Writer in Residence, Melissa Chemam responds with her piece on a bestseller timely revisited.
Since I moved to Bristol, what I have been missing the most from my previous life in Paris is my vast collection of books… Most of them are paperbacks that I’ve had for years, a collection primarily started when my high school’s philosophy teacher gave me a large part of her old library, as I passed my exam and decided to study literature and humanities. These days, these books are surely missed more than ever.
Luckily, I’ve studied some of them so many times that some ideas, more than the stories themselves, are still with me, the ones of Milan Kundera and Albert Camus in particular.
One book that I really wanted to pick up from the shelves is Camus’ La Peste, The Plague. I saw it entered the list of the current bestsellers in many countries. I had of course read a lot of Camus in my youth, especially his theatre, his philosophy, like The Myth of Sisyphus, and later his novel The Stranger. Actually, even if I was more impressed by Jean-Paul Sartre’s revolutionary ideas, my local high school was named after Camus, so he was always part of the conversation in a way. Going to ‘Camus’ was an achievement as a teenager, a ritual of passage. And in 2013, for the 100th anniversary of his birth, I went back to Algeria to write about his legacy. But when I read that French and American people facing the current virus for just over a week turned to such a book, I must say I was amazed. Was it good news or bad news?
For those who don’t know much about this book by the Nobel Prize winner, it was published in 1947, in France, and tells the story of a plague sweeping the city of Oran, at the time when Algeria was still a French colony, just after the Second World War.
The characters in the book, ranging from Doctor Rieux to journalist Raymond Rambert, priest Paneloux, vacationers and fugitives, all helped the narrator to retell the effects the plague had on the city’s inhabitants, Rieux and Rambert appearing as two different versions of Camus himself.
First, the city is in dismay, when rats start coming out to die in the streets. Then a first person catches the plague and dies, in front of a powerless Dr Rieux. He’s firstly not reacting. But when the number of deaths reaches 30 per day, the authorities decide to seal the town, and officially declare an outbreak of plague. The city’s gates are shut, rail travel is prohibited, and mail service is suspended. The use of telephone lines is restricted to urgent calls only, so short telegrams become the sole means of communicating with people outside the town. People are put in quarantine, and sick ones in isolation camps, set up to transfer the victims out of overwhelmed hospitals.
The tragedy strikes for over five months. Most characters are faced with a choice between cowardice and courage, self-protection or generosity, yet unfortunately death doesn’t spare the braves. What makes the story even bleaker is the quasi-absence of female characters, apart from Rieux’s mother: Rieux’s wife is out of town in a sanatorium; Rambert’s wife is still at their home in Paris. Cynically, the existence of local Arab and Berber inhabitants is only mentioned once at the beginning, when Rambert explained to Rieux that he had come to Oran to report on their situation and blatant poverty – as Camus himself did in the region of Kabylie in 1939.
But soon, The Plague has more to do with the philosophical notion of the “Absurd”, a theory that Camus himself contributed to define, than with respiratory diseases and colonial injustice.
It asks a number of questions relating to the nature of destiny and the human condition. Many commentators have written that Camus’ novel is a metaphor for the Nazi invasion of France and for the “Resistance”, or how few people actually fought Nazism, a “plague” testing people’s courage and commitment to solidarity and democracy. The Plague is not questioning the French Empire’s grips however, but the Germans’; Oran is a pretext town, it could be Marseille or Lille, a generic European place without social, racial or colonial discriminations, a fictional, almost science-fiction like, allegorical city. Like in a Greek tragedy.
The book comes across as a “lose-up dissection table of human psychology,” English novelist and historian Marina Warner wrote in 2003 in The Guardian, “as well as the larger space of tragic political expression and moral and philosophical conundra.”
Camus also drew up a report about the European society of the twentieth century. He criticised the mismanagement of Oran’s administration, the useless panic created by the press, and the lack of fairness from men, businesses and the church.
In that sense, The Plague might be a more useful read for us once healed from the spread of our current coronavirus than in confinement. It encourages the readers to ponder on the meaning and values of our society, on the lack of humanity of its social roles when in times of crisis. Are we able to preserve ourselves and each other when the worse comes to us? This is the question it imposes.
Long before Camus, the idea of “confinement” has long been covered in literature, Shakespeare witnessed many outbreak of plagues throughout his life, Voltaire wrote so many articles and books when in prison in pre-revolutionary France; Victor Hugo spent decades in exile on a tiny island while France was becoming a colonial empire instead of a modern republic as promised; and Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail, hoping to get out and change his entire country. I have myself lived in war zones, through curfews, so I know I’m more prepared than most…
For most people, being asked to stay home feels like an obligation, a constraint. It prevents them from going to work, from enjoying some outdoor entertainment, even induces panic. Psychologists have even started podcasts about it, reporting anxiety, isolation or overwhelming presence of too many people; or they have to work online, without the presence of colleagues and bosses, while the children are in need of them, or spouse in the other room making noise; flatmates feel trapped, etc. It’s not always easy.
Yet, we must remind ourselves that what we’re living now is actually the opposite of confinement: An invisible biological enemy is causing a new disease to humans, and the simplest way to fight it is to avoid contact, to stay at home. Something most people in the UK, in Europe can do quite easily. We’re not forced to stay in, it has become our responsibility; we should be in charge of our own preservation, not blame fate or the state from coercing us into our homes.
For the vast majority of people in the rest of the world however, this is close to impossible: they don’t have a home or only have access to a minuscule space, full of people and sometimes strangers. Like Indian novelist Arundhati Roy magnificently reported a few days ago in the Financial Times (link: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca), how to confine a billion people, when most of them struggle with poverty? It must be the same in the slums I once visited as a reporter in Haiti or in Nairobi, Kenya.
Here in England, and especially in Bristol, the people who cannot isolate, stay inside and therefore protect themselves and others, are the homeless, the rough sleepers.
But instead of fearing the indoor, the inside, the introspection, we could learn to see our situation as an opportunity to be less active, less speedy, more humble, to embrace the calm and to enjoy the silence… Because what this invisible enemy is showing us is that our social organisation and our economic rules don’t work in a way that truly protect us or enrich our lives. They only make us play social roles and contribute to a destructive hyper-productivity. We could breath, slow down, and rediscover who we are, how powerful knowledge and solidarity can make us become. Beautiful music helps; books help. For me, what works is finding joy in the simplest things: a ray of sun, a beautiful view, a walk in the park, a text message from a friend…
Back to Albert Camus’ book, La Peste, and the lessons we can learn from it: we can see that the writer encouraged us to accept our human condition, i.e. our mortality, instead of running away from it through fear and distraction. To accept our smallness and to embrace our role on this planet with more modesty. Because if we truly want to protect ourselves from unbeatable plagues, we’ll have to accept to end a system that brought destruction to everything around us, and made us slaves of our timeframes, productions, and to economic growth.
Studies have already shown that “in the coming decades, ecological degradation, rising temperatures, and extreme weather events could intensify the threats to human health posed by viruses” (see this article: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-might-global-warming-influence-the-spread-of-viruses and this report: https://www.who.int/globalchange/summary/en/index5.html )
As Arundhati Roy wrote, the pandemic “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
So, we should read Camus, yes, for sure. If prepared for the ride… Not hoping to find a list of activities to entertain our boredom or simple words of comfort… He forces readers to be ready to admit that, compared to other human episodes of plague in history, here in Europe we are still quite lucky and preserved, but that our privileges have contributed to make this type of catastrophes possible. Now the wisest move would be to start thinking about how to build a world anew, straight from our bedrooms, but never alone, all connected in many ways – ideas, books, online communication, solidarity – ways as invisible as the virus is, but much more positive and powerful.