by Albert Camus
"I know that man is capable of great deeds. But if he isn't capable of great emotion, well, he leaves me cold."
The Plague presents so many layers of meaning that I find Camus entering the aerie realm of twentieth century writers inhabited by only the likes of Proust and Faulkner, Musil and Mann. On rereading I find that the trusted Random House Vintage paperback that I have read and reread is missing a key bit of text, the epigraph appended to the beginning of the novel by Camus. Its absence is inexplicable, especially since the same publisher has included it in the more recent collection of Camus' fiction for Everyman's Library. The epigraph follows:
"It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!" - (Daniel Defoe, Preface to Volume three of Robinson Crusoe)
The importance of this selection suggests Camus' story will be about more than the town of Oran in 194_ and points to motifs of imprisonment and existence. This is certainly worth considering as one enters Camus' fictional world as are most epigraphs. In his excellent survey of modern French writers, From Proust to Camus, Andre Maurois observes that:
In The Plague Camus is mainly interested in the reactions of men faced with the collapse of everything they had believed to be secure: communications systems, trade, health. It is no longer a single Sisyphus but a city of Sisyphuses who themselves crushed by disaster.(p. 356)
This aspect of the novel is certainly a rich topic for discussion as one nears the end of its second section. The work abounds with Sisyphean metaphors while even the structure demonstrates this theme as Camus has a virtual rebeginning at the start of the second part mirroring the opening of the novel and reminding us of the greater Sisyphean task before us. The failure of communication exists at all levels and we see reminders on almost every other page; for example in chapter 9 (the opening of Section two) we see "all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another."
In some sense the novel becomes one of creating a community within Oran to deal with the Sisyphean task of the ordeal of the Plague and the greater task of living one's life. The city and the people change as they try to deal with the cataclysm that has overtaken them. The community is infected and imprisoned and becomes obsessed with communication and the futility of communication with no response (more Sisyphus or merely the absurd?) The novel is written with simple complexity in that the seemingly simple prose reveals through careful analysis complexity that rivals any of Camus' favorite authors (Melville, Dostoyevsky, Kafka). The narrator claims to be writing a chronicle (see Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year), but there are contrasts and mysteries that arise immediately including the question of the identity of the narrator. On page 6 we read that "the narrator (whose identity will be made known in due course". When that will be will have to wait until quite near the end of the novel. At any rate the narrator claims to have access to both his own witness of events, the testimony of other eyewitnesses and documents that record the events (this will include a journal that forms part of the subsequent text). The first person to whom we are introduced is Dr. Rieux who encounters rats almost immediately, but does not think much of that. We wondered why, especially after he notices a bleeding rat, that as a doctor he does not think about plague and disease, but he does not and that will have to wait.
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