Life Imitates Art: Camus’ The Plague

by Shlomo Maital

Life imitates Art, so goes the saying. It is true. Novelists often anticipate events and describe them in detail, before they unfold. Take for instance the novel by the French-Algerian author Albert Camus, The Plague, published in French in 1947.

     Camus began working on the novel in 1941. He did painstaking research, studying plagues and epidemics through history.   His novel is set in the Algerian coastal city Oran, where a cholera plague killed a large fraction of the population in 1849.

     Camus describes the initial denial, widespread in the early stages of COVID-19. “It’s impossible it should be the plague, everyone knows it has vanished from the West”, says a Camus character.   Camus adds, sardonically, Yes, everyone knew that, except the dead.

     When 500 people a day die in the Oran plague, Camus’ character, a Catholic priest, explains the plague as God’s punishment for sin. The main character, a medical doctor, knows better. He believes suffering is randomly distributed, makes no sense, it is absurd.

     Camus concludes his novel, with these words:

     “Everyone has it [the plague] inside himself, this plague, because no one in the world, no one, is immune.”   Dr. Roux says, the plague never dies; it “waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers” for the day when it will “rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city”.

       We humans know everything, control everything, decide everything – except when a tiny virus, not even technically a living thing, learns how to insert its RNA inside a cell, hijack the cell’s DNA, replicate itself, and kill the human body. And we instantly become much more humble.

   Based on: Camus on the coronavirus, Alain de Botton, New York Times, March 22.