There is something to be said about horror movies. No matter how terrible the times or how horrendous reality seems to be at the moment, slasher flicks always seem to draw a crowd. In fact, many of my friends lean into a Netflix binge of Criminal Minds or Hannibal during a hard break up or difficult time in their life. These days, a horror film reads pretty close to reality — if not a bit peachier.
Following that train of thought, why not then, in the midst of a global pandemic, read about a plague? Cue to Albert Camus’ The Plague.
The Plague by Albert Camus takes place in the French colonized town of Oran, Algeria. Racial, social, and medical injustices abound in the 308-page book which uses a devastating pandemic to delve into even deeper issues: capitalism and corruption, gross injustices, and a false sense of superiority. Split into five sections, the novel details the insidious spread of plague (in a town that steadfastly ignores its progression) and the subsequent disintegration of a sane society. Sounds eerily familiar, does it not? Well, at least COVID-19 isn’t harbored in the bodies of, and I kid you not, blood-spewing rats…at least not yet. Though…there was that one squirrel in Colorado with the Bubonic Plague (he really couldn’t read the room).
The back of my copy of Camus’ The Plague (a Vintage International edition translated from the original French by Stuart Gilbert) proclaims the following:
Suffering and madness certainly ring a bell with me — hopefully, the compassion bit is forthcoming. COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on what many oppressive systems within the United States were founded on. Greed and anti-blackness. With police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests in the streets and racial inequality in the medical-industrial complex (consider the Black maternal mortality rate or the origins of gynecology just to name a few), coronavirus has forced many White U.S. Americans to confront the bleak reality of most Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in the United States: the U.S. is, and always has been, racist and unequal. As within The Plague, this mass sickness has forced other issues to the forefront.
In another dark parallelism between our current reality and The Plague comes Camus’ erasure of non-European (and non-White) voices. Just as U.S. history books erase mass genocides and injustices, Camus largely skirts the violent colonial history of Oran. Camus goes on to belittle the major city of Oran, denoting it as a dusty, boring, and overwhelmingly “ugly” port (in some translations, he describes Oran as the “capital of boredom”). Camus erases the richness of this pivotal city in North Africa, today considered the second most important city in all of Algeria (second only to the capital city of Algiers). It is important to note that despite being famed around the world, Camus is largely uncelebrated in his home country of Algeria where he was considered a colonialist.
Despite the fact that Camus set his novel in Oran, a city that at the time Camus was writing his novel had a 90% Arab population, all of Camus’ major characters are European (presumably White). Just as Camus White-washed the heroes and victims in his story, so many White people in the United States disregard the impact of racism and anti-blackness in this pandemic. Plentiful White voices call for all of us to band together to fight COVID-19, ignoring the reality that we are not, in fact, all together: Black people are disproportionately dying due to COVID-19. Indigenous nations around the globe are also especially under threat. And, should a White person contract COVID, statistically, White people have infinitely more wealth than BIPOC folks (especially Black people) in the United States, enabling them to access better health care and treatment.
Ultimately, if you haven’t read The Plague (or even if you have before), I highly suggest giving it a try (or a reread). The poignance borders on prophetic and provides quite a piece of food for thought. Originally printed in 1947 as a parable for growing fascism, this allegory teaches on in new and unfortunately timeless ways; in the world of COVID-19, The Plague is once again a bestseller.
A brief warning, however: to those with a deathly fear of rats, this one may not be for you.
Related Books and Recommendations
If you liked The Plague or it sounds interesting to you, here are 9 other books to check out!
1984 by George Orwell
Though not about viral or bacterial plagues, George Orwell’s classic 1984 discusses the insidious nature of absolute power, corruption, and war. According to Goodreads, 1984 “is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life—the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language—and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell…it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written.” And for those with murophobia, be warned: if The Plague freaked you out, here is another book that will haunt you.
Severance, by Ling Ma
Ling Ma’s premiere novel Severance is a chilling science fiction tale that follows protagonist Candace Chen as the devastating Shen Fever obliterates the world as she knows it: Goodreads describes “Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. So she barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.” As with Camus’ The Plague, this apocalyptic satire reads startlingly familiar in the era of COVID-19.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The first in her MaddAddam series, Oryx and Crake is a wonderful example of pestilence fiction at is finest. Once again I call to Goodreads opinion on Oryx and Crake: “is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey – with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake – through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. ” As with her classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, “Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.”
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is an intriguing read. Told roughly chronologically, this book lacks conventions of many memoirs including clear sections and or chapter markings — and if you hate at-times tedious or repetitive writing, this is not the book for you. Despite the fact that he was approximately five years old when the last epidemic of the Bubonic Plague swept through London, Defoe presents his work as an eyewitness account of what became infamously known as the Great Plague of London. Because of this inconsistency, A Journal of the Plague Year is categorized by Goodreads as “a fictionalized account of one man’s experiences of the year 1665, in which the Great Plague struck the city of London.” In all likelihood, Defoe based the book on his uncle, Henry Foe‘s detailed journals. Interestingly enough, when the book when first published in 1722, the author was listed as H. F. before Defoe officially attached his own name to the work.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
An anthology of three works of novellas, Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a masterful compilation of tragic short fiction: Goodreads says “From the gothic Old South to revolutionary Mexico, few writers have evoked such a multitude of worlds, both exterior and interior, as powerfully as Katherine Anne Porter. This collection gathers together the best of her Pulitzer Prize-winning short fiction, including Pale Horse, Pale Rider, where a young woman lies in fever during the influenza epidemic, her childhood memories mingling with fears for her fiancé on his way to war, and Noon Wine, a haunting story of tragedy and scandal on a small dairy farm in Texas. In all of the compelling stories collected here, harsh and tragic truths are expressed in prose both brilliant and precise.”
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre’s epistolary novel Nausea reminds me of The Plague less directly in subject matter than it does in mood and, at times, Nietzschean thinking. Certain Nietzsche-isms in Camus‘ work extend into Jean-Paul Sartre’s. As critiqued by Goodreads, “Nausea itself presents the story of Antoine Roquentin, a French writer who is horrified at his own existence. In impressionistic, diary form he ruthlessly catalogs his every feeling and sensation about the world and people around him. His thoughts culminate in a pervasive, overpowering feeling of nausea which ‘spread at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time, the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats; it is made of wide, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain.’ Roquentin’s efforts to try and come to terms with his life, his philosophical and psychological struggles, give Sartre the opportunity to dramatize the tenets of his Existentialist “creed.
Blindness by José Saramago
José Saramago’s parable Blindness presents a new kind of plague: one of, you guessed it, blindness. In his Novel Prize-winning novel, a city is hit by an epidemic of ‘white blindness’ that spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations, and assaulting women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides her charges — among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears — through the barren streets, and their procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. As Blindness reclaims the age-old story of a plague, it evokes the vivid and trembling horrors of the twentieth century, leaving readers with a powerful vision of the human spirit that’s bound both by weakness and exhilarating strength.
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1351 The Decameron is the precursor to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Rather than 24 stories as in The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron boasts 100 short stories told by 10 different characters attempting to escape the Black Death. All 100 of these stories “are told in a country villa outside the city of Florence by ten young noble men and women who are seeking to escape the ravages of the plague” (rather than by a varied group of pilgrims as seen in Geoffrey Chaucer’s work). According to Goodreads, “Boccaccio’s skill as a dramatist is masterfully displayed in these vivid portraits of people from all stations in life, with plots that revel in a bewildering variety of human reactions.”
Hopefully, at least one of the books mentioned here tickles your fancy! Until next time.
Keep reading (and wear a mask in public).
*quoted book blurbs can be found in full on Goodreads.com by clicking on the book cover or title*