We are all in the plague

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Notes towards an abandoned essay.

In 1947, when he was thirty-three, Albert Camus published La peste, the story of a town struck by bubonic plague. He judged the book a failure, but in many ways it is his most successful work: translated into many languages, never out of print, read and taught all over the world.

In one sense it is a very simple story. Rats come out of cellars and sewers, spitting blood, and begin to die in the streets. Then people begin to die. The town is sealed off and we follow the experiences of a small band of characters as they battle the epidemic. Like a classical tragedy, the book is divided into five acts. In parts one and two, the death toll is rising; in part three it is at its height: ‘the plague had covered everything’. In parts four and five, the disease slowly retreats, and the town is liberated again.

The opening lines are at pains to stress the ordinariness of the setting, the French Algerian port of Oran where Camus arrived in 1941 for tuberculosis treatment, and where he began gathering material for the book:

Les curieux événements qui font le sujet de cette chronique se sont produits en 194., à Oran. De l’avis général, ils n’y étaient pas à leur place, sortant un peu de l’ordinaire. À première vue, Oran est, en effet, une ville ordinaire et rien de plus qu’une préfecture française de la côte algérienne.

The first English translation, by Stuart Gilbert in 1948, gives this as follows:

The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194…, at Oran. Everyone agreed that, considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran, which is merely a large French port on the Algerian coast, headquarters of the Prefect of a French ‘Department’.

In Robin Buss’s 2001 version, which seems to be taking fewer liberties, we have:

The peculiar events that are the subject of this history occurred in 194–, in Oran. The general opinion was that they were misplaced there, since they deviated somewhat from the ordinary. At first sight, indeed, Oran is an ordinary town, nothing more that a French Prefecture on the coast of Algeria.

Three different versions and three different ways of transcribing the blank in nineteen-forty-something: a period, an ellipsis, a dash. This tiny but curious absence in the very first sentence begins the restless, damaging oscillation between the specific and the universal, the located and the placeless, the literal and the metaphoric, that will play across the whole work.

This short prelude introduces an ordinary town, in one sense an allegorical ‘everytown’, where the daily routines of money and love-making, sea-bathing and newspaper reading are charted in a cool, objective, transparent style: ‘the style of absence which is’, as Roland Barthes remarked of Camus’s prose, ‘almost an ideal absence of style’. Further down the page are the most quotable lines, which demonstrate his way with an aphorism: ‘A convenient way of getting to know a town is to find out how people work there, how they love and how they die.’

Like so much else in the book, the simplicity is deceptive. The words let on more, betray more, know more than their author ever intended. The ‘peculiar events’ of the novel, as we will see, are indeed ‘not in their place’; they are misplaced in a profound, painful and complicated sense, with major consequences for how one interprets the book, and whether the great humanist credo that it arrives at can be believed in: ‘pour dire simplement ce qu’on apprend au milieu des fléaux, qu’il y a dans les hommes plus de choses à admirer que de choses à mépriser’ : ‘to say simply what it is that one learns in the midst of such tribulations, namely that there is more in men to admire than to despise’.

The opening lines contain, in embryo, the whole problematic of a story that wants to be read as a kind of fable or allegory, but also stubbornly refuses to give up its allegiance to a particular place. Oran is a town not in Europe but in Africa; or perhaps, more accurately (at least in nineteen-forty something) a town no longer European but not yet African.

What is the exact nature of that typographic gesture, 194–, in any case? Is it an abbreviation or a concealment? The convention is more common for proper names in non-fiction, signifying someone or some place familiar to the author but lightly or partially disguised for the reader. But it is really Oran itself that the opening lines should have rendered as O–, O… or O. That, at least, would have avoided some difficulties. Because as soon as one tries to place the book – to situate it in its historical moment, to track its arc in actual time and real geography – The Plague becomes a deeply complex, contradictory work: one that that absorbs and reflects back as much complexity and difficulty as the reader is willing to bring to it. What follows is an attempt to track my thinking about Camus’s work across many years, and from a place, South Africa, that emerges as a kind of mirror image, or rather a negative image, in the photographic sense, of the north Africa in which the novel is set; or else just a confusing mirage.

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