As noted in previous blogs in the series, sales of Albert Camus’ pestilence classic La Peste are at an all-time high as readers try and make sense of their new, disorienting lockdown experience by turning to stories of enforced pandemic quarantine in past times. My relationship with this novel however has been of a more longstanding nature as I have come back to a text first encountered in the French original as a sixth form student in Mauritius in 1972.
This was only four years after the ending of formal British colonial rule and very little had changed, not least at the level of the Arts A level school curriculum still dominated by canonical texts set in the past. It seemed that the school curriculum worked to keep us locked up in a settled, immutable past whereas emerging onto adulthood, we yearned to make sense of the events and challenges of our postcolonial present in a world in which the Vietnam War was still raging and a new nation, Bangladesh, had just been born.
It was in this context that reading La Peste proved inspiring and indeed, liberating. For here was a text that was near contemporary and which, while seemingly narrating a fictional outbreak of plague in the Algerian city of Oran, was also an allegorical story about so much more: French resistance to German occupation, the nature of oppression, the values of solidarity and public engagement, the necessity and limits of rebellion. At the same time some of us registered the absence of Arab characters from a novel set in what was after all predominantly their city, two decades before Edward Said’s (harsh) indictment of Camus’ overall oeuvre as distilling ‘the traditions, idioms, and discursive strategies of France’s appropriation of Algeria’. Still, grappling with this little book, reading and writing critically about it, was the most valuable learning experience that I took away from my final school years.
Fast forwarding to the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown, I dusted down from my shelves the first of two volumes of Camus’ collected works published by Gallimard in 1962, beautiful, much-prized books with built-in string bookmarks that made the journey with me to the UK from Mauritius. La Peste begins on page 1219: reading the novel soon became part of my breakfast rituals, happily replacing the initial anxiety-driven compulsion to scroll down The Guardian and BBC screens for the latest information on the pandemic. Drawn back into Camus’ rich prose, I could dwell more thoughtfully on the parallels with our own current pandemic situation, also the subject of a recent article by Jacqueline Rose in the London Review of Books https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n09/jacqueline-rose/pointing-the-finger. In the novel, in spite of the rising number of deaths, a long delay occurs before a ‘state of plague’ is declared and no immediate lockdown measures are taken. The primary concern is not to frighten the public in a city where all activities are shaped ‘by the requirements of commerce’. There is also no locally available anti-plague serum which has to be ordered from far away Paris where, not surprisingly, stocks have run out. When the serum does finally arrive, it is mostly ineffective against a disease which has a life and agency of its own. As the central character Dr Rieux observes, ‘if the pandemic does not cease of its own volition, it will never be defeated by the measures adopted by the authorities’.
When Oran is quarantined from the outside world, it is not long before people express dismay at measures that affect ‘their habits or interests’ and reflecting public opinion, the press begins to call for the lifting of some of the more ‘extreme’ interdictions. Ultimately, the plague begins to wither away, ‘having exhausted itself, perhaps retiring after achieving all of its objectives’. Doctors and the medical profession emerge as the novel’s quiet heroes for their obstinately persevering daily work to save lives and discover cures, for being ‘on the side of victims rather than of scourges’.
The world depicted in La Peste is one that has become eerily familiar to all of us. From the vantage point of 2020 rather than 1972, the novel also invites us to identify the political leaders, agribusinesses, deregulated food supply chains, market-driven health systems, as well as processes of world-wide deforestation and environmental degradation that facilitate and are ‘on the side’ of scourges, pathogens, and pandemics. One sadness remains though on revisiting the novel: the journalist Rambert never undertakes the investigation into the health and living conditions of the Arab population, the main purpose of his presence in the city. But even more disappointing is Public Health England’s deliberate reluctance to account for, or provide an action plan to mitigate, the disproportionate deaths affecting black and ethnic minority people from Covid-19 in its recent and much anticipated report. Let us hope that the urgent enquiry into ‘Coronivirus and BAME people’ launched in response by the Women and Equalities Select Committee of the House of Commons offers a genuine and comprehensive way forward.
Sandip Hazareesingh (The Open University, History)