08 July 2020

La Peste could now be seen as a warning of things to come

Albert Camus’ novel La Peste (The Plague) has seen a huge increase in sales since lockdown began. Amongst those reading the classic 20th century novel was A-Level French student Daniel Wong, who writes about the book and the curious rise of ‘pestilence fiction’.

597 copies of La Peste were sold in the UK in February 2019 and 2020. That figure was nearly tripled one week this March.

When Albert Camus wrote this novel, I cannot imagine he could have anticipated that the world would be in such a situation that it seemed no longer fictional. It is incredible to think that according to Google’s records, the monthly search popularity for La Peste in the UK in March 2020 nearly doubled the previous record, set in March 2004.

It is difficult to sum up exactly who Albert Camus was to those who don’t know him. He grew up fatherless in a poor neighbourhood before he contracted tuberculosis. Life didn’t improve much when the Second World War broke out and his new home, France was occupied. He was refused entry to the army due to his previous tuberculosis afflictions, and instead started working for the French Resistance and their underground newspaper Combat under a fake identity. During and after the war he began to write literature. He was, however, so much more than that. You can heap labels upon labels onto him: the hero, the existentialist, the philosopher, the womaniser, the author. None entirely captures just who he was. The purest view that we can get is to look at him through his literature.

La Peste tells the story of Oran, a major coastal city in Camus’ native Algeria, which is suddenly hit by a resurgence of the formerly eradicated bubonic plague, causing the city to shut down. Whilst one can imagine the story being told in a high-concept, adrenaline fueled style that Tom Clancy or Ian Fleming might be proud of, Camus was not known for his action sequences and car chases. Camus did not write with a big budget film in mind. In fact, anyone who has ever read anything by Camus would understand that it would be a director’s worst nightmare to try and recreate the pure unchecked existentialism that Camus effortlessly produces in film.

Perhaps with something like his earlier novel L’Étranger, it would be easier: Mersault’s trademark apathy on anything could be executed through clever use of voiceover effects. To render the narrator’s borderline absurdist comments from La Peste in film would either result in a poor film or a poor imitation of the book. Camus’ style is unique, practically hypnotic, and a Literature student’s playground.

In the early 21st Century, La Peste faded into near obscurity. When someone like Camus is so well known for L’Étranger, it is understandable (whilst not excusable) that people would not read some of his later works that were already following in that footsteps of that literary behemoth. However, for reasons I’m sure are clear to anyone with even a tenuous grasp on current affairs, La Peste has had to be republished twice.

Is it surprising that during a global pandemic people are flocking to literature based around a plague outbreak? To put it simply, no. People are stuck inside, the official figures (contested as they are) state that over four million people have been furloughed, there’s only so much Tiger King you can watch in one sitting; the fact that some people have decided that reading may be a better use of their time could not be farther from surprising. It is rather interesting to note, however, that the messages it sends directly map on to what we should be doing; and some of the parallels people find… eerie to say the least.

After weeks of pleading from the public and doctors, the Prefect (local government leader) who runs the town finally gives in to the pressure and concedes limited and poorly designed countermeasures in a frail attempt to stop the spread, all the while diverting the blame elsewhere, taking little responsibility for the deaths, before finally being persuaded to go into a full lockdown. Sound familiar? The allegorical characters, written almost 75 years ago, are spot on with today’s. You have the Rieux, Castels, Tarrous, of this world, the frontline workers who put themselves at risk every day in an attempt to help people, appreciated but undersupplied and underpaid, are clear to see there.

The Ramberts, who wish to see their loved ones more than anything, would commit crimes for it, would risk death for it, exist. If only they would be more like Rambert, and think of others before doing this. There are obviously the Prefects of this world – read into what you will that I envisage him as older, larger, and blonder – and the Othons, the ones who have lost friends, relatives, loved ones, and do not know how to cope.

These comparisons all the more spectacular once you take into account the fact that Camus never lived through a pandemic of this scale (possibly his only bit of fortune, he died aged just 46 in a mysterious car crash after a life bad luck) and yet has managed to predict so perfectly the reactions of people, with no frame of reference besides a cholera outbreak in Oran in 1899. His oracle-like wisdom has been seen as some as a sign, and shows that those who followed the lockdown rules and played the waiting game in La Peste largely survived. It also showed a vaccine was needed as soon as possible, and without reliable and widespread testing far more people died than needed to.

If La Peste wasn’t considered a warning of things to come akin to 1984 before, it certainly will be now.