Albert Camus’s “The Plague”, 2

It’s the second part of our excerpts of The Plague, that is an allegorical story of our current world. Our excerpts are a very compact version of Albert Camus’s The Plague, and will be published in four parts. The first part was published before, and here are the second part:

“The following day, April 30, an already warm breeze was blowing beneath a damp blue sky. It brought a scent of flowers from the most distant suburbs. The sounds of morning in the streets seemed livelier and merrier than usual … Even Rieux, reassured by a letter from his wife, went down to see the concierge in a light-hearted mood. And that morning, indeed, the man’s temperature had fallen to 38 degrees. Though weak, the patient was smiling in his bed … But at noon the patient’s temperature suddenly rose to 40 degrees, he was constantly delirious and vomiting again … Two hours later, in the ambulance, the doctor and the wife were leaning over the patient. Broken words emerged from his mouth … ‘The rats!’ he said. … His wife wept. ‘Is there no hope then, doctor?’ ‘He is dead,’ Rieux said … Our fellow-citizens, as they now realized, had never thought that our little town might be a place particularly chosen as one where rats die in the sun and concierges perish from peculiar illnesses . From this point of view, indeed, they were mistaken and discovered that they had to adjust their ideas. If it had all stopped there, old habits would no doubt have regained the upper hand. But others of our fellow-citizens, who were not concierges or poor people, were to follow Michel down that same path. This was where fear began -and with it, serious reflection … Here is what Tarrou has to say about the business of the rats: ‘In town, a tram was stopped today because they found a dead rat on it; no one knew where it came from. Two or three women got off. The rat was thrown out and the tram drove away … Dr Rieux knew what was up. Once the concierge’s body had been put in isolation, he telephoned Richard to ask him about these inguinal infections. ‘I don’t understand it,’ Richard replied. ‘Two deaths, one in forty-eight hours, the other in three days. I left the second of these one morning giving every appearance of being on the mend’. … He asked Richard, the president of the Association of Doctors in Oran, if new patients could be isolated … He answered “No”. Everything stuck to one’s hands as the day went on and Rieux felt a growing sense of foreboding with every visit he made. That same day, on the outskirts of the town, one of the old man’s neighbors, delirious, pressed his groin and started to vomit … The press, which had had so much to say about the business of the rats, fell silent. This is because rats die in the street and people in their bedrooms; and newspapers are only concerned with the street … In barely a few days the number of fatal cases multiplied, and it was clear to those who were concerned with this curious illness that they were dealing with a real epidemic… The word ‘plague’ had just been spoken for the first time … Pestilence is in fact very common, but we find it hard to believe in a pestilence when it descends upon us. There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared. Dr Rieux was unprepared, as were the rest of the townspeople, and this is how one should understand his reluctance to believe. One should also understand that he was divided between anxiety and confidence. When war breaks out people say: ‘It won’t last, it’s too stupid.’ And war is certainly too stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always carries doggedly on, as people would notice if they were not always thinking about themselves . In this respect, the citizens of Oran were like the rest of the world, they thought about themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. But it does not always end and, from one bad dream to the next, it is people who end, humanists first of all because they have not prepared themselves . The people of our town were no more guilty than anyone else, they merely forgot to be modest and thought that everything was still possible for them , which implied that pestilence was impossible. They continued with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions. Why should they have thought about the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debate? They considered themselves free and no one will ever be free as long as there is plague, pestilence and famine .”

“Even after Dr Rieux had acknowledged to his friend that a handful of sick people in different places had unexpectedly died of plague, the danger seemed unreal to him… the doctor could barely feel the first stirrings of that slight nausea with regard to the future that is known as anxiety. He tried to put together in his mind what he knew about the disease. Figures drifted through his head and he thought that the thirty or so great plagues recorded in history had caused nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has fought a war, one hardly knows any more what a dead person is. And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the
imagination
. The doctor recalled the plague of Constantinople which, according to Procopius, claimed ten thousand victims in one day. Ten thousand dead equals five times the audience in a large cinema. That’s what you should do. You should get all the people coming out of five cinemas, take them to a square in the town and make them die in a heap; then you would grasp it better . At least, one might put some known faces on this anonymous pile. But of course it would be impossible; apart from which, who knows ten thousand faces? In any event, people like Procopius were not able to count, as is well known. In Canton, seventy years ago, forty thousand rats died of plague before the pestilence affected the human inhabitants . But in 1871 they didn’t have any means of counting rats. The calculation was a matter of approximation, of more or less, with an obvious margin for error. It is true that the word ‘plague’ had been spoken, it is true that at that very moment the pestilence was tossing and beating down one or two victims. But that could end, couldn’t it? What he must do was to acknowledge clearly what had to be acknowledged, drive away all needless shadows and take whatever measures were required. After that, the plague would cease because plague was inconceivable, or because it was wrongly conceived. If it did stop, as was most likely, then all would be well. Otherwise, they would understand what it was and know if there was some means by which they might come to terms with it, so as eventually to overcome it. Dr Rieux had reached this point in his thoughts when Joseph Grand was announced … The doctor saw Grand come in with his neighbor Cottard. The civil servant was waving a sheet of paper. ‘The figures are rising, doctor,’ he announced. ‘Eleven deaths in forty-eight hours … at first sight Grand was nothing more than the minor clerk at the Hotel de Ville that he appeared to be. Tall and thin, he was swamped by his clothes, always choosing them too large under the mistaken impression that this would give him more wear out of them … If you add to this portrait his manner of walking like a young priest, his ability to hug the walls and slide through doorways, his odor of smoke and cellars, and every appearance of insignificance, you will agree that he could not be imagined anywhere except behind a desk … In one sense, you could say that his life was exemplary. He was one of those men, as rare among us as anywhere else, who always have the courage of their better feelings. Indeed, the little that he revealed of himself testified to goodness and attachments that people nowadays are afraid to admit. He did not blush to acknowledge that he loved his nephews and his sister … That evening, as Rieux watched the civil servant leave, he realized suddenly what Grand meant: he must surely be writing a book or something of that sort. This reassured Rieux all the way to the laboratory, where he did finally go. He knew that it was silly of him to feel like this, but he could not believe that the plague might really get a hold on a town where you could still find humble civil servants who devoted their free moments to honorable obsessions. More exactly, he could not imagine how such obsessions fitted into the context of the plague, and so concluded that, in practical terms, the plague had no future among the people of our town

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