Tuesday, August 19, 2008

La Peste: A Review

[I would admit that my interest in Albert Camus (pronounced as ka’mû) is rooted in the fact that he is always associated with a certain philosophical movement in which I am currently delving. Nevertheless, his talent as a writer can be seen in the way his works are acclaimed both in the philosophical and literary circles. Here I would attempt to give a look back at one of his widely read work and give some personal insights into its impact.]

The novel is set in the ‘ugly’ town of Oran (in the year ‘194-’) where a plague has ravaged through almost nine months. We are told of the ‘unusual events’ through the words of a certain ‘narrator’ that have made it a point to assume the role of an impartial observer. Here the story revolved around a number of characters in the town: Dr. Bernard Rieux, Tarrou, Grand, Cottard, Rambert, Father Paneloux, among other.

The story I believe is encompassing as it tried its best to take into account the varied reactions, and the subsequent feelings of the inhabitants toward this plague that has come to them. At the start, the city and its people are described to us – its attitude towards life and its activities. In realizing that a plague has indeed penetrated the seeming ordinariness of their lives, we’ve come to know the listlessness that enveloped them.

Some merit should really be placed in the way Camus has put in the words of the narrator the description of the ‘abstraction’ that sadly conquered the hearts of those who are trapped in the town when the gates
of Oran was finally closed to the rest of the world. Here a person who was abruptly forced to be separated from his or her loved one/s naturally fell into regret at not giving importance to the times when they were still together. Now the desperate attempts to break all the imposed rules that secured this separation was seen. And it was in this period of desperations that they began to actually forget the very reasons of those efforts for reconciliations. Thus, the abstractions.

The story proceeded and we see now the change the plague has made in the people, how they came to know despair and the reality of the impartial hand of death the plague is putting on the shoulders of Oran’s citizens.

Perhaps there will be just two parts of the story that I would like to expound on: 1) that of the case of Father Paneloux and 2) Tarrou.

In the character of Father Paneloux we see a clash between belief and reality. At the commencement of the plague, he has professed the plague’s coming as devoted to those who have came to ignore, more so forget, God; that the pestilence is a reminder of the wrath of God for those who are dark in the hearts. But what a change did we see in the priest when he saw for himself the slow death of a child – an innocent child – in the hands of the plague! From hereon we saw his devotion to help Dr. Riuex in their work and fight the plague. In this confrontation with a seeming paradox, it was obvious that he is left with only two choices: to lose his faith or fight it. At the end of the chapter devoted to Father Paneloux, we saw his refusal to let go of his faith to God but instead fought against the physical plague and…gladly died of something that has conquered his line of breathing.

It is in a somewhat same light that I would like to discuss Tarrou, whose diary the narrator has relied on some of the parts he included in his chronicle. He has come to despise murder at an early age and decided to battle against. He believed that the order we observe in society is imposed only by the death-sentence. And so, as he said, in fighting against this order, he was
fighting against murder. (Curiously enough, it was noted that there was no country in Europe in which he did not join such fights.)

But then he realized something, a realization that has come to him even before the plague of Oran came.

It was that all of us have the plague already within us.

And as we go along our lives, unbeknownst to us, we have killed another person or caused the death of someone else. Only in trying to minimize the ‘lapses’ that we achieve something we all aspire for, a concept that we could roughly translate as “peace”. Ironically, it was this very thing that Tarrou experienced prior to his passing away – trying all his best to minimize the lapses wherein the plague could attack and claim him. He put up a good fight, as Dr. Riuex observed. And as I see it, the events that happened before he died showed the he is still human, despite the seeming contradictory
beliefs (relative to the ones accepted by the society) that he has adopted through his whole life.

I’ve just reread the book. And in going through the lines again, it only reinforced the reality of the presence of contradictions; I daresay paradoxes, which abound in our existence. It may only serve to remind us that there is no denying that we only design what we become; that we do the choices for ourselves. In plague or in times of peace, we must not let the world outside control our inside lives. In essence, we battle the things that are against our own good; and it may be rewarding to note the he who charts his own course gets to know, as a form of prize, his essence.
[NGA PALA: The narrator is in fact one of the characters who have made numerous appearances in the story.]
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated from French by Stuart Gilbert. Penguin Books, 1972. ISBN 0-14-00-14721
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