|Albert Camus (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1957)|
Docteur Bernard Rieux, "about thirty-five-years-old, of moderate height, dark-skinned, with close-cropped black hair". You have never seen this man, he is a character in a novel. But he is real to you, a person of flesh and blood you almost hope to cross paths with someday, the profound influence he has had on what you have always strived to be, unparalleled.
When you first read Camus’ 'La Peste' (The Plague), you did not “get” it, you thought it was too “bleak”. You were too young, and as with so many books, you read them all too early, and had to return to them much later, emptier and thirstier, to really drink deep. You were probably 21 then, and experience had yet to break you into openness, into a state of receiving that comes only after your vulnerability has been laid out bare on the cold floor, and you have watched the world trample over it, unfeeling.
And then you have to teach 'La Peste' as part of the MA French program at the university where you work. You start on the research, three months in advance. (Pre-Internet days, you pore over book after book, search in the few libraries that have French books). And you are blown away. This is the most positive, pragmatic, life-affirming book you have ever come across. It is classic literature, by its sheer depth and universality. And you realize Bernard Rieux is here to stay, in you, in the choices you will make hereafter.
Constructed like a Greek tragedy, in five parts, the novel (set in the 1940s) tells the story of Oran, a French prefect in Algeria, a “city that turns its back to the sea”, which is suddenly declared closed to the outside world, following an outbreak of the bubonic plague. People are separated from their loved ones on the other side of the city gates, they cannot go out, and no one can come in. Letters are forbidden, phone calls and telegrams are all that remain. And you could contract the plague and die, any day.
In this context play out the lives of a few characters, each one brilliantly etched, each one radically different in his reaction to this sudden entrapment. While people die in hundreds, Docteur Rieux, the first one to identify the bacillus and raise the alarm, sets up a make-shift hospital and starts on a 9-month struggle of almost 24-hour-working days, fatigue and defeat not clouding his belief that one must do what one has to do, one must continue the fight without giving up, and that is all that is in our hands. (You realize, through Rieux, that there are many around you who have the same conviction, and go about their fight quietly, selflessly - like your own father, a doctor himself. As always, literature teaching you to appreciate what you often fail to notice, or take for granted, because it is too near.)
Rieux does not reveal much of himself to others, he speaks little. The only time he loses his composure is when he addresses Père Paneloux, the priest, who had admonished the parish in a sermon that the plague is a punishment for their sins. At the deathbed of a small boy who passes away after 24 hours of excruciating suffering, he asks Paneloux: “Au moins, lui, il était innocent?” (He, at least, was innocent?)
Rieux is an atheist, like Camus himself, and embodies the author’s belief in the continuation of the fight, the revolt, the doing of what needs to be done, in the face of all absurdity or possibilities of failure - that is all that is given to man, and that is his only glory. Rieux’ fight against the plague is Sisyphean, an endless repetition of attempted cures, and many failures. But at no point does he stop, not even to grieve when he gets to know that his ailing wife, who had left to another town for treatment before the plague outbreak, has died at the sanatorium.
In his quiet way, he has a profound influence on all the other characters who come into touch with him. Like Rambert, the journalist from Paris who had come on an assignment, and who is trapped in Oran. Rambert rages against this “injustice” – “I do not belong here!” – and he has a wife waiting for him in Paris. He moves heaven and earth to bribe authorities to get him out of the city. Rieux does not say anything, does not judge him, but allows him to volunteer at the makeshift hospital in the interim.
Finally, when the day comes for his escape, Rambert returns to the hospital, and tells Rieux that he is staying. “I would feel ashamed to seek a merely personal happiness.” Knowing fully well that he could contract the plague and die, knowing that he may never see his wife again, he acknowledges the fact that what happens to another concerns him too, he cannot wash his hands off this responsibility, he now belongs here.
Juxtaposed against him is Grand, a “dim-wit” clerk who works at the Municipal Office, who in fact has an innate understanding of what it means to be human, more than all the other thinking, questioning people. When Cottard, his taciturn rude neighbour, tries to kill himself, Grand goes to great lengths to rescue him, and when asked why he took the trouble, he says, not comprehending, “But aren’t we all in this together?”
He sets up the quarantine shelter with Rieux and puts himself to the task selflessly, laying aside his personal sorrows: the loss of his wife, who left him because he did not know how to tell her that he loved her, and his constant struggle to write a great novel, never getting past the first sentence, which he keeps re-working endlessly.
In the end, after 9 months, the plague bacillus goes into remission, the city gates are opened, and there is much rejoicing. Having lost his wife and the only person he gets close to, Tarrou, a visitor and volunteer, Rieux watches the moving scenes of reunion at the railway station, and wonders at how in times of strife and struggle, one learns yet again that there is more to admire in men than to despise.
While the presence and the persistence of evil is undisputed, when we look for goodness in others, we often find it. Birdwatchers notice even the tiniest of birds where the rest of us cannot see anything. We find what we look for, perhaps?
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