Albert Camus and The Plague

Albert Camus is a winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature who was born in Algeria in the year 1913. At the time of his birth in the small town of Mondovi (known as Dréan today), Algeria had been a French possession for nearly a century and the country had a well-established community of French immigrant stock who considered themselves both French and Algerian. Camus’ father fought and died for France in World War I, having enlisted in one of the Zouave battalions that drew many of their soldiers from emigrant communities in Algeria.

The great majority of these “Pieds Noir”, as they were known, re-emigrated back to France immediately following the conclusion of the Algerian War of Independence in 1962. Camus, however, moved to France in the early years of the war, where he was to die tragically in a 1960 auto accident.

Camus is known today as variously an Existentialist or Absurdist writer, though he disdained these types of labels. Many of his novels and stories were set in Algeria, most famously “The Plague” which was written shortly after the end of World War II. This novel was set in the Algerian city of Oran, which possessed in the Colonial era a large and thriving Pied Noir population. Without giving away too much of the plot, it can be said that Oran suffers an outbreak of Bubonic Plague that causes the city authorities to seal off Oran until the disease is brought under control. A doctor trapped in the city records the subsequent events in a daily journal, noting how previous customs and social mores change as a response to the dreaded illness. Camus asks us, through his characters, to consider the absurdity of life when confronted with unsolvable problems.

Does making an effort have any importance when the result is the same as if one did nothing? Does being a doctor have any meaning when attempting to treat an untreatable disease? Even our triumphs are shown by Camus to be trivial: the city of Oran may celebrate when the plague peters out, but they – and we – know very well that the plague germs are still viable, ready to wreak destruction anew.

“The Plague” is worth reading for anyone interested in Algeria, as it serves as a time capsule of the French Colonial era and, at the same time, is a captivating work of literature in its own right.