The plague. Excerpts

At that moment the boy, as though bitten in the stomach, doubled up again with a high-pitched moan. He remained bent like this for several seconds, shaking and trembling convulsively, as though his frail body were bowing beneath the raging wind of the plague and cracking under the repeated blasts of fever. Once the gust had passed, he relaxed a little, the fever seemed to move away, abandoning him, gasping, on a damp and polluted shore where rest already seemed like death. When the burning tide struck him again for the third time and raised him up a little, the child, bent double and throwing back his blanket, fled to the end of the bed, wildly shaking his head from side to side, in terror of the flame that was burning him. Large tears rose beneath his swollen eyelids and began to flow down his pallid face; when the crisis was over, exhausted, tensing his bony legs and his arms from which in forty-eight hours the flesh had dropped away, the child assumed the grotesque pose of a crucified man in the ravaged bed.

‘Why did you speak to me with such anger just now?’ said a voice behind him. ‘I, too, found that unbearable to watch.’ Rieux turned round to Paneloux. ‘That’s true,’ he said. ‘Forgive me. But tiredness is a form of madness. And there are times in this town when I can only feel outrage and revolt.’

Some of their prophecies even appeared serialized in the newspapers and were read with quite as much eagerness as the love stories that were to be found there in times of good health. Some predictions were based on bizarre calculations involving the number of the year, the number of deaths and the number of months already spent under the plague. Others established comparisons with the great plagues of history, bringing out the similarities (which these prophecies called ‘constants’) and, by means of no less peculiar calculations, claimed to extract information relative to the present outbreak. But the ones that the public liked best were undoubtedly those which, in apocalyptic language, announced a series of events, any one of which might be the one that the town was currently enduring, their complexity allowing for any interpretation. Nostradamus and Saint Odile were thus consulted daily and never in vain.

Rieux arrived at noon. When the landlady told him what had happened, he said simply that Paneloux was right and that it was probably too late. The priest greeted him with the same air of indifference. Rieux examined him and was surprised not to find any of the main symptoms of bubonic or pulmonary plague, except congestion and a difficulty in breathing. In any case, the pulse was so slow and the general state of health so alarming that there was little hope.

surprising number of shiny, rubberized materials: the newspapers had reported that two hundred years earlier, in the great plagues in the South of France, doctors used to wear oilcloth for their own protection. The shops took advantage of this to unload a supply of clothes that were no longer in fashion, and from which everyone hoped to gain immunity. However, all these seasonal indicators could not disguise the fact that the cemeteries were deserted. In other years the trams had been full of the vapid scent of chrysanthemums and processions of women making their way to the places where their loved ones were buried, to put flowers on their graves. This had been the day when people tried to make up to the dead for leaving them alone and forgetting them for many long months. But that year no one wanted to think about the dead, for the very reason that they had already been thinking too much about them. It was no longer a matter of going back to see them, with a little remorse and lots of melancholy. They were no longer the forgotten ones whom one visited in self-justification one day a year. They were the intruders about whom one would rather forget. This is why the Feast of the Dead that year was somewhat brushed aside. Tarrou noticed that Cottard’s language was becoming more and more ironic: according to him, every day was a Feast of the Dead.

The pulmonary forms of the infection that had already appeared now multiplied in every part of the town, as though the wind were lighting and fanning flames in people’s chests. The sufferers died much more quickly, vomiting blood. The degree of contagion threatened to be greater with this new form of the epidemic –though the opinions of specialists had always been contradictory on this point. Meanwhile, for maximum safety, health workers continued to breathe through masks of disinfected gauze. In any case, one would have expected the disease to spread, but since the number of cases of bubonic plague was falling, the figures stayed level. However, there might be other reasons for anxiety because of increasing difficulties in getting food supplies. Speculators were involved and vital necessities, unobtainable on the ordinary market, were being offered at huge prices. Poor families consequently found themselves in a very difficult situation, while the rich lacked for practically nothing. Because of the efficient impartiality which it brought to its administrations, the plague should have worked for greater equality among our fellow-citizens through the normal interplay of egoism, but in fact it heightened the feeling of injustice in the hearts of men. Of course, no one could fault the equality of death, but it was not one that anybody wanted. The poor who suffered in this way from hunger thought with greater nostalgia than ever of neighbouring towns and villages where life was free and bread was cheap. Since they could not be properly nourished, they had the rather unreasonable

‘That’s it!’ he said. ‘They’re coming out again.’ ‘Who’s coming out?’ ‘Why, the rats!’ Not a single dead rat had been found since April. ‘Is it going to start again?’ Tarrou asked Rieux. The old man was rubbing his hands. ‘You should see them run! It’s a sight for sore eyes!’ He had seen two live rats come into his house through the street door. Neighbours had informed him that the creatures were also reappearing in their houses. Behind the walls of other houses there was a hustle and bustle that had not been heard for months. Rieux waited for the general statistics to be published, as they were at the start of each week. They showed a decline in the disease.

promise.’ The other man twisted his face into a smile. ‘Thank you. I don’t want to die and I shall fight. But if the struggle is lost, I want to make a good end.’ Rieux bent down and squeezed his shoulder. ‘No,’ he said. ‘To become a saint, you have to live. Fight it.’ During the day the cold, which had started sharp, slackened a little and gave way in the afternoon to violent downpours of rain and hail. At dusk the sky cleared a little and the cold became more penetrating. Rieux went back home in the evening. Without taking off his coat he went to his friend’s room. His mother was knitting. Tarrou seemed not to have moved, but his lips, whitened by the fever, spoke of the struggle that he was having to endure. ‘Well?’ asked the doctor. Tarrou raised his thick shoulders a little out of the bed. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m losing.’ The doctor leant over him. The lymph nodes were knotted under the burning skin and his chest seemed to be rumbling with all the noises of an underground forge. Unusually, Tarrou was presenting the two sets of symptoms. Rieux said, as he got up, that the serum had not yet had time to take full effect. A surge of fever in his throat drowned the few words that Tarrou tried to utter in reply. After dinner Rieux and his mother came to sit with the patient. The night started for him with a struggle and Rieux knew that this fierce combat against the angel of the plague would last until dawn. Tarrou’s wide chest and broad shoulders were not his best defence; that was the blood that Rieux had made flow just now with his needle and, in that blood, something deeper than the soul, which no science could reveal. All he could do was to watch his friend struggle. Several months of repeated failures had taught him to judge the effectiveness of the remedies he would apply, the tonics he would inject and the abscesses that he would lance. In reality, his only task was to give an opportunity to that good luck which only too often does not appear unless one provokes it. And luck was what they needed, because Rieux was confronted with an aspect of the plague that disconcerted him. Once more it was devising ways of foiling the strategies adopted against it, appearing where it was least expected and disappearing just where it seemed already well settled. Once more, it was making an effort to astound. Tarrou was struggling, motionless. Not once in the course of the night did he become agitated by the assaults of the disease, fighting only with all his solidity and his silence. But not once, either, did he speak, thus admitting in his own way that he could not afford to lose concentration. Rieux followed the phases of the struggle only in the eyes of his friend, which were by turns open or shut, the eyelids either more tight against the globe of the eye or, on the contrary, relaxed, so that his gaze was fixed on an object or brought back to the doctor and his mother. Every time the doctor met this look, Tarrou smiled with considerable effort. At one time they heard hurried footsteps in the street. They seemed to be fleeing in front of a distant rumbling that gradually approached and eventually filled the street with its sound of running water: the rain had started again, soon mixed with hail that clattered on the pavements. Great awnings flapped in front of the windows. In the darkness of the room Rieux, momentarily distracted by the rain, looked back at Tarrou, who was lit by a bedside lamp. His mother was knitting, raising her head from time to time to look closely at the sick man. Now the doctor had done all there was to do. After the rain the silence thickened in the room, which was only full of the noiseless tumult of an invisible war. Agitated by insomnia, the doctor thought he could hear, beyond the silence, the soft, regular whistle that had accompanied him throughout the epidemic.

The Plague is Albert Camus’s most successful novel. It was published in 1947, when Camus was thirty-three, and was an immediate triumph. Within a year it had been translated into nine languages, with many more to come. It has never been out of print and was established as a classic of world literature even before its author’s untimely death in a car accident in January 1960. More ambitious than L’Etranger, the first novel that established his reputation, and more accessible than his later writings, The Plague is the book by which Camus is known to millions of readers. He might have found this odd –The Rebel, published four years later, was his personal favourite among his books –but then authors are not perhaps well-placed to judge. The Plague was a long time in the writing, like much of Camus’s best work. He started gathering material for it in January 1941, when he arrived in Oran, the Algerian coastal town where the story is set. He continued working on the manuscript in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a mountain village in central France where he went to recuperate from one of his periodic bouts of tuberculosis in the summer of 1942. But Camus was soon swept into the Resistance and it was not until the liberation of France that he was able to return his attention to the book. By then, however, the obscure Algerian novelist had become a national figure: a hero of the intellectual Resistance, editor of Combat (a daily paper born in clandestinity and hugely influential in the post-war years) and an icon to a new generation of French men and women hungry for ideas and idols. Camus seemed to fit the role to perfection. Handsome and charming, a charismatic advocate of radical social and political change, he held unparalleled sway over millions of his countrymen. In the words of Raymond Aron, readers of Camus’s editorials had ‘formed the habit of getting their daily thought from him’. 1 There were other intellectuals in post-war Paris who were destined to play major roles in years to come: Aron himself, Simone de Beauvoir and of course Jean-Paul Sartre. But Camus was different. Born in Algeria in 1913, he was younger than his left-bank friends, most of whom were already forty years old when the war ended. He was more exotic, coming as he did from distant Algiers rather than from the hothouse milieu of Parisian schools and colleges; and there was something special about him. One contemporary observer caught it well: ‘I was struck by his face, so human and sensitive. There is in this man such an obvious integrity that it imposes respect almost immediately; quite simply, he is not like other men.’ 2 Camus’s public standing guaranteed his book’s success. But its timing had something to do with it too. By the time the book appeared, the French were beginning to forget the discomforts and compromises of four years of German occupation. Marshal Philippe Pétain, the head of state who initiated and incarnated the policy of collaboration with the victorious Nazis, had been tried and imprisoned. Other collaborating politicians had been executed or else banished from public life. The myth of a glorious national resistance was carefully cultivated by politicians of all colours, from Charles de Gaulle to the Communists; uncomfortable private memories were soothingly displaced by the airbrushed official version, in which France had been liberated from its oppressors by the joint efforts of domestic resisters and Free French troops led from London by de Gaulle. In this context, Albert Camus’s allegory of the wartime occupation of France reopened a painful chapter in the recent French past, but in an indirect and ostensibly apolitical key. It thus avoided arousing partisan hackles, except at the extremes of Left and Right, and took up sensitive topics without provoking a refusal to listen. Had the novel appeared in 1945, the angry, partisan mood of revenge would have drowned its moderate reflections on justice and responsibility. Had it been delayed until the 1950s its subject-matter would probably have been overtaken by new alignments born of the Cold War. Whether The Plague should be read, as it surely was read, as a simple allegory of France’s wartime trauma is a subject to which I shall return. What is beyond doubt is that it was an intensely personal book. Camus put something of himself –his emotions, his memories and his sense of place –into all his published work; that is one of the ways in which he stood apart from other intellectuals of his generation and it accounts for his universal and lasting appeal. But even by his standards The Plague is strikingly introspective and revealing. Oran was a town he knew well and cordially disliked, in contrast to his much-loved home town of Algiers. He found it boring and materialistic and his memories of it were further shaped by the fact that his tuberculosis took a turn for the worse during his stay there. As a result he was forbidden to swim –one of his greatest pleasures –and was constrained to sit around for weeks on end in the stifling, oppressive heat that provides the backdrop to the story. This involuntary deprivation of everything that Camus most loved about his Algerian birthplace –the sand, the sea, physical exercise and the Mediterranean sense of ease and liberty that he always contrasted with the gloom and grey of the north –was compounded when he was sent to the French countryside to convalesce. The Massif Central of France is tranquil and bracing, and the remote village where Camus arrived in August 1942 might be thought the ideal setting for a writer. But twelve weeks later, in November, the Allies landed in North Africa. The Germans responded by occupying the whole of southern France (hitherto governed from the spa town of Vichy by Pétain’s puppet government) and Algeria was cut off from the continent. Camus was thenceforth separated not just from his homeland but also from his mother and his wife, and would not see them again until the Germans had been defeated. 3 Illness, exile and separation were thus present in Camus’s life as in his novel, and his reflections upon them form a vital counterpoint to the allegory. Because of his acute first-hand experience, Camus’s descriptions of the plague and of the pain of loneliness are exceptionally vivid and heartfelt. It is indicative of his own depth of feeling that the narrator remarks early in the story that ‘the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow-citizens was exile’, and that ‘being separated from a loved one … [was] the greatest agony of that long period of exile’. This in turn provides, for Camus and the reader alike, a link to his earlier novel: for disease, separation and exile are conditions that come upon us unexpectedly and unbidden. They are an illustration of what Camus meant by the ‘absurdity’ of the human condition and the seemingly chance nature of human undertakings. It is not by accident that he has Grand, for no apparent reason, report a conversation overheard in a tobacconist concerning ‘a young company employee who had killed an Arab on a beach’. This, of course, is an allusion to Meurseault’s seminal act of random violence in L’Etranger, and in Camus’s mind it is connected to the ravages of pestilence in The Plague by more than just their common Algerian setting. But Camus did more than insert into his story vignettes and emotions drawn from his writings and his personal situation. He put himself very directly into the characters of the novel, using three of them in particular to represent and illuminate his distinctive moral perspective. Rambert, the young journalist cut off from his wife in Paris, is initially desperate to escape the quarantined town. His obsession with his personal suffering makes him indifferent to the larger tragedy, from which he feels quite detached –he is not, after all, a citizen of Oran, but was caught there by the vagaries of chance. It is on the very eve of his getaway that he realizes how, despite himself, he has become part of the community and shares its fate; ignoring the risk and in the face of his earlier, selfish needs, he remains in Oran and joins the ‘health teams’. From a purely private resistance against misfortune he has graduated to the solidarity of a collective resistance against the common scourge. Camus’s identification with Dr Rieux echoes his shifting mood in these years. Rieux is a man who, faced with suffering and a common crisis, does what he must and becomes a leader and an example not out of heroic courage or careful reasoning but rather from a sort of necessary optimism. By the late 1940s Camus was exhausted and depressed by the burden of expectations placed on him as a public intellectual: as he confided to his notebooks, ‘everyone wants the man who is still searching to have reached his conclusions’. 4 From the existentialist philosopher (a tag that Camus always disliked) people awaited a polished worldview; but Camus had none to offer. 5 As he expressed it through Rieux, he was ‘weary of the world in which he lived’; all he could offer with any certainty was ‘some feeling for his fellow men and was determined for his part to reject any injustice and any compromise’. Dr Rieux does the right thing just because he sees clearly what needs doing. In Tarrou, Camus invested a more developed exposition of his moral thinking. Tarrou, like Camus, is in his mid-thirties; he left home, by his own account, in disgust at his father’s advocacy of the death penalty –a subject of intense concern to Camus and on which he wrote widely in the post-war years. 6 Tarrou has reflected painfully upon his past life and commitments, and his confession to Rieux is at the heart of the novel’s moral message: ‘I thought I was struggling against the plague. I learned that I had indirectly supported the deaths of thousands of men, that I had even caused their deaths by approving the actions and principles that inevitably led to them’ . This passage can be read as Camus’s own rueful reflections upon his passage through the Communist Party in Algeria during the 1930s. But Tarrou’s conclusions go beyond the admission of political error: ‘we are all in the plague … All I know is that one must do one’s best not to be a plague victim … And this is why I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die’. This is the authentic voice of Albert Camus and it sketches out the position he would take towards ideological dogma, political or judicial murder and all forms of ethical irresponsibility for the rest of his life –a stance that would later cost him dearly in friends and even influence in the polarized world of the Parisian intelligentsia. Tarrou/ Camus’s apologia for his refusals and his commitments returns us to the status of The Plague. It is a novel that succeeds at various levels as any great novel must, but it is above all and unmistakably a moral tale. Camus was much taken with Moby Dick and, like Melville, he was not embarrassed to endow his story with symbols and metaphors. But Melville had the luxury of moving freely back and forth from the narrative of a whale hunt to a fable of human obsession; between Camus’s Oran and the dilemma of human choice there lay the reality of life in Vichy France between 1940 and 1944. Readers of The Plague, today as in 1947, are therefore not wrong to approach it as an allegory of the occupation years. In part this is because Camus makes clear that this is a story about ‘us’. Most of the story is told in the third person. But strategically dispersed through the text is the occasional ‘we’, and the ‘we’ in question –at least for Camus’s primary audience –is the French in 1947. The ‘calamity’ that has befallen the citizens of fictionalized Oran is the one that came upon France in 1940, with the military defeat, the abandonment of the Republic and the establishment of the regime of Vichy under German tutelage. Camus’s account of the coming of the rats echoed a widespread view of the divided condition of France itself in 1940: ‘It was as though the very soil on which our houses were built was purging itself of an excess of bile, that it was letting boils and abscesses rise to the surface, which up to then had been devouring it inside’. Many in France, at first, shared Father Paneloux’s initial reaction: ‘“ my brethren, you have deserved it”’. For a long time people don’t realize what is happening and life seems to go on –‘In appearance, nothing had changed’, ‘The town was inhabited by people asleep on their feet’. Later, when the plague has passed, amnesia sets in –‘they denied that we [sic] had been that benumbed people’. All this and much more –the black market, the failure of administrators to call things by their name and assume the moral leadership of the nation –so well described the recent French past that Camus’s intentions could hardly be misread. Nevertheless, most of Camus’s targets resist easy labels, and the allegory runs quite against the grain of the polarized moral rhetoric in use after the war. Cottard, who accepts the plague as too strong to combat and who thinks the health teams are a waste of time, is clearly someone who ‘collaborates’ in the fate of the town. He thrives in the new situation and has everything to lose from a return to the ‘old ways’. But he is sympathetically drawn, and Tarrou and the others continue to frequent him and even discuss with him their actions. All they ask, in Tarrou’s words, is that he ‘try not to spread the microbe knowingly’. At the end Cottard is brutally beaten by the newly liberated citizenry –a reminder of the violent punishments meted out at the Liberation to presumed collaborators, often by men and women whose enthusiasm for violent revenge helped them and others forget their own wartime compromises. Camus’s insight into the anger and resentment born of genuine suffering and guilty memory introduces a nuance of empathy that was rare among his contemporaries and it lifts his story clear of the conventions of the time. The same insights (and integrity –Camus was writing from personal experience) shape his representation of the resisters themselves. It is not by chance that Grand, the mousy, downtrodden unaspiring clerk, is presented as the embodiment of the real, unheroic resistance. For Camus, as for Rieux, resistance was not about heroism at all –or, if it was, then it was the heroism of goodness. ‘It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency’. Joining the health teams was not in itself an act of great significance –rather, ‘not doing it would have been incredible at the time’. This point is made over and over again in the novel, as though Camus were worried lest it be missed: ‘when you see the suffering it brings,’ Rieux remarks at one point, ‘you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the plague’. Camus, like the narrator, refuses to ‘become an over-eloquent eulogist of a determination and heroism to which he attaches only a moderate degree of importance’. This has to be understood in context. There was of course tremendous courage and sacrifice in the French resistance; many men and women died for the cause. But Camus was uncomfortable with the smug myth of heroism that had grown up in post-war France, and he abhorred the tone of moral superiority with which self-styled former Resisters (including some of his famous fellow intellectuals) looked down upon those who did nothing. In Camus’s view it was inertia, or ignorance, which accounted for people’s failure to act. The Cottards of the world were the exception; most people are better than you think –as Tarrou puts it, ‘You just need to give them the opportunity’. 7 In consequence, some of Camus’s intellectual contemporaries did not particularly care for The Plague. They expected a more ‘engaged’ sort of writing from him and they found the book’s ambiguities and the tone of disabused tolerance and moderation politically incorrect. Simone de Beauvoir especially disapproved strongly of Camus’s use of a natural pestilence as a substitute for (she thought) Fascism –it relieves men of their political responsibilities, she insisted, and runs away from History and real political problems. 8 Even today this criticism sometimes surfaces among academic students of Camus: he lets Fascism and Vichy off the hook, they charge, by deploying the metaphor of a ‘nonideological and nonhuman plague’. 9 Such commentaries are doubly revealing. In the first place they show just how much Camus’s apparently straightforward story was open to misunderstanding. The allegory may have been tied to Vichy France but the ‘plague’ transcends political labels. It was not Fascism that Camus was aiming at –an easy target, after all, especially in 1947 –but dogma, conformity, compliance and cowardice in all their intersecting public forms. Tarrou, after all, is no Fascist; but he insists that in earlier days, when he complied with doctrines that authorized the suffering of others for higher goals, he too was a carrier of the plague even as he fought it. Secondly, the charge that Camus was too ambiguous in his judgements, too unpolitical in his metaphors, illuminates not his weaknesses but his strengths. This is something that we are perhaps better placed to understand now than were The Plague’s first readers. Thanks to Primo Levi and Vaclav Havel we have become familiar with the ‘grey zone’. We understand better that in conditions of extremity there are rarely to be found comfortingly simple categories of good and evil, guilty and innocent. We know more about the choices and compromises faced by men and women in hard times, and we are no longer so quick to judge those who accommodate themselves to impossible situations. Men may do the right thing from a mixture of motives and may with equal ease do terrible deeds with the best of intentions –or no intentions at all. It does not follow from this that the plagues that humankind brings down upon itself are ‘natural’ or unavoidable. But assigning responsibility for them –and thus preventing them in the future –may not be an easy matter. And with Hannah Arendt we have been introduced to a further complication: the notion of the ‘banality of evil’ (a formulation that Camus himself would probably have taken care to avoid), the idea that unspeakable crimes can be committed by very unremarkable men with clear consciences. 10 These are now commonplaces of moral and historical debate. But Albert Camus came to them first, in his own words, with an originality of perspective and intuition that eluded almost all his contemporaries. That is what they found so disconcerting in his writing. Camus was a moralist who unhesitatingly distinguished good from evil but abstained from condemning human frailty. He was a student of the ‘absurd’ who refused to give in to necessity. 11 He was a public man of action, who insisted that all truly important questions came down to individual acts of kindness and goodness. And, like Tarrou, he was a believer in absolute truths who accepted the limits of the possible: ‘Other men will make history … All I say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims –and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence’ Thus The Plague teaches no lessons. Camus was a moraliste but he was no moralizer. He claimed to have taken great care to try and avoid writing a tract, and to the extent that his novel offers little comfort to political polemicists of any school he can be said to have succeeded. But for that very reason it has not merely outlived its origins as an allegory of occupied France but has transcended its era. Looking back on the grim record of the twentieth century we can see more clearly now that Albert Camus had identified the central moral dilemmas of the age. Like Hannah Arendt, he saw that ‘the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of post-war intellectual life in Europe –as death became the fundamental question after the last war’. 12 Fifty years after its first appearance, in an age of post-totalitarian satisfaction with our condition and prospects, when intellectuals pronounce the End of History and politicians proffer globalization as a universal palliative, the closing sentence of Camus’s great novel rings truer than ever, a firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting: ‘[ Rieux] knew that … the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely … it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing … it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and … perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.’

When they came out into the street they realized that it was quite late, perhaps eleven o’clock. The town was silent, inhabited only by rustling noises. Far, far away, the siren of an ambulance sounded. They got into the car and Rieux turned on the engine. ‘You must come to the hospital tomorrow,’ he said. ‘To get your preventative vaccine. But, once and for all, before you become involved, tell yourself that you have a one-in-three chance of surviving.’ ‘Calculations like that are meaningless, doctor, and you know it as well as I do. A hundred years ago, an outbreak of plague killed all the inhabitants of a town in Persia, except the man who washed bodies, who had carried on with his job throughout.’ ‘He got his one chance in three, that’s all,’ Rieux said; and suddenly the sound of his voice was duller. ‘But it’s true: we still know nothing about this matter.’

So, week in, week out, the prisoners of the plague struggled along as best they could. As we have seen, a few, like Rambert, even managed to imagine that they were acting as free men and that they could still choose. But in reality one could say, at that moment, in the middle of August, that the plague had covered everything. There were no longer any individual destinies, but a collective history that was the plague, and feelings shared by all. The greatest of these were feelings of separation and exile, with all that that involved of fear and rebellion. This is why the narrator feels it appropriate, at this high point of heat and sickness, to describe the general situation and, for the sake of examples, the violence of our living fellow-citizens, the burials of the dead and the suffering of parted lovers.

In roughly this same period, there was an increased number of fires, especially in the leisure districts around the west gates of the town. Investigation showed that these were due to people who had come back from quarantine and, driven mad by grief and misfortune, set light to their houses under the illusion that this would kill the plague. It was very hard to fight these endeavours, which were frequent enough to put whole districts in permanent danger because of the violence of the wind. After it had been demonstrated, to no avail, that disinfection of houses by the authorities was enough to protect against any risk of contamination, it became necessary to impose very harsh penalties on these innocent pyromaniacs.

For obvious reasons, the plague seemed to fasten particularly on all those who had become accustomed to living in groups: soldiers, members of religious orders or prisoners. Despite the isolation of some inmates,

coffins were starting to be in short supply, and there was not enough cloth for shrouds or space in the cemetery. Something had to be done. The simplest thing, still for reasons of efficiency, seemed to be to group funerals together and when necessary to increase the number of journeys between the hospital and the cemetery. So, as far as Rieux’s hospital was concerned, they had five coffins for the time being. Once these were full, the ambulance loaded them. At the cemetery the coffins were emptied, the corpses, grey as iron, were loaded on stretchers and waited in a specially prepared hanger, the coffins were sprayed with an antiseptic solution and taken back to the hospital, then the process began again, as often as necessary. The whole thing was well organized and the Prefect expressed his satisfaction. He even told Rieux that, when all was said and done, this was preferable to hearses driven by black slaves which one read about in the chronicles of earlier plagues. ‘Yes,’ Rieux said. ‘The burial is the same, but we keep a card index. No one can deny that we have made progress.’ Despite these successes for the authorities, the unpleasant character that the formalities had now taken on forced the Prefecture to keep relatives away from the ceremony. They were allowed to come to the gate of the cemetery –though even that was not official, because where funerary rites were concerned, things had changed a bit. At the far end of the cemetery, in a featureless area covered in mastic trees, two huge pits had been dug. There was a men’s grave and a women’s grave. From this point of view, the authorities respected convention and it was only later when force of circumstances caused even this vestige of modesty to disappear and men and women were buried haphazardly, one on top of the other, with no thought of decency. Luckily, this extreme confusion affected only the final moments of the pestilence. At the time which concerns us now, there was a separation of pits and the authorities were very keen on it. At the bottom of each, a thick layer of quicklime smoked and boiled, while around the edges of the hole a small mound of the same chemical bubbled in the open air. When the ambulances had completed their journey, the stretchers were brought in procession and the naked, slightly twisted corpses were allowed to slip to the bottom, more or less side-by-side. After that, they were covered with quicklime, then earth, but only up to a certain height, in order to leave room for more occupants to come. The following day, the relatives were invited to sign a register –which just showed the difference that there may be between men and, for example, dogs: you can keep check of human beings. These operations needed staff and manpower was always on the verge of running out. Many of the male nurses and the gravediggers, who were at first official, then casual, died of the plague. Whatever precautions were taken, one day infection occurred. Though, when you think about it, the most surprising thing was that there was never a shortage of men to do the job,

On coming out of the bar, he suddenly had the impression that his groin was swelling and that his arms were stiff around the armpits. He thought it was the plague. And the only thing he could think of doing at that point –something which he agreed with Rieux was not reasonable –was to run up to the highest part of the town and there, from a little square from which you could still not see the sea, but could at least see a bit more sky, he called to his wife with a great cry across the town walls. When he got home, he found no sign of infection on himself and was not particularly proud of succumbing to this sudden panic. Rieux said that he understood his acting like that very well: ‘In any case,’ he said, ‘it’s the sort of thing you might want to do.’

On coming out of the bar, he suddenly had the impression that his groin was swelling and that his arms were stiff around the armpits. He thought it was the plague. And the only thing he could think of doing at that point –something which he agreed with Rieux was not reasonable –was to run up to the highest part of the town and there, from a little square from which you could still not see the sea, but could at least see a bit more sky, he called to his wife with a great cry across the town walls. When he got home, he found no sign of infection on himself and was not particularly proud of succumbing to this sudden panic. Rieux said that he understood his acting like that very well: ‘In any case,’ he said, ‘it’s the sort of thing you might want to do.’

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