“Refuser d’être avec le fléau” (Review: La Peste ~ Camus)

Albert Camus reading a newspaper

Add a trilby and a double of bourbon and it could be Draper himself.

I think watching Mad Men vastly improved my second reading of Albert Camus’ La Peste, not for its commentaries on 60s sexism or corporate America (it’s set in 1940s Algeria), but for its style. One of my favourite aspects of the book is the idea of the central characters being a group of stoic men doing their best against the plague and not really achieving much but just doing their best. That was already cool, but when every single one of those men is Don Draper? Perfect.

La Peste is a very powerful novel. The descriptions of the plague and its ravages are harsh, and in a couple of scenes, Camus describes the sufferings of victims in drawn-out detail as the Don Drapers look on, powerless. The prose isn’t overly lyrical, and the characters aren’t prone to wailing and beating their chests in frustration, which makes the whole thing more moving – it’s understated.

Interspersed with the plot, the narrator discusses at length the effect the plague has on the city and its inhabitants, not just on its victims, but as the city is quarantined, on all those who are cut off from their loved ones. The reflections on separation and exile are brilliant, which I hadn’t noticed before.

On the other hand, what I had always remembered about La Peste, however, was this quote:

“Dans la vie, il y a des bourreaux et des victimes, et tous ce qu’on peut faire, c’est d’être à côté des victimes.”

(“In life there are executioners and victims, and all one can do is be on the side of the victims”)

It’s actually better than that.

“Je dis seulement qu’il y a sur cette terre des fléaux et des victimes et qu’il faut, autant qu’il est possible, refuser d’être avec le fléau. Cela vous paraitra peut-être un peu simple, et je ne sais si cela est simple, mais je sais que cela est vrai.”

(“All I am saying is that there are on this earth plagues/scourges and there are victims, and one must, whenever possible, refuse to be on the side of the plague/scourge. It may seem simple to you, and I don’t know if it is simple, but I know it’s true.”)

Which could be my motto. While obviously, it’s one of those things that does feel a bit self-evident – I’d be surprised if there was anyone who chose to side with the plague/scourge –it comes in the context of one of the characters talking about the death penalty, and it becomes clear that while not many people would set out to be with the plague/scourge*, there are plenty who don’t take side of the victims, which comes to the same thing. All very black-and-white, and I love it.

Also, not that I tend to try and ‘justify’ my  atheism, seeing as it just is, but upon being told by the (brilliant) priest character that in such trying times, one either has to lose faith entirely, or love every part of God’s creation – even the death of a child, the main character snaps, “je refuserai jusqu’à la mort d’aimer cette création ou les enfants sont torturés.” (“I will refuse till the day I die to love this creation where children are tortured”). Which, again, is just all kinds of fantastic.

It’s like that all the way through. Almost every other page there’s a killer observation, a heartbreaking scene, an inspiring idea. It’s just consistently bloody brilliant. Oh, and that dovetail with Candide I mentioned yesterday?

The character’s determination to fight the plague – the narrator makes it clear it’s no more heroic to fight evil than a schoolteacher teaching that 2+2=4 (Hello Orwell), it’s just what needs to be done. Since evil* is, it must be fought.

*I’m quite annoyed that I’ve struggled to translate these words, since they’re kind of key. Fleau is often used in reference to the plague. Google gives me scourge, which seems alright. Mal apparently is evil, but evil seems a) necessarily human in source in a way that a plague, for instance, isn’t it, and b) kind of cartoonish. Make of them what you will.

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