Book Simple: Swine Flu Camus
a blogumn by Amy Brown
NPR has been waking me the past few weeks with dire warnings about the swine flu. Their reportage (and a discussion on – the shame of it, readers – the conservative talk station KFI AM 640 by Bryan Suits regarding Los Angeles’s free H1N1 vaccine) made me think of re-reading a book I first encountered in middle school, The Plague, by Alfred Camus.
Camus’s plague opens in a suburban wasteland. Oran is “a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves – a thoroughly negative place”, full of inhabitants dull and quiet. The description reminds me a little of Encino, where LA’s first free swine flu vaccine clinic was held last Friday.
The story starts with rats. Or rather a single rat, dead under the good Dr. Rieux’s foot. Later another totters and dies in the hallway of the apartment complex, spurting blood. If I recall correctly, this rat’s death was the first indication I had that this would be no ordinary school reading assignment.
Despite his concierge’s indignation, the animals keep coming out, dying in great piles to be carted out with the refuse. “From basements, cellars, and sewers [the rats] emerged in long wavering files into the light of day, swayed helplessly, then did a sort of pirouette and fell dead at the feet of the horrified onlookers.” As the rats die around them, we meet some of our main characters: Dr. Rieux, an idealistic doctor, his concierge M. Michel, Raymond Rambert, a young Parisian reporter, Jean Tarrou, a mysterious observer.
Oran’s radio reports are more “vaguely menacing” than those broadcast by my NPR, enumerating the thousands and thousands of rats daily collected by the sanitary service until one day, a sudden stop. As the newspapers fill over the next two days with this good news, Dr. Rieux is called to the bedside of M. Michel, whose feverish body is swollen with solid masses of tissue. M. Michel dies in agony, the first of many human victims.
Reading the book again, I’m struck by how funny the story is – both our narrator and Tarrou’s journal give us some biting examples of the myopia and bureaucracy that accompany disaster. The town’s dislike of the situation means they hesitate even to pronounce what is obvious: that this is plague. There’s an ironic note reading about this debate while the CDC maintains a website about the H1N1 virus called “FluView”. The total number of deaths this year from said virus as of October 17, 2009? 411.
“Stupidity has a knack of getting its way,” notes The Plague’s narrator, “as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.” But eventually even the officials have to acknowledge the town’s infection, and the quarantine leaves the town painfully isolated. Oran becomes a “hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn.”
It’s a vision straight out of the “Saw” franchise, and in truth, The Plague is the perfect book for this time of year. This Halloween season, movies like “Zombieland” and “Paranormal Activity” encourage us to imagine the worst possible scenarios. It’s enough to make one wonder if the studios are behind the media’s rampant swine flu fear-mongering. A good horror story may sell newspapers, but no pathetic vaccine debate could possibly top Camus’s classic tale.