A Book Beyond Borders: Why the world is reading Albert Camus' "The Plague"

In times of trouble, a good book is like a good friend. Steady, reliable and full of wisdom. It can also show you what might happen and how you can prepare for the future.

As the coronavirus outbreak developed in Asia, I found myself turning to one book for a strange sort of solace - The Plague, known as La Peste in French, written in 1947 by French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus.

Japanese booksellers struggled to keep The Plague on shelves as demand grew in the early days of the pandemic.

The novel depicts citizens fighting against the titular plague, an invisible enemy sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s. It depicts the reactions of everyday people in the city under lockdown. City authorities bungle the messaging around the plague and as the days go on, people feel more and more despair and begin to question the value of their lives. The novel portrays the dilemma of the human existence – and it hits very close to home in 2020.

During my commute to NHK in Shibuya, normally one of the most popular and packed districts in Tokyo, all I noticed were the quiet streets.

On January 23, the Chinese city of Wuhan was put under lockdown as the virus spread. On February 13, the Japanese health ministry reported the first death in the country. That was the day when I started reading The Plague, but I was far from the only one seeking lessons from the past.

In my home country of Japan, printing presses churned out 360,000 extra copies starting in February. In the last two months, The Plague has been the top seller for paperback literature at major Japanese bookstores.

It's not just Japan, judging from foreign media reports. In March, South Korea's largest bookstore chain said copies of The Plague were sold 18 times more than during the same period in 2019. UK book publisher Penguin said that sales of the book were up by 150% in the last week of February compared to the same period last year. In Italy, sales tripled, rocketing this 1947 classic to the country's top 10 bestsellers. And in France, the book also experienced a boom, peaking at more than 1,600 copies sold in the last week of January.

These numbers are extraordinary for a novel written over 70 years ago, especially when you consider the easy access to streaming services and other forms of entertainment people have had under lockdown. Why eagerly pick up a roughly 450-page existentialist classic about a plague in a French Algerian city when you could simply zone out to the latest on demand?

I wanted to know how people might react under a crisis like a pandemic, and whether they can find any hope under lockdown. To get at the elemental truth of the novel - and why it resonates so strongly during this pandemic - I spoke with four fellow readers around the world.

Neasa MacErlean
Neasa MacErlean

Neasa MacErlean, a journalist based in Canterbury, about 90 kilometers east from London, was already familiar with the headlines coming out of Asia in February when she picked up the book just before the coronavirus took hold in Europe. She says, "I wanted to be prepared psychologically for what was going to happen."

MacErlean was most interested in how seemingly ordinary people can rise to the occasion and find depths in themselves under the worst circumstances. She says, "The character of the doctor, Bernard Rieux, is drawn to show his essence of courage and decency, not the flourishes or broader part of his character. This essential character is the most important part of us."

She also says that, just like in the novel, individuals in the UK "have risen to the challenge unquestioningly…not thinking about themselves." But on an institutional level, MacErlean is more critical, saying that "the government has handled the pandemic very badly" and pointing to the country's high death rate.

Canterbury's quiet streets were the backdrop for MacErlean during the pandemic.

The book has had a tangible influence on MacErlean. She points out how, in The Plague, people lost their sense of time and no longer cared about how they dressed. Her takeaway was that each of us must try to rise above that impulse. "I dress better than I have ever done in my life before, for example," she says. "I feel I must look positive because people will be disappointed if I go around looking depressed."

I identified with her feelings. After the initial outbreak, I made up my mind not to postpone things I can do today or to take things for granted.

Matthew Sharpe
Matthew Sharpe

Matthew Sharpe, a philosophy professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia read The Plague from March to April, as the city went into quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus.

One of his students had returned home over the break to be with family and in February, the student e-mailed Sharpe that he would be unable to return to school, but that people back home were reading The Plague in large numbers. This inspired Sharpe to re-read the book himself.

"Reading the story at that time was a very different experience than the several times I have read and taught the book over the past decades," he says. "I had always read the novel the way people read histories; as about things that had happened long ago but could never happen here."

Sharpe's view of a deserted Melbourne during the pandemic.

According to him, as the numbers of victims from Italy, Spain, and then the US began to rise, there was a great deal of anxiety in Australia. People rushed to supermarkets to stockpile toilet paper and food. Sharpe recalls going to his local store and seeing a couple report that they had driven several hundreds of kilometers to come to the supermarket, because all their local shops were closed.

"It was uncanny and unsettling," Sharpe recalls, but the experience increased his appreciation "for the precision and prescience" of Camus' observations.

Sharpe also touched on what makes a book timeless. "If a book is timeless, it is because it can speak to human beings across the barriers of time and even of cultures and histories.

"Timeless works remind us how great and how petty human beings can be, and enable us as readers to rethink and reexperience our worlds in different ways. By these lights, and because of the understated beauty of its language, I believe that The Plague will stand the test of time."

Nirupama Subramanian
Nirupama Subramanian

Nirupama Subramanian, the Mumbai editor of The Indian Express says readers "are struck by the amazing similarities between how Camus has described all the measures that the Oran city authorities take against the plague and how countries are tackling the pandemic now." The book also resonated on a local level. "For an Indian reader, many of his descriptions ring true about the present – the lockdown, the travel passes, the bureaucracy," she says.

The Plague has long been seen as an allegory about fascism and the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Subramanian says the book made her think of the divisions in Indian society between Hindus and Muslims.

"A Hindu majoritarianism wants to render Muslims second class citizens," she says. "In that context, Muslims are being accused in India of being at fault for spreading the virus to a point where it's this communal virus affecting people more than coronavirus."

In India, a global Islamic movement called Tablighi Jamaat was criticized after an event they held in New Delhi in March was said to have led to coronavirus clusters across the country. Since then, Muslims in the country have faced increased harassment and attacks.

A reminder to pedestrians along the seafront promenade near Nariman Point in Mumbai

Another division is between rich and poor. According to Subramanian, the sudden lockdown created a humanitarian disaster as hundreds of thousands of people who became unemployed overnight in cities like Mumbai and Delhi started walking back to their villages, some over a thousand miles away. There was no transportation and they could not wait in the cities for their money to run out. With infection spreading in the cities, no one wanted to be left behind.

"The Plague has identical scenes," Subramanian says. "It was as if these walking people were one universe, and those better off were living in another. Many scenes in Mumbai reminded me of the Plague."

Laura Marris
Laura Marris

Laura Marris, an American author, poet and translator in Buffalo, has an intimate knowledge of the book. She's working on a new translation, due to be published in 2021. Marris agrees with Matthew Sharpe that the book transcends time and place.

"Books are timeless when they keep being needed, again and again. The Plague has drawn new readers during the coronavirus outbreak. That's possible because the novel has a real sensitivity to illness, contagion, and the politics of a quarantined city."

Marris says that most people read Stuart Gilbert's 1948 English translation. But she says he takes some liberties with paraphrasing the original French. "For example, where Camus writes 'they must begin again', Gilbert says, 'they must set their shoulders to the wheel again'."

Marris' goal is "to restore Camus's original restraint, because it actually makes the text more emotionally convincing."

Springtime still comes to Buffalo in the midst of the pandemic.

"Readers often overlook the fact that Camus himself was ill with tuberculosis while he was writing The Plague," she adds. "So, he has a real stake in exploring how illness can change someone's perspective on the world."

As a translator, Marris pays close attention to the word choices of Camus, and she particularly likes his description of the sea as "breathing." Marris says, "It's a restorative scene, but also one in which the author can't forget or take for granted the working of his own lungs."

The ending of The Plague focuses on the return of the disease, and how books can help people remember what has happened, providing a kind of collective memory. "Camus was writing at the end of WWII, but he knew that his book might be needed in the future, and that the disease of fascism might return," says Marris.

"From translating his novel, I've learned that anything that has happened in history can happen to us--that we can't just look at the past from the safe distance of the present."

While reading The Plague as my usually bustling city of Tokyo stayed silent around me, I was struck by a scene Camus renders with such precision.

Shibuya's quieter streets offer space for contemplation of Camus' great philosophical work.

Alluded to by Marris above, this is when the main character, Dr. Rieux, goes swimming with Jean Tarrou in the sea. The two men don't say much. They just swim and then get back to their life fighting the plague. Anyone who's had a close friend knows what this level of intimacy is like, when there's no need to talk because you understand each other so well.

Reading this, I felt a very strong solidarity with Camus. Just like Rieux and Tarrou, we can all understand each other's fears and impulses during this unprecedented time. A book is a simple thing, but it has the power to act as a bridge between cultures, and I take comfort in the thought of people around the world all reading the same pages.