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Camus, Pilger and Bush

The Outsider may be the only adult work that both Pilger and Bush have read but The Plague is Camus'

John Pilger uses our Red Reads feature as a chance to name some of his favourite radical works this week and concludes with Albert Camus's The Outsider.

The Outsider has the distinction of possibly being the only adult work that both Pilger and his bête noire George W Bush have devoured.

No doubt Bush was attracted to the novel by its slimness (128 pages) or perhaps he empathised with the lead character, Meursault, who shoots an Arab on the beach after being irritated by the sun.

The then White House spokesman Tony Snow said: "He found it an interesting book and a quick read."

"I don't want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism."

Yet I must take issue with Pilger and Bush's selection from Camus's oeuvre. I have always found The Outsider to be a rather tepid and underwhelming work.

A far better choice would be Camus's essay The Myth of Sisyphus in which he introduces his philosophy of the absurd. (Camus, an absurdist, was consistently frustrated by those who erroneously described him as an existentialist.)

An equally fine suggestion would be Reflections on the Guillotine, his masterful polemic against the death penalty.

But at a time when swine flu has officially become the fastest growing pandemic ever, the definitive Camus work surely remains The Plague.

A novel which tells the tale of the devastating plague visited on the Algerian town of Oran, it is also an allegory of France's suffering under the Nazi occupation.

The haunting final passage, in which Dr Rieux reflects on the town's apparent recovery, is worth quoting at length:

He (Dr Rieux) knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Camus is referring to the plague but he could equally be referring to fascism.

At a time when the Conservative Party has aligned itself with some of the most reactionary forces in Europe and Britain has sent two openly fascist MEPs to Europe it is worth recalling that we have by no means escaped the reach of atavistic and totalitarian ideas.

I now find that I'm rather ashamed by the absence of Camus from our list of 50 Red Reads. Let us know of any other omissions here.