Sri Lanka: A Tamil Reading Of Albert Camus ‘The Plague’ – OpEd


By Prof. Charles Sarvan

The Colombo Telegraph (14 October 2017) reported that in Mullaitivu there’s one Sinhalese soldier for every two Tamil civilians. It added that this ratio does not include personnel belonging to the navy and air-force. Elsewhere too, demographic realities are being systematically and forcibly changed. (I gather that soon, if not already, there will be more Chinese in Tibet than Tibetans.)

This fact reminded me of The Plague (original title: La Peste) by Camus, a member of the French Resistance against Nazi rule. In a letter to Roland Barthes, Camus wrote that he wanted his novel “to be read on a number of levels” but dominant among these ‘readings’ is foreign, forcible, occupation: allegorically, the plague that the people experience and endure is foreign occupation. The virus that causes the plague is overwhelming force. It can be said that Eelam (Sri Lankan) Tamils at present are plagued by the plague of occupation. The novel is set in Oran on the coast of Algeria whose landscape we are told has nothing spectacular or remarkable. While not forcing parallels, one can take note of such relevancies as offer themselves, and the attempt here is only to share a few of these. I do not presume to prescribe; I make no suggestions; offer no solutions. I hope this attitude is signalled at the outset by my choice of the indefinite article: “A (Tamil) reading”. Page reference in what follows is to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of the novel.

The famous words of Lord Acton (1834-1902) that power tends to corrupt, and absolute (total) power to corrupt absolutely are taken to refer to those who possess and wield power. Power can pollute the powerful but it can also corrupt those at the receiving end of power, the powerless. In other words, there is the danger that in a plague context (vulnerable and helpless under brutal occupation) hitherto honest citizens are led to “reprehensible actions” (page 132). Physical and moral weakening can have a symbiotic relationship. Isn’t there a link between the words “morale” and “morals”? As the one droops, isn’t there the danger of the other dropping?

A definition of “culture” is “the way of life of a people”, and one reads of traditional Tamil patterns of behaviour deteriorating. Primo Levi notes in his The Drowned and the Saved that suffering more often degrades than it ennobles. (Levi, Holocaust survivor; celebrated author of several books, novels, collections of short stories, essays, and poems committed suicide in 1987.) The plague makes strange what was once familiar; turns locals into foreigners; makes them feel estranged, exiles in what was once their home: see my ‘The Tamil experience of being alienated at home’, 2014, available on Google. Day to day survival consumes skill and energy, and there’s little left to address wider issues. Some are cowed, and no longer feel the “sting” of the plague (page 140). There grows an apathy, a “strange indifference” (page 147): to use a phrase now encountered quite frequently, it becomes “the new normal”. What was initially reacted to with indignation, as being unnatural and outrageous, becomes over time normality. Those evidently infected with the plague are segregated, and the parallel is that of Tamils incarcerated without trial, languishing in prolonged, fearful, uncertainty. They are confined within the general confinement of Eelam Tamils.

Demoralisation and the consequent degeneration lead to various forms of collaboration with the infection – in the Tamil context, with the military infectors and the realities they establish. However, collaboration should be seen as a human feature and not as a specifically Tamil failing. For example, in English the words “boycott” and “quisling” are derogatory, signifying collaboration with the foreign and, therefore, betrayal of one’s own. Captain Boycott (1832-1897) worked for British imperial interests against his own Irish people; Quisling, a Norwegian who collaborated with the Nazis, was executed in 1945. Jewish Chaim Rumkowski who ran the Lodz Ghetto was known as the king of the Jews. Having delusions of grandeur, he drove around in a carriage and commissioned songs in praise of himself. He was omnipotent over fellow Jews; impotent, and obsequious where the Nazis, the real wielders of power, were concerned. I repeat: collaboration is a human, and not a peculiarly Tamil, phenomenon.

But we must not focus exclusively on the heights (or troughs) of collaboration. The plague is both pernicious and pervasive, and one cannot build islands of immunity. If not collaboration, then compromise; if not compromise, then a degree of accommodation in daily life and its encounters with the occupiers and the structures they have imposed, seems to be inevitable. Neil MacGregor in his book, Germany: Memories of a Nation, writes that one in three in the German Democratic Republic (known simply as East Germany) gave information to the secret police about their neighbours, colleagues and even, sometimes, members of their own families. Primo Levi (op. cit.) makes the following observation: The struggle, if not to survive, then to secure a modicum of better treatment, leads to some form of cooperation, be it illicit or licit. The more extreme and hopeless the situation seems, the greater the temptation to give up; the greater the willingness to collaborate. (Emphasis not in the original.)

Whether Camus was an atheist or an agnostic is still debated but religion features in the novel: not surprising, given grave difficulty and uncertainty. As Primo Levi noted, when faced with calamity, there’s a tendency to blame ourselves. God is just; therefore the suffering we endure (though we don’t understand it) must be due to us and our actions. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Time-honoured theological questions, such as the suffering of the good and innocent, particularly the suffering of little children, re-surface. The days when God (or the gods) appeared dramatically – the deus ex machina of Classical Western drama who instantly put things right – are now but story, and we are faced with what is referred to as the “silence of God”, that is, the non-intervention of God, particularly in public, political, matters: God as spectator and not as an actor in History. The question has been long and often asked: “Why should we be good if there is no God?” And the answer turns on the question: “We must be good to each other because there is no God. There’s only us. It is we who build hell or create heaven on this earth.” In the novel, many people appear “saying that nothing was any use and that we should go down on our knees” (page 102). (I have written elsewhere that prayer must be prelude and preparation, and not an easy substitute, for action. Those imbued with the spirit of Liberation Theology will surely agree.)

Camus writes that the only response to the plague is to fight it; to try to be useful even “in small ways” (ibid). Try to defend some small part of yourself (morals and ethics; dignity and self-respect) “against all assault”. (The repeated use of the word “try” here is appropriate because of Camus’ philosophical and moral emphasis on individual effort though confronted by the ‘Absurd’.) That is one way of “resisting the threat of slavery” (page 106). The novel’s central character is Bernard Rieux, a medical doctor. And where they can’t cure, doctors attempt to alleviate and to defer. As Primo Levi wrote (op. cit.), power need not always and necessarily corrupt; victories may be temporary and small but “that is not a reason to give up the struggle”. Camus urges that we commit ourselves to trying, even if it means an “endless defeat” (page 98). Elsewhere, he suggests what appears to be a paradoxical phrase: active fatalism (page 175). One must try to move forward, even in the dark (page 176).

Apart from constant effort (and here I would remind readers of his wonderful essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’) what leads to inner peace is not self-pity but sympathy for others (page 196). In some circumstances, ordinary decency can be a form of heroism (page 114). Lest it be thought it was easy for Camus to write on these lines, we must remind ourselves that he did not speak from the safety and comfort of some distant shore. He lived through the “plague” of military occupation and, being a member of the Underground Resistance, was in greater danger than many others.

The plague, highly infectious and potentially deadly, brings with it effects such as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills, an inability of the blood to clot, and extreme weakness. So too metaphorically, the malign and malignant “plague” of occupation to which Tamils are subjected has several, different, effects: political and economic, cultural and moral. Tamils face the most dire situation ever in their long history on the Island, one which threatens their very survival as a people.

A luta continua.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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