February 25, 2020

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Chong riffs on Camus classic

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/4/2018 (682 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

How would people react to a modern-day resurrection of the bubonic plague and the move by health officials to quarantine an entire city?

Vancouver writer Kevin Chong combines his knowledge of his home city and admiration for Albert Camus’s classic novel La Peste (The Plague) to tackle this theme in his book of the same name.

Chong’s previous work includes My Year of the Race Horse, based on his time as part-owner of a horse, and Neil Young Nation, recounting his personal quest to follow Young’s journey to becoming a musical legend.

True to Camus’s 1947 book, Chong employs a narrator to help tell the tale of the four-month-long quarantine during which time 14,000 residents die of the feared disease that has cropped up throughout mankind’s history. He bases his story on Camus’s Dr. Bernard Rieux, a man dedicated to serving the city’s impoverished and marginalized at his clinic near the Annex, where old buildings are being torn down to make way for luxury housing.

Chong aptly captures the two extremes of present-day Vancouver — a playground for the wealthy and financial haven for offshore real estate investors, as well as a dreary, damp prison for those trapped in poverty and addictions. "Either they emerged from jewel-box McLarens and Teslas like Mandarin-speaking insects between butterfly wings, or they decomposed, forgotten and overlooked in alleyways. In fact, the city was made up as it has always been, of people who worked too much for too little."

In addition to the stalwart Rieux, Chong introduces journalist Raymond Siddhu and author and lecturer Megan Tso. Siddhu is father to two young twin boys and his family lives outside the city of Vancouver. He tries to rush home to beat the quarantine, but the train he’s on is turned around to head back into Vancouver. Tso is in Vancouver to give a lecture on death rites, and her plan to sightsee for a few days is sidelined by the quarantine. She must turn casual encounters with local residents into friendships as the weeks go past. The emotional strain that the quarantine places upon Siddhu and Tso forces them to examine their personal priorities and past relationships.

Rieux also confronts his own personal problems. His wife has travelled to Mexico to try alternate treatment for cancer, and his mother has come to stay with him. Chong adapts Camus’s character of Dr. Castle, a colleague of Rieux’s, to create Dr. Orla Castillo, chief medical health officer at the Coastal Health Authority and Rieux’s former professor and mentor. It is Castello who declares the city be placed under quarantine and oversees treatment of plague victims. Rieux worries about Castello’s ability to deal with this medical crisis as her marriage is failing and she faces personal struggles.

Chong he recently rediscovered Camus’s The Plague it when considering the idea of updating a classic novel. He admits he followed the original novel’s constraints, such as not focussing on the origins of the plague, but was able to add new points of view to Camus’s story that reflect current society.

It isn’t necessary to have read the original to appreciate Chong’s retelling, but some knowledge of the original helps in understanding the similarities and differences. Reading Chong’s version on its own raises questions about his decision to have a narrator and Rieux’s inexplicable motivation behind his unflagging efforts to minister to the city’s plague victims. Ultimately, this leads to the feeling that Chong’s novel lacks a true sense of purpose and message.

Andrea Geary is a reporter with Canstar Community News.

Andrea Geary

Andrea Geary
Community journalist — The Headliner

Andrea Geary is the community journalist for The Headliner. Email her at andrea.geary@canstarnews.com Call her at 204-697-7124

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