Communication on the Island of Lost Souls

The following is a poignant passage that reflects what I went through, and continue to, with respect to communicating with the boys, during the dark days of exile, isolation, and purification. Like the citizens of Oran, I was expelled and isolated in an attempt to purify and punish.

At the outset of Part 2 of Camus’ The Plague (Le Peste), just after they’d closed the gates to isolate the town, the narrator observed that among the many restrictions, “Even the faint satisfaction of writing letters was denied us. … [t]he town was no longer linked to the rest of the country by the usual means of communication, … a new decree forbade the exchange of any correspondence, to prevent letters from transmitting the infection.”

As things escalated, “Intercity telephone calls, … caused such overcrowding public phone booths and on the lines that they were entirely stopped for a few days, then restricted to what were described as urgent cases, such as deaths, births and marriages. So telegrams became our only recourse. Creatures bound together by mutual sympathy, by flesh and heart, were reduced to finding the signs of this ancient communion in a ten-word dispatch, all written in capitals. And since, as it happens, the forms of words that can be used in a telegram are quickly exhausted, before long whole lives together or painful passions were reduced to a periodic exchange of stock phrases such as ‘Am well’, ‘Thinking of you’, ‘Affectionately yours’.

Some of us, meanwhile, insisted on writing, and endlessly dreamed up schemes for corresponding with the outside world, though they always proved illusory … for we never received any reply. Week after week we were reduced to starting the same letter over again and copying out the same appeals, so that after a certain time words that had a first been tornm bleeding from our hearts became void of sense. We copied them down mechanically, trying by means of these dead words to give some idea of our ordeal. And in the end, the conventional call of the telegram seemed to us preferable to this sterile, obstinate monologue and this arid conversation with a blank wall.”¹

¹ The Plague (La Peste), Albert Camus, 1947 (Transl. Robin Buss, 2001), pp. 54-55

 

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