Rieux’s asthmatic patient is arguably the most fascinating, intriguing, and difficult character in The Plague. He chooses to be bed-ridden. He doesn’t believe in clocks, but he transfers peas all day from one pan to the next to keep track of time. He is somehow gleeful to see the plague taking over. How do you not love this guy?
We talked about how The Plague is a philosophical casserole dish of humanism, existentialism, and the absurd. The asthmatic Spaniard is probably the best representative of this third prong. His actions are clearly irrational, yet he reasons through them and, most importantly to all three of these philosophies, makes the choice to do them consciously.
Perhaps this is why Tarrou is so interested in the man, and even goes so far as to ask if he is a saint. It’s possible that this odd duck is actually the one example in all of his novels that Camus holds up as exemplary.
Or not. It’s also possible to argue that the old man wastes time just like anyone else, that he is hypocritical, contradictory, and afraid of death. But even if you take this extreme viewpoint, you can’t argue with the fact that the Spaniard sees something no one else does: the absurdity and irrationality of the world after the gates of Oran are re-opened. When he laughs at the thought of the citizens memorializing the dead and then going off to "have a good snack," he’s actually more than a little old man chuckling in potentially creepy glee: he’s cognizant of one of the most important lessons of the novel – that the plague is cruel and indifferent and awful, sure; but that regular life, too, is cruel and indifferent and awful.