12 March 2014

Patrick Deville: Peste & Choléra | Plague & Cholera (2012)

Patrick Deville's Peste & Choléra – now translated as Plague & Cholera – won the Prix Femina in 2012. It is a largely biographical novel about Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943), who was born in French-speaking Switzerland.

Yersin had a brilliant brain – he was a scientific researcher who worked with Pasteur, was a ship's doctor, a tireless globetrotter, an inventor, a horticulturist, and many more things, always seeking to learn more. His most noted achievement was the discovery of the bubonic plague bacillus in 1894, as well finding a vaccine for the disease.

He spent many years in the then tiny Nha Trang in Vietnam, where he created his paradise and where he died. Deville describes his restlessless thus:

'At night, if Yersin is bored, he draws up plans for a water tower. And next day he starts building the water tower. For forty years, from all parts of the world, he will choose the most beautiful natural things and bring them back to Nha Trang – plants and animals, trees and flowers.' (My translation.)

Deville finds that the person in history Yersin has most in common with is Dr David Livingstone, although throughout the book he also makes references to writers who are also known for their travels: Joseph Conrad, Blaise Cendrars, Rimbaud, and Céline for instance. These are some of the novel's digressions/comparisons with which Deville punctuates his novel, and although the book follows a generally chronological pattern, there are a number of anachronisms relating to his subject's life which seem to be randomly thrown in. In some respects, the rambling nature of the narrative (not a criticism) reminded me of Iain Sinclair.

Patrick Deville presents an amazing man of whom I'd never heard before, and for whom the author obviously has a tremendous amount of respect – he visited the many places in the world Yersin went to. I thought it very interesting that Deville also said of him:

'He wanted to protect himself from the world, create his own quarantine area, a garden cut off from the world, viruses, politics, sex and war.'

He was never sexually or romantically associated with anyone: could it be that asexuality was a major driving force behind his insatiable lust for knowledge?

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