Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (2011)

I listened to this short book / long novella during summer, and at first the form unsettled me. I was thrown aside by the repetition, the anonymity of the collective narrator (“we” is a very peculiar, little-used point of view in novels, isn’t it?), the poetic rhythm. I thought it was a kind of beautiful prologue before a more traditional story would focus on one character in particular. But it never came. It hadn’t really occur to me that a whole book could be structured like that, a bit like an ancient chant.

Then I got used to it and learnt to enjoy it, in part thanks to the French audiobook’s voice, actress Irene Jacob, whom you might know from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s movies “The Double Life of Véronique” and “Three Colors: Red” back in the 1990s.

Some people might find this kind of writing too repetitive, lacking a true plot or character development. Some might even call it a literary trick to weave all kinds of bits and pieces together in an artificially coherent unity. I can understand their reservations, but to me it worked.

The French title is “Some had never seen the sea”, and it really changes the focus of the story and makes me judge the book under a different light. With the French title, the focus was on the collective experience of the Japanese brides, who arrived in California after World War I to marry Japanese men they had never met.

Young and inexperienced, they’d imagined their married life based on what they’d known in Japan, or under better circumstances in the land of the American dream, not ready for the culture shock and the deceit that they were victims of. Most men were not as young and wealthy as their letters had described, and they were in for a life of harsh labor in the U.S. The writer describes vignettes of their new lives in their diversity, but the common experience is years of toil: cleaning for wealthy families, washing laundry, picking fruits, becoming prostitutes, seeing all kind of hardships and racism before getting more or less acclimatized to their new family and country.

But after a generation, once they have given birth to children who are growing up more American than Japanese and often despise their mothers for their foreign manners, they get a huge backlash when they are seen with suspicion and called “traitors” and sent away in camps during World War 2.

The English title, “The Buddha in the Attic” actually shifts the focus of the whole book to its latter part, when the narrator voice, the “we” abruptly (yet imperceptibly, as I was listening to an audiobook and therefore unable to pinpoint the exact place) shifts from the Japanese women’s voice, to that of the Americans who are left behind. The last section portrays a California empty of Japanese, briefly wondering where they disappeared before getting on with its routine, with very few remnants that they ever lived there.

I understand the struggle of the writer at that point, because following the Japanese women to the internment camp would have broken the unity of place (California) that is very important in the book, and would have made for a wholly different story. Yet I wasn’t very comfortable with that latter part, because I thought that the voice lost a bit of focus and balance anyway.

Despite this slight reservation, I quite enjoyed the book, especially as I knew little about Japanese-American heritage. It may be read as a tribute to this particular community, but from a European point of view it can also be read as a collective memoir for many female immigrants.

A.S. Byatt, Ragnarok (2011)

Let me first digress. I got to know A.S. Byatt first when I read a short story in the New Yorker: the Stone Woman. I didn’t know anything about the writer but I fell in love with this weird story, its grief-stricken yet strangely powerful heroin and its beautiful accumulation of gem-like precious words. I was unemployed and sending resumes everywhere. Needless to say, I had lots of free time. It took my fancy to translate this story, thinking that it would make me closer to its writer’s power. I still remember struggling with the vocabulary, and struggling to render anything like the beautiful sentences that I read. Needless to say, I wasn’t being interviewed for a translator’s job.

After months or years, I realized who the writer was and I felt foolish for this translation.

Ragnarok was on my wishlist for quite a long time, so long indeed that it eventually got translated into French and found its way to my neighborhood library new books’ shelves, waiting just for me to take it home.

The thing is: A.S. Byatt impresses me (from her reputation and also her book Possession), and so I don’t quite know how to write about her book without feeling completely inadequate. All the more as this one is part of the Cannongate Myth series, an ambitious project for which I have a lot of respect and admiration, and for which Byatt chose the Norse myths, that are supposed to be difficult. (Are myths difficult? Where does this idea come from? Perhaps because the Norse myths are less familiar to my own French culture than Greek ones)

The retelling of myths never ceases to fascinate me: the idea that there is still something relevant in thousand years old stories, but also that as human being writers still find something to add to these stories, like they are never really finished once and for all.

Contrary to other retelling of myths (modified or modernized), Byatt felt the need to encase the mythology in a back story, the evocation of her own childhood during WW2 when she discovered the myths and fell in love with them. How appropriate for a child whose father was away at war to wonder about the destiny of the world and to worry herself with the end of the gods in total destruction. Byatt makes no mystery of being  “the thin child” evacuated from the city to the English countryside, and this new land around her creates a natural scenery of the Norse myths.

My own knowledge of the Norse myths is rather sketchy. There’s Wagner’s music, and rather sanitized Viking tales written for children. Contrary to the original version that “the thin child” got to read, children books nowadays gloss over most of the violence, cruelty, darkness and strangeness from the stories.

Even seeing them from afar, I was fascinated by them in the same way as most apocalyptic stories both fascinate me and disturb me. To imagine the gods death is, I believe, very peculiar compared to other civilisation where myths explain the creation of the world and justify why it is so today.

It was good to have the full extent of the Norse myths presented to me, if only by allusions and short visual vignettes. Byatt gets us to realize that there is so much more out there, without feeling like complete ignoramus. I loved Byatt’s writing, recognising her for her love of lists, of accumulation of visual details and precious words. She put herself right into the book, but it only highlighted how these myths shaped her childhood and her vision of the world.

The weirdest thing, if incidental, about this book is that it made me realize how much Tolkien had been influenced by the Norse myths for The Lord of the Ring. When the inevitability of the gods’ death finally arises, I could feel the same sense of deep sadness than at the end of the LOTR when all the elves and magicians leave Middle earth. Duh! I had read about it years ago, but I had never before made the connection. Once again, A.S. Byatt makes me feel completely foolish.

But I’m grateful for the lesson nonetheless.

Emmanuel Carrère, Limonov (French 2011, English 2014)

I’ll say it before you suspect it: I am a fan of Emmanuel Carrère. So I might not be the most objective reader for his books. But in true Carrère’s fashion, it doesn’t matter, subjectivity is part of the writing and the reading process. And writing about it too.

Bear with me, it does sound meta, but not the kind you get a headache from.

Carrère is one of the writers whose books I buy without hesitation (one other writers is Siri Hustvedt, for example). But I take my time, I’m not rushing as soon as the book gets out, because I know I need time and concentration, and I want to savour them.

By the time I get to Limonov, Carrère has already published another one, Le Royaume (the Kingdom) about early Christianity, with lots of praise. I have not yet arrived to the Kingdom, but I know I’ll get there eventually.

One of the things I enjoy about Carrère’s books is the writing. It’s just as if he was talking to me (Let me clarify, I’m not delusional, nor in love with him). Carrère’s writing voice is deceptively simple, self-aware without being overly self-centered.

So, Limonov. Carrère is always writing about life and perception, about the complex layers that make events and explain people’s behavior. It’s a biographical novel (written without his subject’s consent and with only one direct meeting when the draft was almost completed), but its ambition is wider.

I hadn’t even heard of this Limonov, a Russian intellectual who has had a very contrasted life (he’s still alive, so there’s plenty of turns of the plot that may still occur). Born in 1943 in Soviet Russia, he is deemed a dissident, but the label doesn’t even start to define him. He’s been a thug, an obscure poet in an obscure city of Russia, a jet-setter in Paris and in New York, a butler for a millionnaire, an opponent to Putin, a leader of a fascist group, a writer, a model convict, and so many other things.

Carrère crossed paths with Limonov several times for brief moments, and he is both fascinated and puzzled by this man. The result of this fascination and unending puzzlement is the book itself. As always Carrère is a character in his own novel, at times fed up with his subject, at times wondering.

It seems  that this guy has had many lives already, and it’s all too easy to dislike him. He’s arrogant, vain, always vying for attention and glory. In fact, Carrère doesn’t even try to make us like him at all, his point is to retrace the steps of many life choices, however implausible they seem. One thing leading to another, and Limonov chooses the exile from Soviet Union, presumably forever, and for a while he ends up living like a bum in New York. Does that makes him a loser? Perhaps, but he kept trying and then he somehow got back on his feet.

One thing led to another, and Limonov finds himself supporting the Serbs during the Yugoslavian war. Bad choice obviously. Does this choice make him a fascist? Perhaps. But every time Carrère  explains how complicated it is, how difficult it is for us readers to judge him knowing the complete picture.

At the end he comes out as an adventurer who tried very hard to be a genius and who has never quite reached it.

From these many lives we can also see a portrait of Russia from the sixties to the 21st century, and see how a whole world exploded at the end of Soviet Union. I remember those days and the post-1989 chaos in Russia. I didn’t understand them as they were enfolding under our eyes. I certainly enjoyed that Carrère revisited them. These made in my opinion the most fascinating pages of this bizarre literary object.

Philippe Grimbert, Memory (French: Un secret, 2004)

It’s very difficult to disagree when lots of people praise a book. It even won a literary prize! It was made into a movie! So I’m inclined to think: what didn’t I see? What is wrong with me?

It’s even more difficult when the book is a novel closely inspired by the author’s personal family history. So I don’t want readers to think that I’m criticizing a person (even less a person’s family) when talking about a book.

It’s even more difficult when the book’s subject deals with the Holocaust. I know my post here has to tread gently.

Call me suicidal, insensitive, cold-hearted, but I’m going to say it: this book didn’t work for me.

Philippe Grimbert tells the story of a boy born after the Second World War (himself) who discovers at the age of 15 a huge secret that his whole family has been keeping from him since he was born. He learns from a family friend that his family is Jewish (non-religious obviously) and has suffered persecution during the war (instead of the rosy countryside holidays atmosphere they’d told him about). Even worse, he discovers that he had a half-brother, and that his father was first married to a woman who died with him in the camps. Still even worse, he discovers that his mother used to be his father’s sister-in-law, and that his parents have fallen in love and consummated a forbidden love that only the destruction of the war have made possible.

Wow.

Philippe Grimbert is a psychoanalyst, and you can understand how he got into this career.

The story is perfectly right and very moving, but my problem lies with the writing itself. It is so flat and verbose, so overly analytical of every feeling and meaning. It is a tale told through the (grown-up) boy’s eyes, but there is no room for the action, no dialogue at all, only indirect speech and therefore no room for any other interpretation than the one the author provides. I found this overwhelming and overbearing. I could not relate to any of the characters (although from the author’s personal point of view, I could well understand why he needed to put this distance from his own parents’ actions and emotions).

I am a bit disappointed that it didn’t work for me, but obviously the book has found a lot of other, more eager readers. On very close themes and concerns, I have yet to read a book by Modiano, who has recently won the Nobel Prize of Literature, and whom I have never read, to my great shame.

Qiu Xiaolong, The Enigma of China (2012)

I am (always have been) very forgiving with Qiu Xiaolong, and perhaps too much so.

I enjoyed his mysteries because his focus is on the situation of contemporary China and its most recent social problems (here, corruption, while his previous one was on pollution) that I know firsthand to be true. I enjoyed his mysteries like you enjoy sweets you ate in another season of your life, with nostalgia: his plots are located in Shanghai, in places I know firsthand (I used to make frequent business trips to Shanghai back when I was based in Beijing in the early 2000s).

The situations he puts his characters in ring very true, and have dilemmas I used to wonder about while working in China. Because his heroes are decent people trying to make the right thing in a culture where money is king, graft is ubiquitous and those who don’t join in are just nostalgic losers, I tend to overlook poor dialogues, cardboard sidekick characters and confused plotting.

Qiu has a major excuse: he has a lot of exploding to do to introduce the context and the culture to his foreign readers. If we readers weren’t fed background and lengthy justifications about traditions and latest trends in China, many points of the story and many people’s behaviors or discussions would be hard to understand. But that slows the story down so much!

He tries to be subtle and balanced because paradoxes abound in China these days, so his characters are far from black and white in their behavior, but his writing is quite dull, or perhaps the translation from English to French didn’t help. I was irritated every time a person used the word “gros sous” as a noun synonym for loaded people. This sounds very clunky in French.

It’s too bad, I liked the idea of this mystery rather than its actual form. And something that keeps bothering me is that Qiu Xiaolong actually lives in the United States and has left China in the aftermath of Tiananmen in 1989, which is now quite a long time ago. So I at times wonder how much of his stories are based on hearsay, secondary sources about recent phenomenons, or his interpretations of them viewed through a rather Westernized filter, rather than first hand “experiences”. It’s weird to demand experience for the mystery genre, I’m actually talking about what it means to live in a country with corruption, and blogs who are trying to expose injustice.

So the jury’s out on this one. I’d like to have the opinion of someone who is or has been in China more recently than I have, but my own Chinese friends (or American friends who have married in China) don’t read his books. Is it because they are too close to home or on the contrary because they don’t measure up to the Chinese reality? I might never know.

An Interview with Michelle Bailat-Jones (Part 2)

Here is the second part of my interview with Michelle, who has a book out on the first days of November: Fog Island Moutains. I’m so glad she agreed to this!

After explaining how she came to write a book set in a small village of Southern Japan, a place close to her heart, I asked her about her writing process.

Q. How did you manage to write a whole novel on top of your job and your family life? That’s a pretty generic question, but really I admire that you could “do it all”.

This is going to sound very cliché, and so I secretly hate myself for answering in this way, but I have never been able not to write, no matter how busy the rest of my life has become. So I don’t feel like I have much of a choice, even if I only manage 500 words a day. (The great thing about 500 words a day is that in 6 months you actually have something resembling a novel).

However, since my daughter’s birth in 2009, it has been a real struggle to keep a balance on things and I considered giving up fiction more than a few times – especially when it seemed that no one was interested in any of my novels. It began to be very hard to justify the time I was taking to write. Switzerland – although a lovely place – doesn’t have a very strong structure in place for working moms, and this hasn’t helped. But to juggle everything, I’ve gotten rather adept (as most writers, I suspect) at writing whenever I get a chance – during the 45 minutes of my daughter’s dance class, while commuting to my teaching job, I’ve even used a dictaphone clipped to my jacket while walking my dog in the forest. I feel silly, yes, but I can get a lot done.

One thing I’ve always done – and this predates having a family – is wake up early in the mornings to get an hour or two of work done before the day begins. I’m a morning person, and I love this quiet time. It also means that I can go into a day of commercial translation work knowing that my fiction writing is already done. (This does mean however, that by nine o’clock in the evening I’m pretty useless). I’ve also had to prioritize in ways that make me frustrated sometimes. I write more poetry and flash fiction now than short stories – mostly because these are things I can actually finish and feel good about in a shorter time span. And for the last two years, I’ve had to scale back much of the non-fiction writing that I also really love (you’ll see that my once-busy reading blog Pieces has fallen to the side, and I write far fewer book reviews than I’d like) to focus on fiction and literary translation. But I should also mention that my “day job” as a translator gives me a lot of flexibility. I can fit paid work into those randomly created moments as well. I don’t have to worry about commuting or going into an office, and so I manage in ways that other writers with “fixed hour” day jobs cannot.

Q. To keep yourself on track and motivated, did you set yourself a daily target of x words? Did you find a (local or virtual) writing community to support you? On the techie side, you mentioned a dictaphone and writing during commute, did you use some app or any other trick of the trade?

I used to have a daily target, but that has just gone haywire for the last few years. I try to make sure that I write or revise my fiction at least every day. This helps me feel like I am moving forward. Unfortunately, I do not have any technology tricks only notebook preferences. I write more quickly with a computer, but I try to write longhand as often as I can. It makes me approach things differently, and I think there’s a benefit in that for my work. I outline a lot. A ton. When I’m working on a novel, I am constantly outlining and re-organizing how the larger story will work. I’m maybe even too focused on structure, and re-arranging bits and pieces, but for now this has been my process.

Q. I’m really impressed by your strong will and dedication, and it pays! I have gone through many times of doubts about my own writing, especially as I juggle between French and English: I sometimes feel that my “voice” in English is different from my French one to the point of not knowing which one is more authentic. How did you find the right voice to write a novel in English about people thinking and talking Japanese? (I remember your Japanese is quite fluent).

I really admire your bilingualism – it’s so flawless. I’ve often wanted to write in French, especially since it is now my “linguistic home” but I haven’t managed yet. So yes, for Fog Island Mountains, this was a huge question for me. There is something incredibly false about a book being narrated by an elderly Japanese woman in English. I couldn’t get around this and it was a concern for me. I wanted something fluid, but also with echoes of the Japanese language. I have had someone tell me that the book reads a little bit like it was a translation from Japanese. I’m not sure whether this was meant as a compliment, but it made me deliriously happy. I think that readers will have varied reactions to Azami’s voice and how it works to tell the story, but I think, for me, she gave me the filter that I needed to work through all that was happening to Alec and Kanae and the town. I needed an outsider who was also an insider. And I just hope she makes it meaningful for readers as well.

An Interview with Michelle Bailat-Jones (Part 1)

I was in Croatia close to the beach in another lifetime in August when a message from Michelle reached me. She had a book published! (No, she’s being modest: she not only published a book, but it also won a prize!) I was glad that she thought of me for a review copy and I took my time during September to read it.

It’s not a very light book by any account, but it is not a harrowing read. In fact it’s lighter than I’d thought it would be, because it is set in Japan, where emotions and expressions are always so delicately rendered, and Michelle’s writing is also quite subtle. Her main narrator is an old Japanese woman who tells tales in her community, and her voice in the book reflects the music of a traditional narration, a bit like a chant. I would compare it slightly to the unique writing of Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic (only I am quite late in my blog posts so I should have told you about that other book ages ago), although it is not as systematic. Michelle switches her point of view often, moving from the husband to the wife to the outsider, and I must tell that it helps when dealing with a heavy subject like cancer, terminal illness and impending grief.

Besides being taken by the book and feeling so moved by the story, I wondered: how difficult is it to write a novel about this subject? Why set it in Japan (of all places?) And because I have met Michelle in real life, I wished she could tell me how she managed to write a novel while working, raising a daughter and blogging. I took the opportunity to ask her all my questions and here are her answers:

Q. What inspired you to write this particular story in small town Japan and why?

A. I feel a particular connection with Japan because I was born in the city of Kagoshima, right on the coast of the island of Kyushu. I’ve often wondered what version of my life I could have lived if my family had stayed longer and I’d actually grown up in this place. If I’m allowed this feeling – as a Scottish/German-American who now lives in Switzerland – I consider Japan a part of me in ways that are similar to my feelings for the US and Switzerland, the places which I have a legal right to call my home. This question of where a person belongs (culturally, linguistically, emotionally) has always fascinated me and was definitely part of the inspiration for some of the novel’s themes.

Later, I returned to Japan and worked in a small town in the mountains of Miyazaki Prefecture for several years when I was just out of college. When I returned back to America, I finally began writing stories about the region – I just couldn’t get the landscape out of my head. And I’ve always been interested in Japanese folktales and history. (And its literature.) Kyushu has a very particular and significant place in Japanese mythology, and I was lucky to spend time in this place at the center of so many of Japan’s originating myths.

At the same time, because of events in my private life, when I started working on Fog Island Mountains I was also circling around a lot of questions about grief and its effects on relationships and family. I would never have wanted to write so directly about those questions, but it felt very natural to combine these two ideas and see what came up.

Q. I had assumed that being so far from Japan and Japan being so faraway from our Western culture, you had chosen this setting to keep a distance with a difficult subject: preparing oneself to a death, grieving for one’s significant other. Obviously my assumption was all wrong. I found your book very sensitive in presenting the reaction of the sick person and his wife, as well as children, friends and acquaintances. Was it particularly difficult to write about this particular subject set in a place you call home? Was it necessary for you to take a distance with your subject? If so, how did you manage that?

A. It was very necessary for me to keep a distance from the personal experiences that helped inspire Fog Island Mountains, out of respect for a number of people, but also because this is almost always how I write. I don’t feel comfortable putting myself and my life directly into a piece of fiction. I’m sure I’m there, I don’t think I’m naive about this. But I really do write with a purely fictional landscape in mind, and characters who are wholly invented.

However, no, it wasn’t difficult to write about these subjects through a place I consider a little bit home. I even think the Japanese setting helped. I couldn’t really write about Japan while I was living there, nor about France when I lived in Paris. Something I’m working on right now has a small part set in Switzerland but it’s only a framework, the story is occurring in the US. I started working on Fog Island Mountains in 2007 when I’d been away from Japan for nearly six years. I suspect that a lot of my writing is (and may always be) about nostalgia and longing for place, and so it felt very natural to turn to Japan as a context for the questions of the story. My own form of comfort-writing, perhaps, even if it might be a little selfish to approach a “place” in this way.

**

This post is getting very long, so I’ll post the second part of this interview in a separate post. Stay tuned!

Unfinished Business: Mian Mian, Candy (Chinese 2000, English 2003)

This is a book I turned down many times when it was first published in English, but years later I took my chance because it was free on Bookmooch. Meeh… I should have stuck to my guns. I read a solid quarter of the book, decided it wasn’t worth my precious time, and skimmed through the end, just in case.

Let me retrace my steps here a little, so that you get the big picture.

I was working in Hong Kong when I first heard of Candy, a little after 2000. It was huge. The book was available in Hong Kong, but not on the mainland where it was banned. Along with her contender Wei Hui, these young female writers were scandalous, and therefore hailed by critics as the genial voices of their generation.

Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Decadent nightlife in frontier town Shenzhen. Explicit PG13 scenes (or are they NC17?). And not a glance for the revolution, may it be to cry over past hardships or to praise the Leader. It was fresh! daring!

I didn’t read it back then because my level of Chinese wasn’t good enough. But I remember a colleague telling me that being banned was about the best thing that could have happened to this otherwise mediocre book. More than ten years later, I too ran out of patience, because the writing was indulgent, naively provocative and terribly self-centered. I know this is harsh, but I’m not a good fit for these kind of teenaged readings anymore.

Somehow, it seems more interesting to know of this book because of what it tells us about the Chinese society and about a generation of young Chinese people than by its own value.

Summer Pierre, The Artist in the Office (2010)

Uh-oh, it seems that I’ve had this draft for 2 months or more and didn’t quite publish it! It’s high time I put it out in the open because it’s a lovely book. Update: it didn’t quite solve my procrastination problem. Sigh…

* * *

I heard of this book from the lovely Finding Time to Write blog, and I bought the book almost immediately (second-hand from Amazon marketplace), so intrigued I was about its promises: “how to creatively survive and thrive seven days a week”.

Although I am not comfortable with the name artist, and I don’t quite believe in the feel-good notion that everything we create is art, I am all ears when someone offers strategies and inspiration to make work and any creative outlet coexist peacefully, rather than pushing the art to the margins of our lives (work taking so much time and energy) or proposing to quit your job altogether. Here’s what she says about drastic measures:

“It took me years to realize that I could do all kinds of drastic acts like quitting jobs, relationships, towns (or all of the above), but what showed up at the next job, relationship, & town was still ME.”

This book seems primarily aimed at youngish and unattached people who take jobs in restaurants or offices while hoping or waiting for a big creative success that will allow them to practice full-time. But often this arrangement becomes permanent and people are frustrated with their humdrum, stifling day jobs.

Summer Pierre offers a kind voice and good ideas to find this balance, and although her ideas are often not really applicable to my own circumstances, I liked the optimism and attitude.

French people are professional grumblers, and it’s all too easy to complain about our day job. I do it a lot (less than my colleagues, but still pretty much every day). But she helped me realize that, yes, there are (also) good points about working this job (and I’m not talking money only).

Some pieces of advice felt very US-centered and hipster-ish. Jobs are very hard to come by in France, so people here can’t just chuck a job and find another.  French office environments – or at least mine – don’t seem like the places Summer Pierre talks about — if I try a dance move near the copy machine they’re going to call the doctor straight away.

But other parts of the book were quite precious to me, forcing me to realize that procrastination is not creation, and it’s not downtime either. Putting things off for later and waiting for circumstances to be ideal isn’t a good solution. You might think “duh” and move on, but it was actually fun.

It’s a pretty easy read, quite inspirational. I didn’t fall in love with Summer Pierre’s designs but I enjoyed her kind words. It was probably a bad timing for me to read it before the holidays, but I’ll try a re-read in September along with my good resolutions for the fall!(*)

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(*) Note from 2014/10/09: uh-oh… Although the book is lingering close to my computer in my little writing nook, I didn’t quite find the time to re-read it in September, as you can imagine.

Patrick Deville, Plague and Cholera (French 2012)

Yet another very very good surprise thanks to audiobooks!

I had never read anything by Patrick Deville before, and when I finished Plague and Cholera, I immediately bought his Kampuchea. For a person who thinks twice before getting anymore book on her shelves, that’s telling a lot!

Who would have guessed that I would read (uh… hear) the biography of the man who had discovered the bacillus responsible for the plague (that now bears his name, yersinia pestis). I’m not a science buff, but I like a good story, and if anyone had told me that I would get engrossed in the biography of a biologist/doctor, member of the Pasteur team like Roux or Calmette (1863-1943), a man with an austere youth in Switzerland, no private life to speak of, apparently not far from being a misogynist or a sociopath (although he was indeed working for the good of humanity from his lab or his desk, I don’t think that bedside manners or caring for actual living patients were his forte), I would have been more than doubtful.

And yet. The man was anything but a lab rat and as soon as he could he left the Pasteur institute to live his dream: be an explorer, a discover of unchartered territories like Livingstone. Great explorers were one generation older than he, but he took his ticket to Asia by the way of being a cruise doctor, then he left this job when he fell in love with Vietnam, especially Nha Trang on the coast and Da Lat in the mountains. His love of learning seemed endless and he dabbled his hand in lots of activities: after biology and medicine, he became an explorer who surveyed the land along the Mekong river and then turned farm developer, rubber-tree planter, anti-malaria serum manufacturer, and a lot more.

The book is a straightforward biography, except it is called a novel, as many books that I’ve recently read. I’m not sure if it’s a French fashion, or a larger trend, just like all recent US movies proclaim “based on a true story”. I guess this label gives the writer more freedom, but we are left, as readers, with many questions as to what is real and what is fictional. Sometimes we readers are inside Yersin’s head and seeing the world through his eyes, sometimes a modern narrator breaks in, following the footsteps of Yersin in modern-day Vietnam and knowing, as an omniscient narrator (but is he as accurate and objective?) how the country has changed since Yersin set his foot there.

This book got a very famous prize in France, but some readers found the tone disturbing. It is dry and blunt indeed, with many quotations from private letters that are quite banal to say the least. Yersin was nowhere near an emotional person. That’s where we readers tend to think that it’s nothing more than a normal, informative biography. Yet the omniscient narrator’s voice is often distanced and ironic, so that the mix of the two voices might seem incongruous at times. I personally loved it, especially as the audiobook was read by the author.

Yersin was not the only focus of Deville. He visibly aimed at portraying a whole generation of enthusiastic discoverers, scientists and colonialists from the turn of the 20th century, for whom the world for up for grabs and awaiting their benevolent guidance. Then we spent much of the rest of the century paying for the consequences. I remember being astonished at the last remains of the French colonial empire in Vietnam and Cambodia, and so the book spoke to me at many levels.

(bonus: it has been translated to English this year!)