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!)