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peste & choléra

14 december 2017

I'm not sure where cholera comes into Patrick Deville's 2012 Prix-Femina-winning novel Peste & choléra. Google.fr suggests that there is a French expression "choisir entre la peste et le choléra," akin to proverbial anglophone choices like the fire and the frying pan, a rock and a hard place, hell and Texas, etc. But I am still not sure why the novel has its title. It is the story of Alexandre Yersin, discoverer of the plague bacillus (hence there is plenty of peste in the book). Yersin doesn't seem to be in any lose-lose situations. Perhaps all lives, though, involve choosing between plague and cholera in some cosmic sense.

Yersin makes choices (as a character, and in real life; the novel is strongly and closely autobiographical, though with a postmodern touch or two when Deville imagines himself as a time-traveler tracking his subject). But Yersin seems to have been a guy who chose precisely whatever the hell he wanted to do, and was immensely satisfied with the results. Nothing Yersin does, in Deville's telling, ever seems like a pis aller.

Alexandre Yersin burst onto the scientific scene in the 1880s, a young Swiss research student taken under the wing of Louis Pasteur. He made important discoveries regarding diphtheria and tuberculosis when he was in his mid-20s. He taught microbiology at Pasteur's institute – and then decided that he wanted to be a ship's physician and sail the world. Deville spends a lot of time on Yersin's relations with the French scientific establishment, relations at once amicable and strained. He had the most brilliant of academic careers open to him. He continually chucked in career progress to pursue the next adventure, whether intellectual or corporal. And his pals back at Pasteur humored him and supported his ventures.

Yersin's medical job took him to French Indochina, where he served on ships making trips along the Vietnamese coast and across to the Philippines. He explored Indochina on his many days and weeks off, and eventually settled in Nha Trang on the coast of southern Vietnam. Bemused at their prodigal genius wandering around Southeast Asia, the Pasteur people fired off telegrams summoning Yersin to deal with this or that epidemiological crisis. One of these missions, to Hong Kong, led Yersin to isolate the bacillus that causes the plague: as Deville keeps repeating, in italics, Yersinia pestis.

Yersin became a rich man, developing anti-plague sera, growing rubber near Nha Trang for the burgeoning tire industry, and bringing chinchona cultivation to Vietnam, to produce antimalarial quinine. He was stubbornly generalist. Natural sciences of the day were generalist to begin with; Pasteur himself, and later figures like Albert Einstein, had careers that would be impossibly diverse for 21st-century academics. But Yersin took dabbling to an extreme. He jumped from epidemiology to veterinary science (actually a useful synergy) to agricultural science to mechanical engineering to astronomy. Deville continually returns to the theme of the cerf-volant, the kite. For him, flying kites connects Yersin's research interests (in meteorology and aerodynamics) to his dilettantism. And lest you think "dilettantism" a pejorative, remember that it is cognate with the word "delight." Peste & choléra celebrates the delight, the jouissance, of pure learning.

Though jouissance also means sexual pleasure, and that seems to have been an avenue closed to Alexandre Yersin. He never married. As Deville presents the story, Yersin never had any serious relationship with anyone on any point of the gender spectrum. Deville presents Yersin's sexuality as a matter of avoiding procreation and the drama of domesticity. It might be more parsimonious to read Yersin as gay, in a culture that did not allow public gay domesticity. Time and again, Deville presents Yersin with a devoted male companion. He never has a long-term partner – the companions keep changing – but reading back through a heavy filter of the closet and the comings-out of the late 20th century, to see Yersin as gay is at least plausible. Though he could have been asexual – that's a real identity, difficult to identify now because "confirmed bachelor" is so often history's label on closet doors past. Deville seems to lean toward asexual, anyway, and that's a reasonable interpretation.

Peste & choléra ultimately has no plot, except that lives themselves can be read as plots. Deville presents Yersin as a supremely happy man, happy in his autonomy, happy in the beauty that he (literally) cultivated. "Il faut cultiver notre jardin," goes one of the most famous quotations from French literature, from Voltaire's Candide: we must tend our own garden. Yersin got to do that. Patrick Deville endorses his choice.

Deville, Patrick. Peste & choléra. 2012. Paris: Seuil, 2013.