The hot, heavy spring of 1940 still haunts the French imagination. “German troops are at the gates of Paris”, lorries and columns of refugees flee the world's most cultured city. So begins Patrick Deville's astonishing novel Plague and Cholera: at this cut-off point for France and Frenchness, brooding over a wound that hasn't properly healed.
But it is no familiar history that Deville has in his sights, in a book that has won over critics in France, winning no fewer than three major literary prizes, and has now been elegantly translated into English by J.A. Underwood.
At the heart of the novel is a kind of magic realist biography of one Alexandre Yersin – a Swiss-French scientist and colonialist, and discoverer of the bacteria responsible for the bubonic plague.
Little known in the English-speaking world, and not much better-remembered in his adopted nation, as an old man Yersin boards the last plane out of Paris in May 1940, leaving behind the European inferno to live out his remaining days in French Vietnam.
In re-telling his story, which takes us from the Paris laboratories of Louis Pasteur to the edge of the French Empire in Vietnam, Deville has struck upon a fascinating kaleidoscope through which to view the history of France and French colonialism at the turn of the century.
Starting in the late 19 century, at the heart of a civilisation that believes it is has “reached its peak”, Yersin is followed through the stages of his life by the writer himself: “the ghost of the future” who records his doings in page after page of direct, fluid prose: always in the present tense and always with one eye on the darkness of the “century of infinite barbarity” that lies ahead.
While two world wars cast their long shadow over the novel, Yersin himself is a creature of a different time.
He belongs to the 19 century, the century of “dreams of infinite progress”: dreams which play out over his lifetime on two frontiers – in the science of microbiology, and the more sinister march of European colonialism.
While Deville does not shy from the undeniable romance of Yersin's colonial voyages and adventures, our narrator knows only too well how bloody the end of the age of discovery will be, for Europe and the countries she has enslaved.
By the end we do not know whether to celebrate or mourn the life of Yersin – and indeed the age he represents.
Doubtless a brilliant man whose discoveries benefitted millions, our hero is also weirdly bereft of close human relationships, "the walls of his mind proof against passion since boyhood". He is as far removed from basic affections as the colonial “paradise” he creates in Vietnam is removed from the reality of the wars at home, while the ultimate outcome of his breakthroughs in medicine is to have his name attributed to the most deadly microbe in human history, the bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis: the symbolic heart of darkness that lies at the centre of this, captivating Conradian tale of discovery and loss.