Plague and Cholera
Translated from the original French, this is a fictional biography of the scientist Alexandre Yersin. Born in Switzerland in the mid-19th century, Yersin moves to Paris and works with Louis Pasteur as a bacteriologist, developing a reputation as a talented scientist. But he soon gets wanderlust and is by instinct a loner; so Yersin goes to sea as a ship’s doctor to the Far East. His subsequent career veers from one discipline to another; his insatiable curiosity to discover leads him to develop a range of skills. He creates a mini-empire in his adopted homeland in Indochina (now Vietnam). But the peak of his career was in Bombay when he discovered the source of the bubonic plague and isolated the bacillus – known subsequently as yersinia pestis. The narrative switches between the elderly Yersin’s escape from Paris ahead of the advance of the German Army in May 1940 to his beloved Indochina, and an account of his life leading up to his fame and achievements of 1940.
The story is unfolded by an omniscient narrator, who makes all sorts of observations and gives the reader advance notice, somewhat in the manner of Anthony Trollope, of developments and influences. The life as told by the narrator is fully keyed in with the contemporary history and Yersin’s part in this. It is an intriguing story with a highly detailed and informative historical context; but I’m not sure the form fully works, as the tale reads more like a sort of informal and inchoate history rather than the fictional unfolding of a man’s life.