Colonial Medicine and Literary Geography: Placelessness in Patrick Deville’s “Plague and Cholera”

Eleanor Grabowski //

A tropical vista of lush, green trees, endless mountains, and brilliant sunlight. This idyllic landscape graces the original cover of the Points edition of Patrick Deville’s 2012 novel Peste & Choléra, also sheathed in a bold, red banner announcing it as the winner of the Prix Femina. [1] Yet there is something odd about the image. The scene is warm, beautiful, and appealing—pristine, even. Nothing about the image seems to reflect the two deadly diseases referenced in the novel’s title.

This dissonance, however, turns out to be in keeping with the novel itself, which similarly juxtaposes disease and tropical lands. Plague and Cholera is Deville’s retelling of the life of Alexandre Yersin, the Swiss-French doctor who discovered the plague bacillus and who spent much of his life in Southeast Asia. Deville’s Yersin constantly vacillates between an explorer’s expeditions and medical research. His relentless movement is captured in the novel’s table of contents—fourteen of the book’s chapters are named for places. Despite the centrality of place to the novel, however, the text does not describe Asia in detail. Instead, the reader gets a blurred impression of the jungle, insects, mountains, the ocean, heat, illness, and a faceless mass of inhabitants. In the words of Wolfgang Asholt, “The indigenous population is sometimes mentioned, but it does not have the right to speak” (Asholt 178).[2]

 This uncomfortable gap raises the question of the novel’s position on French colonialism. Asholt argues that “Plague and Cholera is thus a ‘colonial novel,’ but a novel that includes a criticism of colonialism…and that opens a potentially postcolonial space” in its use of different historical timeframes (Asholt 178).[3] But why does it refuse to fulfill this postcolonial possibility? In this essay, I will discuss how the novel refuses to clearly look at or describe the colonies themselves. What I find is that, in the novel, Deville’s protagonist inhabits a vague, contradictory space in which France’s Asian colonies are represented as simultaneously pure and threatening, healthy and sick.

Disease and the Colonial Imaginary

The intertwining of medicine, illness, and colonialism in Vietnam both during and after the period when it was part of “French Indochina” reflects a pattern of stereotypical associations of tropical colonies with disease. According to the historian Eric Jennings, the health of the colonial French was truly in crisis, but the climbing numbers of illnesses and deaths were considered to be the natural consequences of the tropical climate (Jennings 6–7). This association between colony and illness was not limited to Southeast Asia; John Robert McNeill and Frank M. Snowden have similarly shown how the French considered the climate and geography of St. Domingue to be responsible for the yellow fever epidemics that ravaged the French colonists and army at the turn of the 19th century (McNeill 240; Snowden 134). Yet in the case of Plague & Cholera, the colonies are not only full of danger and suffering, but also places where one can be cured.

This apparently contradictory representation of colonial space as both infectious and healing spans the entire novel, without resolution. The attention and often inattention to the landscape situates the novel within a wider context of the representation of Vietnam in French literature. In Phantasmatic Indochina, Panivong Norindr argues that representations of the environment and the people of Southeast Asia under French colonialism are governed by the fictional construct of “Indochina”:

As a discursive construction that supported financial and political ambitions, and as a particularly fecund lieu de mémoire (site of memory) heavily charged with symbolic significance, Indochina continues today to arouse powerful desires. Its luminous aura sustains memories of erotic fantasies and perpetuates exotic adventures of a bygone era, while appealing to the French nostalgia for grandeur (Norindr 1).

The use that Norindr makes of Pierre Nora’s idea of a “lieu de mémoire” highlights the importance of descriptions of places, specifically, in colonial fiction (Nora 7). Norindr also draws attention to the elements that make up this phantasm, “stereotypical images ranging from the seductive and available native (the latest transfiguration of the congai), to the opium smoker, which includes familiar landscapes such as the blue-green Bay of Halong and the temples of Angkor, images betraying the resilience of a feminized representation of Southeast Asia first encountered and deployed in travel accounts” (Norindr 12–13). Confirming Norindr’s point, Deville uses these “familiar landscapes” as stylistic shortcuts.

Disease and Location in Plague and Cholera

Though Deville’s Yersin spends most of the book in Southeast Asia, it is Europe that is depicted with specificity. The early chapters of Yersin’s life include detailed descriptions of European locales. As soon as the adventurous scientist leaves Europe, however, the narrative adopts a bird’s-eye view. Yersin moves between continents, countries, colonies, and cities, a state of perpetual motion that is made evident by the use of places as chapter titles. These titles evoke mental images that many French readers already possess, situating the story in a visual space that the narrative does little to recreate. In the chapter “In Haiphong,”[4] the text spends only a sentence and a half to describe this region: “From Nha Trang, one goes back up towards the north and the sky becomes grayer, until the mouth of the Red River and the port of Haiphong. There, junks load the passengers and take them to Hanoi” (Deville 60).[5] Deville indeed mentions Haiphong only to move on to the next city in the itinerary. The fact that the chapter is named for the place despite barely describing it implies that the role of the chapter title is to evoke the cliffs and islands of the popular colonial imaginary of “Indochina.” Deville is not concerned with specific details in constructing this vague atmosphere. Indeed, cities and places are literally interchangeable: during the Dreyfus affair, for example, we learn that “Yersin at the moment of the trial is in Nha Trang or in Hong Kong” (Deville 17).[6] For the novel, as for colonial France, the broad narrative of “Indochina,” and not fine-grained details, is what matters.

At one point, Yersin decides to launch an expedition into the colony’s interior. The description of this lengthy period is comparatively long, but confused:

In the jungle at night the camp in the middle of the circle of fires to keep the wild animals away. The hunts in the prairie and the attacks of malaria, the freezing fevers under the lukewarm rains. The debates and the shared rice wine, the amulets and the blood exchanged from cuts on the forearm, not a very Pasteurian practice, but Yersin carries with him the magical antiseptic products from the Pasteurians developed by Calmette in Saigon.[7] (Deville 75)

This passage certainly contrasts with other moments in the book, where description is sparse. But this time, the description of the place (or rather, places) takes a form that is both chaotic and exoticized. The narrator seems to enter into a sort of delirium with Yersin, and in this delirium, the jungle and illness become interchangeable; illness is part of this scene in the form of the “attacks of malaria, the freezing fevers under the lukewarm rains.” Diseases indeed fuse in the text with the colonial landscape and climate.

The use of a bird’s-eye view for most of the scenes that take place in Asia renders colonial space in a way that is blurry and imprecise. It is this blurriness that explains how the novel can use Asia to simultaneously represent health and illness. Consider, for example, the passage in which Yersin arrives in Hong Kong to try to identify the plague bacillus:

Since his arrival in the port, under a torrential rain, he saw bodies of plague victims in the streets and in the puddles, in the middle of gardens, aboard anchored junks. The British soldiers authoritatively take the sick and empty their houses, pile everything up and burn it, dump lime and sulfuric acid, raise red brick wells to forbid access to the infested neighborhoods.[8] (Deville 96)

The reader has the impression of a panorama of horror, but this scene could be unfolding almost anywhere. Only the presence of the “British soldiers” —and not the local population—indicates that Yersin has arrived in a new place. The text does not take the time to situate the reader in Hong Kong; it relies rather on the images evoked by the “junks,” another of the “familiar landscapes” constituting the colonial phantasm (Norindr 13). This method of describing by not describing continues in the next chapter, also titled by a place name: “In Nha Trang” (101).[9] Returned from Hong Kong, Yersin lists off nouns loosely associated with Southeast Asia, like “betel vine,” “coconut trees,” and “the beach,” but this time to contrast them with “the furor of epileptic cities” that he has left behind (Deville 102).[10] This vast but vague space of colonial Asia is clearly in contradiction with itself.

One Vietnamese city, Dalat, is described with some specificity, but only to compare it to Europe. When Yersin finds the site of the future city, “a vast plateau of green grasses opens before them until the horizon, at more than one thousand meters of altitude and in the cold. In the middle flows a river. The sight is Swiss… He discovers the Lang Bian plateau” (76–77).[11] In its “Swiss” characteristics, the text insists on this place’s European-ness. The description further presents Yersin as the adventurer who “discovers” the plateau—in spite of the fact that it was already inhabited by minority groups (Jennings 97)—and who sees it as a Swiss meadow. When the city of Dalat is built, these comparisons-as-descriptions continue. Unlike Haiphong or Nha Trang, Dalat is clearly Dalat. But if it could not be any other Vietnamese city, the terms of the description could apply to a Swiss or French town. Dalat is “a copy”; it is “like” other places; and it is full of European names; the text compares Dalat’s flowers to those of Dinard and compares its train station to that of Deauville, and it mentions the “Yersin” high school and the hospital run by “L’Institut Pasteur” (Deville 78).[12]          

This representation matches the colonial vision of the city as a mini-Europe. Dalat was conceived as a sanatorium for the French, but the project also endeavored a recreation of the European environment (Jennings 20, 37). Dalat was indeed created to make the colonists feel as if they were leaving the colony (8). Jennings shows that the French colonists continued to believe in “climactic determinism”—the theory of a connection between climate and illness—even after science had refuted it (7). In the discourse of the French empire, “Dalat remained enduringly synonymous with health, reinvigoration, and whiteness” (51). We can understand the Dalat sanatorium project as an example of the type of colonial mindset that the medical historian Guillaume Lachenal calls “bêtise”: “an excessive, active, confident, determined—unshakable—deployment of reason (…) in other words, a form of déraison (unreason) that is not only a lack but an extension of reason” (Lachenal 13). The novel’s representational acceptance of “bêtise” functions as an unintentional microcosm for France’s continual acceptance of this same bêtise. Lachenal investigated European colonial malpractice, i.e., bêtise, that killed scores of people across large swaths of colonized Africa during the 1950s. He was rewarded only with a denunciation of his work by the French National Academy of Medicine, leading him to conclude that “a large segment of the French intellectual and political elites was still incapable in the twenty-first century of articulating anything reasonable about the colonial past” (Lachenal 191). Although the human toll of the disasters perpetuated by colonial doctors that Lachenal describes is not comparable to what is described in Plague and Cholera, the concept of bêtise can explain the reception of both books. Lachenal’s work, questioning colonial bêtise, was boycotted by a French institution; Deville’s work, accepting the same bêtise, received the Prix Femina.

Colonialism and Literary Geographies

Pascale Casanova describes the international economic system of literature that she calls the “world republic of letters” as a space defined by centers and peripheries: “Its geography is based on the opposition between a capital, on the one hand, and peripheral dependencies whose relationship to this center is defined by their aesthetic distance from it” (Casanova 12). For Casanova, this “capital” is Paris, the center of the “consecration” of literature (127). How does this process of “consecration” occur? For Casanova, the literary sphere has “its own consecrating authorities, charged with responsibility for legislating on literary matters, which function as the sole legitimate arbiters with regard to questions of recognition”—one form of which are literary prizes (12, 17). This status is not neutral or apolitical. Rather, as Casanova argues, “literary capital has regularly been put to political and national uses in France” (34).

With this in mind, what can we conclude from the literary capital that has been awarded to Plague and Cholera in the form of the Prix Femina? As Asholt notes, the dates of Yersin’s birth and death, 1863 and 1943, correspond roughly to the “accelerated phase of colonization” (Asholt 171).[13] Asholt goes on to argue that Yersin’s life in Vietnam, as depicted in the novel, is a microcosm for French colonialism on a wider scale (179). I want to suggest that Deville’s attitude towards the symbolic figure of Yersin can be seen as representing the attitude of France towards colonialism. Over and over, Deville chooses to describe Yersin’s scientific work and stereotypical colonial activities over any significant description of the colonies themselves. This refusal mirrors France’s larger refusal to properly see its own history, and perpetuates the colonial center-periphery dynamic—a dynamic which, according to Casanova, is also present in literary geography. The decision to award Plague and Cholera a major literary prize finalizes not only its own “consecration,” to use Casanova’s term, but also the continued consecration of that very colonial dynamic (Casanova 127).

In 2007, after every major fall French literary prize was awarded to a writer coming from outside of France, a manifesto, published in Le Monde, announced that “the center, that point from which Franco-French literature was supposed to radiate, was no longer the center… the center, the prizes of the fall tell us, is henceforth everywhere, in the four corners of the world. End of la francophonie. And birth of a world literature in French” (“Pour une ‘littérature-monde’ en français”).[14] The quickly famous manifesto announced a rebellion against the literary “geography” of the center and the periphery described in The World Republic of Letters (Casanova 12). If this polemical text, signed by forty-four prominent writers, marked a point when it seemed that the definition of French literature was changing, a continued honoring of works like Plague & Cholera represents the traditional definitions of the center and periphery reasserting themselves, or trying to.

As we have seen, Points decided to market the book, through its original cover image, as a kind of travel narrative into a land of disease, in spite of the fact that this apparent traveler’s tale resists description of the places it claims to visit. This paradoxical representation of place and disease points to the position still occupied by formerly colonial places in contemporary French literature, allowing us to read this blurring, against the surface meaning of the text, as a metaphor for the ways in which France represents and (mis)understands its own colonial past. The striking cover ultimately captures the novel’s portrayal of the otherness of other places, pairing the alluring and exotic jungle with dangerous and frightening diseases. In the novel, Asia is more of a concept than a place, associated with stereotypes of non-European disease and European cures. Though the novel is largely set in Southeast Asia, it perpetuates French literature’s use of the region as perpetual periphery to France.

Author Bio: Eleanor Grabowski is a PhD student in the department at Columbia University. She earned her BA in French and Francophone studies and English from Carleton College. Her research interests include contemporary literature, postcolonial studies, Orientalism, and translation.

Image Source: Points Press, Peste & Choléra.


[1] The most recent edition of the novel now has a different cover, featuring a photograph of Alexandre Yersin.

[2] “La population autochtone est parfois mentionnée, mais elle n’a pas droit à la parole” (Asholt 178). All translations are my own except those of Pascale Casanova by M.B. DeBevoise and Guillaume Lachenal by Noémi Tousignant.

[3]Peste & Choléra est donc un « roman colonial », mais un roman qui intègre une critique du colonialisme avec le 2e régime d’historicité et qui ouvre un espace potentiellement postcolonial avec le 3e régime” (Asholt 179).

[4] “à Haiphong” (Deville 59).

[5] “Depuis Nha Trang, on remonte vers le nord et le ciel à mesure est plus gris, jusqu’à l’embouchure du fleuve Rouge et le port de Haiphong. Là des jonques embarquent les passagers et les mènent à Hanoi” (Deville 60).

[6] “Yersin au moment du procès est à Nha Trang ou à Hong Kong” (17).

[7] “Dans la jungle la nuit le camp au milieu du cercle des feux pour éloigner les fauves. Les chasses dans la prairie et les crises de paludisme, les fièvres glacées sous les pluies tièdes. Les palabres et l’alcool de riz partagé, les amulettes et le sang échangé des coupures sur l’avant-bras, pratique peu pasteurienne, mais Yersin transporte avec lui les produits magiques et antiseptiques des pasteuriens élaborés par Calmette à Saigon” (Deville 75).

[8] “Depuis son arrivée au port, sous une pluie torrentielle, il a vu des cadavres de pestiférés dans les rues et dans les flaques, au milieu des jardins, à bord des jonques au mouillage. Les soldats britanniques emportent d’autorité les malades et vident leurs maisons, entassent tout et brûlent, versent de la chaux et de l’acide sulfurique, élèvent des murs de brique rouge pour interdire l’accès des quartiers infestés” (96).

[9] “à Nha Trang” (101).

[10] “Il voudrait demeurer ici, Yersin, à la Pointe des Pêcheurs, devant l’eau scintillante de la baie et les bouquets d’aréquiers où s’entortille la liane de betel, les cocotiers, les enfants, les filets que les femmes reprisent sur la plage, et le soir le vol des chauves-souris, loin de la fureur des villes épileptiques, au milieu de la vraie vie” (102).

[11] “…un vaste plateau d’herbes vertes s’ouvre devant eux jusqu’à l’horizon, à plus de mille mètres d’altitude et dans le froid. Au milieu coule une rivière. La vision est helvétique… Il découvre le plateau du Lang Bian” (76-77).

[12] “Au bord du Lac, des villas normandes et biarrotes. Des chalets savoyards sur les collines. Des massifs de fleurs, agapanthes et capucines et hortensias comme à Dinard. Un chemin de fer à crémaillère grimpe vers le plateau jadis inviolé, dessert une gare qui, comme celle de Pointe-Noire au Congo, est une copie de celle de Deauville. L’Institut Pasteur gère l’hôpital. On inaugure un couvent où les nonnes chanteront mâtines et laudes, le couvent des Oiseaux, ainsi qu’un lycée pour plusieurs centaines d’élèves, auquel le vieux Yersin, découvreur du plateau, a accepté que son nom soit donné” (78).

[13] “phase accélérée de la colonisation” (Asholt 171).

[14] “…le centre, ce point depuis lequel était supposée rayonner une littérature franco-française, n’est plus le centre… le centre, nous disent les prix d’automne, est désormais partout, aux quatre coins du monde. Fin de la francophonie. Et naissance d’une littérature-monde en français” (“Pour une ‘littérature-monde’ en français”).

Works Cited:

Asholt, Wolfgang. “Peste & Choléra : un roman colonial postcolonial?” Romanische Studien, vol. 0, no. 0, 2019, pp. 169–80. Romanische Studien, http://www.romanischestudien.de/index.php/rst/article/view/426.

Casanova, Pascale. The World Republic of Letters. Translated by M.B. DeBevoise, Harvard University Press, 2004. HathiTrust, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015059322092.

Deville, Patrick. Peste & Choléra. E-Book, Éditions du Seuil, 2012.

Jennings, Eric Thomas. Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina. University of California Press, 2011. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e025xna&AN=356066&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Lachenal, Guillaume. The Lomidine Files: The Untold Story of a Medical Disaster in Colonial Africa. Translated by Noémi Tousignant, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e025xna&AN=1501174&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

McNeill, John Robert. Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. Cambridge University Press, 2010. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e025xna&AN=313287&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations, no. 26, Spring 1989, pp. 7–24. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2928520.

Norindr, Panivong. Phantasmatic Indochina: French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film, and Literature. Duke University Press, 1996. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv11cw597.

Peste & Choléra, Patrick Deville, – Points. Éditions Points, https://www.editionspoints.com/ouvrage/peste-cholera-patrick-deville/9782757836903. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.

“Pour une ‘littérature-monde’ en français.” Le Monde.fr, 15 Mar. 2007. Le Monde, https://www.lemonde.fr/livres/article/2007/03/15/des-ecrivains-plaident-pour-un-roman-en-francais-ouvert-sur-le-monde_883572_3260.html.

Snowden, Frank M. Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. Yale University Press, 2019. De Gruyter, https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.12987/9780300249149/html.

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a collection that grew out of a course on illness and francophone literature, history, and culture at Columbia University. Each essay speaks to the range of epidemics and medical encounters in France and the French empire that the course covered — from the plague outbreak in Marseille in 1720, to recent outbreaks of Ebola in West Africa, to the class’s own context of COVID-19. Offering new perspectives on these topics, the essays demonstrate how a pedagogical focus on illness can engage students in thinking about how literature might spark ethical and political reflection, and about how colonialism and race function as driving forces of history.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s