Rivalry In the Time Of Cholera

Historical Fiction

By Holly Lebowitz Rossi

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

An Imperfect Lens

By Anne Roiphe

Shaye Areheart Books,

304 pages, $25.

* * *

Disease, horrifying as it can be in real life, usually makes for a good read — gripping, intense, fearful and always entertaining. Veteran novelist Anne Roiphe’s latest book, “An Imperfect Lens,” is a riveting work of historical fiction, taking the reader back to Alexandria, Egypt, in the 1880s, in the midst of a cholera outbreak. Though set in a different time and age, Roiphe’s exploration of how society responds to a public health crisis still feels “ripped from the headlines,” perfectly timed for today’s anxieties about bird flu and bioterrorism.

The story follows a team of French scientists, dispatched by the famous Louis Pasteur, as they arrive on the scene to try to discover the cause of — and thus the cure for — cholera. In something of a duel, though, a famous German microbiologist, Dr. Robert Koch, is also in town with the same purpose. And so, a nationalistic contest for scientific glory ensues; if that’s not enough, Roiphe adds a compelling love story to complete her fictional picture.

The novel begins at a slow pace, but the slowness functions as an effective form of suspense, as we see the scientists hit dead end after dead end in the lab, but drive on with their research in the careful and deliberate manner of science — all while the disease continues its rampage of Alexandria. Roiphe describes vividly choleric death after death, in excruciating and very painful detail. But she also zooms out, sometimes several levels, from the sick person and the helpless onlookers who witness cholera deaths to the diabolical movement through the city of the cholera microbe, which survives unobserved in water until it can latch on to an unsuspecting human host.

Still, if readers choose this book simply to garner insight on the topic of uncontrollable epidemics, they’ll miss Roiphe’s far more complex story. Cholera is not the only villain of “An Imperfect Lens.” There is the rivalry between the French and the German scientists and, even more shadowy, the antisemitism of the British soldiers who occupied Alexandria at the time — and who, in Roiphe’s story, target the Jewish Dr. Abraham Malina and his family. Malina’s daughter, Este, is fascinated by the methodical curiosity of the scientists’ work — and eventually develops romantic feelings for one of the scientists.

The greatest strength of Roiphe’s storytelling is that it manages to meticulously weave together the main narrative of the novel — about the ravages of a cholera epidemic and the frantic search for a cure — with the inescapable feeling that Jews lived in a world that was entirely unsafe for them. Both are omnipresent dangers — and both have those who would deny their urgency, as well as those who are hyper-aware of their menaces. By conflating the two, Roiphe turns the screws slowly and deliberately; by the end of the novel, cholera’s power as a metaphor for something larger becomes frighteningly clear. The disease was an unwelcome guest in Egypt in the 1880s, as were Jews. There were those who saw Jews as invaders of decent society, conspirators to undermine the mainstream. Some of these people went to great lengths to rid themselves of the Jewish presence, even as the scientists dissected and examined, trying to rid themselves of the infecting cholera. Through the lenses of religion, politics, love and science, imperfect as each may be, Roiphe leaves us heartbroken and relieved, curious and afraid — and thoroughly entertained.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Mass.






Find us on Facebook!
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.