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!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • 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.