In The Abyssinian, the winner of France's prestigious Prix Goncourt for best first novel and the Prix Mediterranée, Jean-Christophe Rufin, sets out to answer a curious riddle in the annals of imperialism: How was Ethiopia -- or Abyssinia, as it was called until modern times -- able to resist Catholic Europe's smothering embrace? The nation, which converted to Christianity in the fourth century, managed to maintain its own brand of the religion and, despite numerous diplomatic missions and the efforts of itinerant monks -- Capuchins and Jesuits among the most determined -- it preserved its independence until the middle of the 19th century.
To explain this mystery, Rufin, a doctor who has worked with the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières for more than 20 years, introduces a sort of fictional alter ego -- a good-natured physician with a gift for language. The year is 1699, and 28-year-old Jean-Baptiste Poncet is the most successful apothecary in Cairo when he is recruited by the French consul to serve as a diplomatic envoy for King Louis XIV. As a doctor, Poncet will be able to penetrate the xenophobic court of the ailing Abyssinian negus and deliver the Sun King's secret message: an offer to become France's political and religious ally.
Poncet accepts the mission, more out of his indefatigable sense of adventure than out of any loyalty to the Crown. A true egalitarian, Poncet attaches little importance to station or rank but is encouraged by the possibility that the trip would elevate him in the eyes of the consul, allowing him to marry the consul's strong-willed, beautiful daughter, Alix. Poncet undertakes the perilous journey through the blazing African desert and, reaching the Abyssinian capital, successfully infiltrates the negus's inner court. After winning the negus's confidence and treating his skin condition, Poncet secures from the ruler a favorable response to the French proposal, with the attached stipulations that the nations treat each other as equals, that no attempts to convert Abyssinia are initiated, and that Poncet himself serve as ambassador.
The reader cannot help but root for Poncet; he is free-spirited, preternaturally charming, and a virtuosic physician. If you had to get sick in the early 18th century, Cairo would have been the place to do so. Rufin presents the developing medical profession as one poised between two worlds, combining vestiges of alchemy with a modern devotion to rigorous scientific examination. In its fusion of fact and fantasy, a similar description holds true for The Abyssinian. The novel exudes the magic of a fairy tale or a chivalric romance, preserving a dreamlike atmosphere in which good (those struggling against European hegemony) always triumphs over evil (civilized, pompous Europeans). On the other hand, the novel demonstrates the sweep and scientific attention to detail of a historical novel, exulting in the lineage of Oriental rulers, in the names of medicinal herbs, and in the dizzying geography of the African desert.
As a historical novel, The Abyssinian coruscates with intrigue and political machinations, but like a fairy tale, it does not actively court suspense. True, Poncet's mission is complicated when he is branded an impostor at Versailles and when, upon hearing of Poncet's return, Jesuits and Capuchins plan their own missions to Abyssinia. And yes, things seem especially dire when the consul selects his own ambassador, a rakish nobleman, whom he wishes to marry off to his daughter. But just as we know the princess will eventually be saved from the tower, we know that Abyssinia's independence will emerge unscathed, and the forces of freedom will live happily ever after (or at least until the next century, when European colonizers will overrun the country). As if to remind us of the inevitability of their triumph, Rufin presents us with a desert landscape -- intractable, unbounded, full of both danger and beauty -- that seems to be freedom's topographical embodiment. Commanding respect and defying all efforts to control it, the desert confirms the need -- paramount in the novel -- to realize one's true character. It unites the novel's heroes -- Poncet, French Huguenots, the Abyssinian negus, Alix -- and frustrates the novel's villains.
So with the beacon of freedom as his polestar, Rufin steers the novel to its conclusion. The three missions are foiled (marauding desert bands serve as a convenient deus ex machina), and Poncet gets the girl. Some of the concluding love scenes are a bit mushy (how can they not be when the couple kisses as the sun sets on the glowing dunes?), but they probably sound better in French. Rufin ends the novel with a succinct epilogue, allowing Alix and Poncet to face the limitless expanse of a simple life spent together. They disappear from our view, like travelers on a horizon, because "not much is ever known about those who are happy. They live, and their happiness takes the place of history."
How the reader reacts to Rufin's tale will depend largely on his ability to suspend disbelief and to accept the wealth of detail bestowed on him: the foul breath of the Sun King, the shabbiness of Cairo's backstreets, the pungent spice markets of the Abyssinian capital. Perhaps the best way to approach the novel is as a desert traveler would an oasis mirage: Even if he recognizes its insubstantiality, he still lunges toward it gladly, because -- and perhaps only momentarily -- it gratifies his senses. No mere mirage, The Abyssinian does the same.
Comment dirais-je? Ces imbeciles! To translate more gently, what possessed the French to award the Prix Goncourt to this amateurish historical novel? If I were Andre Makine, Patrick Chamoiseau, Michel Tournier or Marguerite Duras, all previous winners, I'd be embarrassed to keep company with Jean-Christophe Rufin. The Abyssinian is a first novel that should have been exiled to a remote file cabinet for crimes against style, wit and character development.
It is May 1699 and the Sun King, through his minister Pontchartrain, would have the French consul in Cairo send a formal delegation to Abyssinia. Fifty years earlier, its king, though a Christian convert, had expelled the French Jesuits and sealed off the country to foreigners. It's time for a new attempt to put out feelers to a kingdom that might be brought into the Catholic fold as an ally against the Turks. And there's an opening: The Abyssinian king suffers from a mysterious illness and has asked for a foreign doctor.
The consul, M. de Maillet, quickly concludes it would be impossible for him to interrupt his daily regime of busy-work. Why not send Jean-Baptiste Poncet, the French apothecary and herbalist who has established a solid reputation in Cairo as a skilled healer? He's young and strong and meets the Abyssinian condition that he not be allied with any religious party.
The action stops for Poncet's portrait, taken from stock footage: powerful build, sensitive hands, a bold, intelligent gaze, a mass of dark curls. He agrees to the voyage only because he has spied de Maillet's daughter, Alix, and fallen in love with her smooth skin, her fresh gaze, her long blond hair. He decides to cure the king, bring back a message from him, deliver it personally to Versailles and ask for the ambassadorship to Abyssinia as his reward -- a record of triumphs that would put him in a good position to ask for Alix's hand.
Rufin's idea of a metaphor is to go flailing in its general direction. To describe Alix's budding charms, he tells us "that beauty came over her, the way a rash spreads over a person's face at the onset of fever." Poncet, trying to outwit Capuchin spies en route, makes a quick decision: "The answers were coming to Poncet even as he spoke them, as to a candidate at an oral review who is too nervous to think but still hears himself give the correct response." Somehow, I think not.
Rufin even has trouble remembering what his one-dimensional characters are supposed to be like. The foppish and clueless de Maillet turns into a Machiavellian diplomat halfway through. His shy daughter, so pure in her passion for Poncet that she won't go beyond kisses, suddenly becomes a sly vixen who gets herself deflowered by a notorious rake. Next, she's riding, shooting, even killing a man with nary a qualm. As for our handsome, level-headed hero, he turns into an impetuous booby once he gets to Paris and makes himself the laughingstock of the court.
The plot has possibilities, all of which the author muffs. Any time there's a whiff of tension, Rufin runs away from it. Dangerous turning points are typically described after their successful resolution. There's no pacing. As we run along with Poncet through escape tunnels, for example, we are spared no door's opening or closing, none of our hero's previous thoughts (now corrected) about where each door might lead. The dialogue shambles along, hemming and hawing. With fate in the balance, we are spared no details of how each room looks and how the people in it sit. And once inside, instead of getting to the point, Rufin will first have his characters be "greeted by a middle-aged woman, tall and wearing …" -- then informed at great and monotonous length of all sorts of horrible possibilities awaiting them.
There wasn't much the translator could do about the infelicities of the original French, but Willard Wood apparently became so dispirited that he added new problems to the old. Does a decrepit old marquise really "soar" away to the veranda? Maillet's secretary is twice referred to as a "language child." Is that a grammarian, a linguist, a pedant or all of the above?
In fairness to M. Rufin, there are five or six witty sentences and a number of nice set pieces of nature description. A Jesuit father has "the delighted look of a man who is preparing to plunge into sin, the better to do battle with it." I wish the author had taken a deep imaginative plunge, instead of splashing ineffectually in the shallows.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
French physician Rufin's extensively researched historical novel, winner of both the Prix Mediterran e and the Prix Goncourt, is a sprawling romance set in the Ottoman east during the time of Louis XIV. Religious rivalries dictate politics in 17th-century Cairo, where the Europeans live in uneasy alliance with the Muslims under Turkish authority. On orders from the Sun King, Monsieur de Maillet, the French consul in Cairo and an exile of the minor nobility, must come up with a scheme to open an embassy in Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), a richly endowed country penetrated by the Jesuits 50 years before, though now hostile to Christian powers. A doctor must be sent on the mission, to ingratiate himself with the ailing negus of Abyssinia, and an adventurous young Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Poncet, is found for the job. Poncet is an opportunist: registered as an apothecary, he holds no diploma in that profession or in medicine, which he also practices illegally. With one glance at the blushing, beribboned daughter of the consul, Alix de Maillet, the talented though lowborn free spirit Poncet agrees to undertake the mission in order to return with a knighthood and win Alix's hand. Rufin's prose attains a lively clip when describing the mood and byzantine politics of the era, showcasing the author's mastery of period and place. While Rufin relies too much on standard character types, from the sour, conniving father to the brash young inamorato to the innocent maiden and trusty, gruff sidekick, he surmounts their conventionality with skillful plot twists and well-maintained suspense. Readers will undoubtedly enjoy the exoticism of the setting and the historical detail, all rendered in a proficient translation. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In 18th-century Cairo, the French consul is ordered to make contact with far-off Abyssinia. The mission falls to a young French doctor who is in love with the consul's daughter. Gravely and gracefully written, with good characterization and a strong sense of time and place, this Prix Goncourt winner looks seriously at cultural differences and the way some people rise above them. But it's fun, too. (LJ 7/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
What People are saying about this
From the Author of Blue at the Mizzen and other Aubrey/Maturin adventures
Here is a fine rare new talent, an author who writes in a French of classical purity without the least affectation--a French that translates naturally and faithfully into its elegant English equivalent. An author, furthermore, who is perfectly at home in his most particular world: the Cairo of the late seventeenth century, still under Turkish rule, a Muslim city in which white, whitish, or jet-black Christians were not much esteemed.