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From Barnes & NobleIn 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.