The four men accompanying Maud, a young French idealist, on an aid convoy to Bosnia are very different from the clichéd image of the humanitarian volunteer. One by one, they reveal the secret wounds that have brought them to this conflict zone and, mile by mile, the true nature of their cargo . . .Prize-winning author, Jean-Christophe Rufin offers up a powerful psychological literary thriller that asks vital questions about the role of humanitarian action in today’s world, bringing to light the most fundamental dilemmas of our age. As a new kind of violence insinuates its way into the heart of Europe, this novel asks whether it is more effective to take up arms against the enemy or attempt to counter violence with benevolent acts and enlightenment ideals.
“An enthralling, cleverly told novel.”Elle (France)
“This taut thriller is distinguished by its literary polish and moral heft.”Publishers Weekly
“This mix of well-crafted characters, psychological suspense, and the harsh realities of life in wartime results in a nail-biting, challenging literary thriller.”Kirkus Reviews
“As a philosophical novel, Checkpoint is very engaging. . . . Gun battles, explosions, and fights all appear after the first one hundred pages. . . . Checkpoint is about the nature of modern warfare and the various definitions of humanitarianism.”New York Journal of Books
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Jean-Christophe Rufin is one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders and a former Ambassador of France in Senegal. He has written numerous bestsellers, including The Abyssinian , for which he won the Goncourt Prize for a debut novel in 1997. He also won the Goncourt Prize in 2001 for Brazil Red.
Read an Excerpt
This was the time in the truck that Maud liked best. The autumn evening was gently coming on; the cool air did not yet oblige them to roll up the windows. The Bakelite steering wheel was so wide you had to spread your arms to turn it. It transmitted the vibrations from the engine, and when she drove uphill Maud felt as if she were clinging to the neck of an enormous beast.
They had left Lyon ten days earlier. One day had followed another, each one much like the next, despite the variation in the landscapes. After the Mont Blanc tunnel they had driven through the Aosta Valley, then followed the plain of the Po down in its entire length. The late autumn gave a certain luminosity to everything far in the distance and emphasized the little black arrows of cypress trees against a deep blue sky. After Trieste the landscape became more mountainous, the colors drab. When they reached Croatia, Maud hoped they would stop in Zagreb. Before leaving, she had read a guidebook from the 1960s that her parents had bought when they went to Dalmatia on their honeymoon. She wanted to see Saint Mark's Square and the medieval buildings. But they drove around the outside of the city without going into the center and she kept her disappointment to herself. In Italy, Lionel had put her abruptly in her place when she asked to stop off in Bergamo. "We're aid workers, not tourists." He was in charge of the mission and he never missed an opportunity to remind her of the fact. The humanitarian organization in Lyon, La Tête d'Or (which got its name from the park nearby), had put him in charge of the convoy. And there, in Bosnia, the war was waiting for them.
Maud took her turn driving just like the boys. They had stopped joking about her driving already long before. It had been enough for Lionel to scrape the corner of a house in Italy and make a yard-long tear in the tarp for the men to stop talking tough. Maud might drive more slowly, but she was steady and cautious. The fifteen-ton truck did not risk a thing when she was behind the wheel, and the others knew this.
On the bunk behind her Vauthier was asleep. From time to time he gave a snort. The others all used their first names but he preferred to go by his last name. He even referred to himself as "fat Vauthier," no doubt to dispose them favorably to him. He wasn't really fat, and you could see more muscle than flab emerging from his grimy T-shirt. But he had a large square head, framed by ginger sideburns, and a flat nose, which gave him a countrified look that clashed with Maud and Lionel's student allure. He had introduced himself as a Parisian courier, convalescing after a traffic accident. They didn't really believe what he told them. But one thing was sure: he was much older than the others. Lionel thought he must be forty, and Maud, all of twenty-one, thought he was really old.
Lionel was rolling a cigarette in the front seat, not speaking. The cab smelled of fuel and dirty motor oil. Maud considered herself lucky all the same, because she was driving the lead truck and at least they didn't have to inhale the blue exhaust from their other vehicle. They were both secondhand trucks, roughly the same model, which La Tête d'Or had bought on the cheap. They were nearing the end of their useful life, worn out by generations of delivery drivers who had not treated them kindly.
"We're coming to the Serbian zone," said Lionel, handing her the cigarette he had just lit.
Maud took a quick draw on it then handed it back.
"Did you put something in it?" she asked, making a face.
Tall and thin, Lionel had a long and slightly crooked nose, and a pale, angular face. It was the sort of face that reminded you of many others, and a witness would find it difficult to give any precise description if called on to provide an Identikit. He must have known as much, and he tried to distinguish himself by wearing a silver loop in his right eyebrow. He and Maud had worked together in Lyon for three months. He had always treated her somewhat condescendingly, because he had more experience, and she was only a recent recruit. He was never very talkative, and when he did talk it was to bark an order. Those who were in the group knew he smoked joints from morning to night. It was not exactly that they minded, but no one smoked as much weed as he did. He was the group's dealer, and he kept his baggies of weed in a round box labeled "condensed milk."
The hilly countryside was increasingly poor as they drew near the Krajina. They went through deserted villages, strings of brick or breeze-block houses along the road. Piles of manure and rusty farm machinery filled the farmyards. From time to time, in the midst of the farms, a white church with a pointed steeple gave a hamlet a passing resemblance to an Austrian village, although drearier. They had not seen any traces of fighting yet, other than the struggle mankind has always waged against nature for survival. And yet they had known since the previous day that they were getting closer to the war zone.
"Shouldn't we be seeing checkpoints soon?" asked Maud, never taking her eyes from the road.
"Yes, it shouldn't be long now."
Up to now they had crossed borders — in other words, the official limits between states. Checkpoints were something else: unpredictable and shifting separations between ethnic zones that were under the authority of small local warlords. Those among them who had already been to Bosnia talked about them every evening. They didn't use the French term, "point de contrôle," which might have made the thing seem almost normal. The stateless word in English, "checkpoint," used by everyone in the field, was a more apt representation of the improvised, disorderly, unpredictable, and dangerous aspect of these roadblocks. Maud was fairly eager to see what they were like.
The truck was struggling up the switchback road. It was six o'clock in the evening and the shadows were getting longer. It was time to find a place to spend the night. As she was coming out of a long bend, she heard a horn behind her. She looked in her big square rearview mirror, holding it to stop the vibration. An arm was waving from the door of the other vehicle, pointing left toward a big sandy entrance to a large deserted lot. It was plowed with ruts and must have been used as a construction site. An old pile of gravel in one corner had been invaded by wild plants. Maud braked, turned into the lot, and pulled over to the edge. The grass around the parking area was white with dust. Lionel got out to inspect the place.
In the cab, Maud leaned her head back to relax her neck muscles, strained from driving. Because the driver's seat would not go any farther forward, she'd had to put a big cushion behind her back in order to reach the pedals. She had stopped growing at the age of thirteen. Even though she was twenty-one now, she had never become reconciled to the fact that she wasn't taller. Little women are the object of ridiculous solicitude on the part of men, and she hated being treated like a bibelot.
"Okay," said Lionel when he came back, "we'll spend the night here."
Maud turned off the ignition. After several more intense shakes, the vibrations suddenly stopped. She relaxed. For her this was always a moment of complete contentment, an almost physical delight. The return of silence, while her body was still throbbing from the juddering of the diesel, was a true rebirth. The surrounding world was no longer a landscape but a place, with faint sounds and birdsong coming in the open window. The mass of metal cracked and let go, like a horse given free rein at last. It seemed to her she had desired nothing else when she chose this strange life her family failed to understand.
She opened the door and got out. This was the second moment of delight in the evening: stepping onto solid ground, the blood flowing in her legs again as she walked about, the subtle smells of nature as soon as she got away from the engine that stank of fuel. She took off her glasses and wiped them slowly with a corner of her fleece jacket. They were big, tinted glasses with thick frames that covered half her face. She had chosen them on purpose to hide her blue eyes, which had always earned her as many jealous remarks as compliments.
Over the final kilometers the road had climbed considerably and below them lay the plain, covered in thickets, which they had crossed. Around the parking area the grassy moor was scattered with huge white rocks. There were numerous flat spaces where they could pitch their tents.
Vauthier had woken up with a growl, and now he got out in turn, wiping his hand over his bald head. He always looked as if he were in a bad mood, probably because of his thin lips and drooping eyelids. But his little black eyes were in constant movement, searching everywhere, and they were all wary of him. Because it wasn't only his gaze that was searching. He couldn't help nosing around, eavesdropping on conversations, and whenever they stopped in a town he would disappear, then come back with a summary of all the little secrets in the place. The others were convinced he was going through their belongings, too.
Alex and Marc, the drivers in the second truck, came over slowly, stretching.
It was always an awkward moment when the two teams met up again. Right from the start of the trip, a heavy, hostile atmosphere had reigned in the group. It was a gross understatement to say that the five members of the convoy did not get along. Things did not improve with the passing miles. Clans of convenience were formed. In the lead truck, because they knew one another, Maud and Lionel made one team; Alex and Marc, the two drivers in the other truck, were another. Vauthier did not hide his dislike for them. Every evening their reunion was tense.
"We'll be fine here," said Alex, looking at the area just beyond the parking lot.
Marc was inspecting their surroundings with a wary gaze.
Both of them were former soldiers. They were roughly the same age, no older than thirty, but they were very different. Alex was mixed race, with big, rather slanting eyes and a small nose. No one had asked him where he had gotten his copper skin and frizzy hair. Maud thought he was handsome, but she didn't want him to know. Marc, too, was sporty, but taller than Alex and with a massive build, broad-shouldered with a muscular chest and square jaw. His skin was olive, his hair very dark. He always seemed to be on the lookout, but he affected a calm, virile manner, and this had made Maud feel instantly uncomfortable. Alex had the lively elasticity of a tennis player, whereas you could picture Marc taking part in activities that called for strength, like rugby or boxing. But they shared a deliberate mannerism in their way of walking, of standing very straight and keeping their heads high. No matter how they tried to adopt the casual NGO style, wearing baggy jeans and faded T-shirts, they looked out of place. Military discipline had shaped them on a deeper level. You could still see the soldiers inside them.
The evening ritual had been the same since departure. The camping stove had to come out of the truck Maud was driving, and pots and pans out of the other truck. They had stocked up on canned food in Lyon, and it was stored in crates. They bought fresh produce along the way when they could find it. Since leaving Italy they hadn't found much other than eggs and milk, which the peasants poured out of big metal containers. Not far from Zagreb they had found fresh cheese; it was bitter, but Maud preferred it to canned cassoulet.
Every evening Vauthier would light the camping stove or build a fire, something he seemed to like to do. They took turns with the cooking chores. From the start they had understood it was pointless trying to leave these chores to the only girl in the group. Lionel had tried to joke about it, pointing out to Maud that it wasn't very charitable of her to let four men struggle with saucepans, but she had bluntly put him in his place. In reprisal, when she had difficulty putting up the tents, on the days when it was her turn, he made no attempt to stifle his sniggering.
This was not the first time Maud had had to deal with this sort of behavior. She had an older brother who had not spared her his sarcasm. She hated such stupid remarks, but over time she had come to anticipate them, as a kind of stimulus. The rage they inspired was a driving force. Very early on she had decided to show her defiance. Her truck driver's license had been her first major victory in this respect.
Once dinner was ready, there was a moment of peace that made her forget the tension. The five members of the convoy sat on the ground around the fire. Vauthier always stayed slightly off to one side. Lionel passed a joint. Maud and Alex took a few puffs. Marc never touched it. Vauthier drank. Already during their first stopovers he had finished off the bottles of wine they had packed. Since reaching the Balkans he'd started on beer. It was the easiest thing to find. Every village had a supply.
"Tomorrow morning," announced Lionel, stretched out by the fire and leaning on his elbows, "we'll come to the first checkpoint."
Vauthier had asked the question with an innocent expression on his face. But he was fiddling with the little gold ring in his right ear, and Maud had noticed this meant he was concentrating.
"No," answered Lionel, "Krajina Serbs."
"Paramilitaries, more like."
"Logically, there should be Croats first," insisted Vauthier. "If we come on Serbs, it means we're not on the main road, the one through Tuzla, right?"
Lionel didn't really like going into details about the route. He kept the road maps to himself, in his truck, and issued instructions one day at a time, as if he wanted to avoid any discussion about the matter.
"That's right," he conceded grudgingly. "We'll head off to the right, through the south of the Krajina."
"What do you mean by the Krajina, actually?" asked Maud.
Lionel felt more comfortable with general questions. This was an opportunity for him to show off his knowledge and act the leader.
"It means edge, border. It's the strip of territory that runs along the border to the west of Bosnia. It's sparsely inhabited. The Serbs have thrown the Croats out of the region and they're in control. But you'll see, they're peasants, with pitchforks and old guns. Nothing like what we'll see farther on."
Lionel had been active in the NGO for three years. He had been on a mission to the Central African Republic, and on a first convoy to Bosnia six months earlier. In between he had worked at the association's headquarters in Lyon. His experience gave him a certain self-assurance when he spoke, even though he was only twenty-four years old.
"Their checkpoints are fairly laid-back. It will be good practice for later."
Vauthier took a long swig of beer from the bottle and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Visibly he had other questions he wanted to ask. But Lionel did not leave him any time to interrupt.
"Let me remind you how we have to behave, in case we get checked along the way," he said.
He'd almost finished his joint. Before continuing his presentation, he took a long drag on the damp butt, which was turning his fingers yellow.
"All you have to say, if they ask, is that we are going to Kakanj, in central Bosnia. We have a permit from UNPROFOR to deliver aid to refugees. Our cargo? Food supplies, winter clothes, and medication. And even if they ask for one: no bribes. Is that clear?"
He was trying to sound like a leader. But the two former soldiers could tell the difference. They'd had experience of true orders. Lionel's curt tone did little to hide a certain lack of confidence.
"And what if they want to search the trucks?" asked Maud.
"We refuse!" said Alex.
Lionel shrugged, and Alex noticed. This only increased his impatience.
"What? You don't agree?"
"Of course not. If they want to search, they will search. How could we stop them?" said Lionel, looking at the sky.
A crescent moon had risen, and wispy clouds drifted over it, driven by high-altitude winds.
"I know these guys," snapped Alex. "They're loudmouths. But if we stand firm, I tell you, they won't touch the trucks."
He and Marc had served for six months as peacekeepers in Bosnia the previous year. Marc was always gloomy and taciturn. Alex, on the other hand, clearly liked to talk about his experience. Maud found him pleasant, as well as attractive. He was sociable, and you could tell he liked to talk. But as soon as he opened his mouth Lionel would look up at him from under his brows, scowling.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Checkpoint"
Copyright © 2015 Editions Gallimard, Paris.
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