Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Abyssinian

The Abyssinian by Jean-Christophe Rufin.  Trans from French by Willard Wood.

Big, plot-driven, historical novel, set in Cairo, Versailles and Abyssinia around 1699, during the reign of Louis XIV.  Follows the adventures of Jean-Baptiste Poncet, an accomplished French apothecary and wanderer who has found a refuge in Cairo, and falls in love with Alix, the French Consul's daughter.  

The plot is all political intrigue, quests and adventures, with the romance running as a thin thread of motivation through it.  The period details seem very convincingly authentic and thoroughly researched.  The plot moves quickly, much of the writing is enjoyable, and one need not dwell too much on psychological detail.  The best part is the middle section, where the apothecary travels to Abyssinia.  Towards the end I got tired of the endless machinations and thought the last third of the novel could have been pruned heavily; at ~450 pages its a longish read.  The details of the ending are not predictable but the essence is.

Reminds me of the adventure novels I enjoyed when young.  A lot of "Beau Geste" and H. Rider Haggard ("King Solomon's Mines").  A white, low-born adventurer who is despised by polite society but is fiercely independent, and subscribes to a very modern code of integrity, embarks on a dangerous quest in hostile, foreign lands, and eventually wins by his wits, courage and drive.  He has a trusty, loyal, idiosyncratic companion who serves as an earthy, moral touch-stone and also occasionally provides comic relief.  The natives are lazy, corrupt, conniving buffoons, or some combination thereof -- with the sole exception of the Supreme Native (in this case, the King of Abyssinia), who turns out to be remarkably intelligent, humane, wise and perceptive, and in fact the only native who can be seen as worthy of the hero's respect.  The white courtiers and political elites are also corrupt and conniving, and in some cases buffoons, but still are described with some (minimal) depth.  The country is an exotic backdrop, its seasons and colors and smells described in excellent detail but ultimately seen through a tourist's eyes.  In all this it starts to resemble a British Raj novel -- and this French Raj evocation may explain why the book won the Prix Goncourt and other French prizes.  (In fact the cover of the book gives a hint of this).

The romance is the ickiest part of the novel.  The descriptions of Poncet's and Alix's (mostly clandestine) meetings read as if they were taken straight from a Harlequin romance: the lovers gaze into each other's eyes, feel gusts of swooning ecstasy as they linger over treasured kisses etc etc ad nauseum.  I wonder if this was thrown in to make the book more appealing to a female audience.  Alix matures from being an innocent wallflower literally trapped in the Consul's walled garden to a pistol-packing adventurer herself, although her adventuring is solely to escape to her beloved. I wonder if that was thrown in to assuage any guilt the female audience may have for enjoying the Harlequin romance. 

What is interesting is that given all this background, the author is actually a very admirable personage: one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders (which I respect immensely) and also himself a doctor who has led missions in Africa.  He was commissioned by the French government to write what became an important report onthe origins and dangers of racism and anti-Semitism in French society.  Yet the novel bears all the hallmarks of Orientalism and easy generalizations, while I would have expected a more nuanced, insightful, and truly modern treatment. 

In short, somewhat enjoyable, rather shallow, marginally racist and sexist (although unwittingly so).   

Dec 2010