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The Abyssinian : A Novel Hardcover – October, 1999

3.8 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

At the heart of Jean-Christophe Rufin's marvelous first novel is a nugget of truth: in the year 1699, Louis XIV of France sent an embassy to the King of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). From this small fact Rufin has spun a mesmerizing tale of adventure, romance, and political intrigue that is one part Alexandre Dumas and two parts Rafael Sabatini, with just a dash of Brian Moore thrown in for good measure.

The hero of this epic tale is Jean-Baptiste Poncet, a young French doctor who has been practicing medicine without a license in Cairo. Poncet first comes to the notice of the authorities when the French consul in Egypt receives a secret message from a Jesuit priest commanding him in Louis's name to send a diplomatic mission to the king of Abyssinia. Foreigners--especially Christians--have not been welcome in that country since the Jesuits were expelled 50 years before, and a regular delegation would almost certainly be killed. When the consul, Monsieur de Maillet, hears that the Abyssinian monarch requires a doctor, however, he devises a plan to send Poncet both to cure and to convince the king to send a return delegation to Versailles.

Poncet has his own reasons for agreeing to go on this perilous mission: he has fallen in love with de Maillet's beautiful daughter, Alix. Unfortunately, he knows that "within the Frankish colony in Cairo, he was nothing more--whatever pains he took to hide his ancestry--than the son of a servant girl and an unknown man." The only hope he has of gaining the consul's blessing is to win Louis XIV's favor; bringing an Abyssinian embassy to Versailles might just do the trick. Poncet starts out for self-serving reasons; upon meeting King Negus, however, he comes to admire him, and soon finds himself jeopardizing his own future in order to thwart the political intrigues of his countrymen.

Rufin tells this larger-than-life tale with wit, sophistication, and a wholehearted enjoyment that shines through every sentence of this beautifully translated novel. Jean-Baptiste Poncet, a young man who "had been offered every opportunity for sadness and despair, yet ... had decided long ago that he would never succumb to such feelings," is a hero with heart, intelligence, and charm, and the book's many secondary characters are equally well developed. All in all, The Abyssinian marks a delightful literary debut. --Alix Wilber

From Publishers 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 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (October 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393047164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393047165
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,645,744 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Windus on December 3, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I feel compelled to review this book in order to inspire others to read it. The book provides a rich and rewarding reading experience. Loaded with history. Loaded with adventure. Loaded with romance. "The Abyssinian" is brilliant adventure. For educated readers who often feel cheated by the cheap thrills so common to popular fiction, this book is a godsend. Every page teaches and awes and thrills. Of course there are limits inherent to the adventure genre, but this novel so often transcends the genre with its barrage of detail, research, well written descriptions, and well drawn characters that it is first and foremost an intelligent work of literature. Lucky for the reader, it is so darn much fun to read!
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According to the dust jacket, THE ABYSSINIAN by Jean-Christophe Rufin is a first novel. If so, I hope Rufin writes many more books because THE ABYSSINIAN is one of the best works of fiction I've read in a while. Rufin is a French physician who has spent many years working with Doctor's Without Borders. His writing reflects his medical background as well as his love of and regard for his fellow human beings.
Rufin is both romantic and a realist. A major thread in the plot of THE ABYSSINIAN involves a romance between his protagonist Jean-Baptiste Poncet, unlicensed lower-class medical practicioner living in Cairo, and Alix Maillet, the beautiful upper-class daughter of the French Ambassador to Egypt. Rufin's story is made real by his deft interweaving of actual historical events and evocative fictional episodes he has crafted from his obvious knowledge of the era and it's political machinations.
The basis of the book is an event that occurred in 1699 when Louis XIV sent an embassy of ministers, Jesuits, and a physician to the Negus or King of Abyssinian. The Negus was sick and admitted the strangers only because they accompanied the physician whom he hoped would provide a cure for his malady. In the 17th Century, Abyssinia was a mysterious Coptic Christian country closed to outsiders for centuries. The nation-states of Europe and the Muslim countries of the near east struggled for control of Abyssinia which lay in North Africa southeast of Egypt. A desire for economic gain through trade lay behind the French King's offer of a physician to the Negus.
But other factors were at play. In the 17th Century, conflict continued between various Roman Catholic orders, between Catholics and Protestants, and between Christians and Muslims, all of whom sought relgious dominance.
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I have read this book in French and can say that it is well worth reading whether in French or English or any other language. It has a texture and magnificence that one rarely encounters. Parts of it evoke The Sheltering Sky, Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient. Its structure twists and turns unexpectedly but ultimately gratifies resoundingly when the last page is turned.
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The adventure and exotic locale of the story were wonderful. However, given that the story is placed in a historical context, it would have helped this American reader if there had been an afterward with a brief overview of the real history. I finished the story wondering what was *really* going on at the time.
But that's a quibble. The multiple journeys, and the descriptions of what was seen and encountered were riveting. Very much worth your time.
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The Abyssinian is a mesmerizing adventure chocked full of romance and political intrigue set in exotic locales--that doesn't take itself too seriously. Opening in Cairo during the reign of Louis IV, the protagonist of The Abyssinian is Jean-Baptiste Poncet, a young French herbalist/doctor practicing in Cairo. The action really begins when Louis commands the French consul in Egypt to send a delegation to the King of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Knowing any foreigner, and especially a Christian, would be less than welcome in Abyssinia, leaves the consul, Monsieur de Maillet, in a quandry. What to do? When he hears the Abyssinian king is in need of medical care, Maillet decides to send Poncet, not only to cure the King, but also to convince him to send a delegation to Versailles. Poncet, who has fallen hopelessly in love with Maillet's daughter, Alix, agrees immediately, danger notwithstanding. As the "son of a servant girl and an unknown man," he knows his only chance with Alix is to bring an Abyssinian delegation to Versailles. Poncet's adventures make for fascinating reading as he travels from Cairo to Abyssinia to Versailles. Rufin's prose is, at all times, smooth, pure and elegant and the translation is superb. The characters are fully-developed and extremely likable. And the fact that The Abyssinian doesn't take itself too seriously only adds to the overall charm. The only book I can compare it to is Andrew Miller's Casanova in Love. Both books are equally well-written, but where the love interest in Casanova in Love is extremely weak and deserving of no one's love except her mother's, Alix is both charming and engaging. Extremely well-written on all counts, I found this book to be a pure delight.
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