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.)
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