A scintillating tale of derring-do set in France’s distant colonial past, written by, wait for it…a Frenchman. It’s the kind of swashbuckling entertainment that would send an existentialist like Sartre spinning in his grave.
A contemporary French novel minusthe angst then; “Brazil Red” – published last month by W.W. Norton in an English translation -has made quite a name for its author Jean-Christophe Rufin, especially among his patients. Rufin is, or at least was, a globe-trotting doctor for what is now the world’s largest private humanitarian relief organization: Doctors Without Borders. “Was”because in 2001 “Brazil Red” (his fourth novel) sprung from nowhere to claim France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.
It also sold some 750 000 copies into the bargain and persuaded Rufin to lay down his scalpel once and for all. Set midway through the 16th Century,”Brazil Red” is a window with a stunning view onto a little known episode of the renaissance: France’s ill fated conquest of Brazil. Rufin’s story is told through the eyes of two orphans Colombe and Just, a brother and sister, who are hoodwinked by their wicked aunt into joining an expedition for Brazil.
It works so well because Rufin has taken the care to ground his story in historical precedent. Children it appears really were sent by the French to Brazil and other countries to act as interpreters, the thinking being that their youth would enable them to learn a native language much faster and more effectively than any adult.
Talking on the telephone recently Rufin passionately defended the French adventure novel, a literarygenre that until very recently had all but fallen by the wayside. “It’s interesting that Anglo-Saxon writers, a lot of them Americans, are not ashamed to champion Dumas, or other classical writers. In France not long ago this kind of literature was considered ‘popular’ literature in the bad sense of the word. I’ve never thought this, the opposite in fact… I’m proud to acknowledge that writers like Dumas and Hugo are models for me. I would like to be seen as continuing that tradition.”
Starting with his first novel, 1997’s “The Abyssinian” – about the adventures of an apothecary sent by King Louis XIV to Ethiopia as France’s ambassador -Rufin has succeeded in carving out a niche all his own. “I’m interested in recounting episodes of history about which not much is known, filling in the gaps, lighting the shadows and above all charting the moment when two different civilizationscollide. Writing an historical novel about Marie-Antoinette or Charles V doesn’t really interest me. I prefer to write my stories on the margins of history.”
As is the case with “Brazil Red,” “The Abyssinian” and its sequel “The Siege of Isfahan” have both been translated into English as well as several other languages. Like his literary heroes – Dumas and Hugo, Rufin remains an unabashed populist who enjoys the idea of his novels being read by as many people as possible. It is one of the reasons why after writing several non-fiction books, one of which 1994’s “La Dictature Liberale” was an iconoclastic look at democracy, he belatedly turned to novel writing. When “The Abyssinian” was published Rufin had already turned 45. “I think that by tackling themes in fiction as opposed to non-fiction, a lot more people end up reading about them. Even when I was writing non-fiction in a way I was telling a story by taking examples and describing people but I always felt limited. So I started to find subjects which left more room for my imagination.”
Fortunately for Rufin he knows better than to let people pigeonhole him as an historical writer. His latest novel “Globalia” which came out in France in January and has since sold well is an Orwellian look at a totalitarian society of the future. Rufin maintains that it is a slightly exaggerated look at whatis going on right now. “Today [in the West]we live in so-called democratic societies full of rewards and yet worryingly these same societies are paradoxically rife with constraints. You can see this happening with attitudes towards things like drinking and smoking.”
In his book “La Dictature Libérale”Rufin writes that a modern democracy draws its strength from “Not only beating its enemy but also prospering from such a combat.”To that he adds “Democratic societies, particularly the US, cannot live without an enemy. That’s to say these types of society cannot strengthen themselves from the inside so resort to bolstering themselves against a perceived menace.” It is an idea that Rufin repackaged for his novel “Globalia” and proves his point that readers are far more likely to take on board an idea if it is set down in fiction. Rufin himself admits that very few people read “La Dictature Liberale.””I think it might have been ahead of its time, that’s to say other books criticizing democratic society came out a few years later.”
It is not the first time Rufin has been ahead of the game. He was one of thefirst doctors to join up with Doctors Without Borders(established in 1971), rising to vice-president in 1991-93 and well remembers how difficult things were to begin with. “We were this tiny organization working out of a small office in the 12th arrondissement. When we started we had very little money and we were seen as upstarts, particularly by major medical institutions like the Red Cross.”
One can’t helping getting the impression that Rufin -who is currently president of the non governmental organisation Action Against Hunger -has enjoyed ruffling a few feathers. He might even be said to embody something Albert Camus once wrote: “that rebellion cannot exist without a strange form of love.”