The Go-Between : THE ABYSSINIAN, A Novel By Jean-Christophe Rufin Translated From the French by Willard Wood; W.W. Norton: 448 pp., $25.95
Like most important novels, “The Abyssinian” (winner of the Prix Goncourt) is difficult to categorize. At first glance, it resembles little more than a garden-variety adventure-romance, such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” or James Clavell’s “Shogun.” Yet despite possessing a fair share of melodrama and intrigue, it always manages to keep both feet planted firmly on the ground, lending conviction even to its most exotic landscapes and characters. In other words, “The Abyssinian” isn’t just a lot of fancy embroidery. It is thick with verisimilitude as well.
The setting is North Africa during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. As the Ottoman Empire holds Europe at an imperialistic standoff, Muslims and Christians regard one another warily across the great divide. In an uneasy detente that has lasted nearly a century, neither side feels any sense of allegiance to the other. Instead, both are just waiting to see who will blink first: Us or Them.
When Louis XIV decides to send a cultural attache to Ethiopia (thus developing alliances behind the Ottoman Empire’s back), he asks his consul in Cairo to find the right man for the job. What France needs, of course, is a thoroughly devout subject who will help Westernize the heathen. What France gets, however, is a free-spirited apothecary named Jean-Baptiste Poncet.
In a world where everybody subscribes to rules designed for them by somebody else (agas, kings, churches and so on), Poncet is entirely self-governing. He educates himself in any field that takes his fancy, loves any woman who comes his way and devotes himself solely to the disinterested pursuit of science. In fact, he seems to lack everything the traditional diplomat requires, such as a diploma, a belief system or even greed. And not until he falls in love with the consul’s free-spirited daughter, Alix, does he feel any desire to open up trade between East and West. This is because Poncet does not put his trust in empires but only in Nature.
Equipped with his potted herbs and potions, Poncet travels east to discover that even the most alien-seeming cultures suffer the same skin diseases and bowel disorders as those he left behind in Cairo. And wherever Poncet finds himself, he cures everybody he meets with sympathy and composure--peasants, merchants, dignitaries, even the Ethiopian King of Kings himself, a man so divorced from his subjects that he performs most of his bodily functions through some form of intermediary.
Though Poncet freely treats every illness that comes his way, thus gaining entrance into many nations and confidences, he never becomes much of a diplomat, and upon his return to Cairo, his first stop isn’t the French consulate but rather the overgrown garden where he raises his herbs:
“He had ranged across worlds, lost the trace of his own passage, spoken to beings so inaccessible they belonged practically to myth, and in the process nearly died by assassination, drowning, and hunger. And all during his long absence, which seemed as foreign to reality as a dream, the fuchsia had continued to open its purple droplets, an agave was brandishing its life’s flower on the end of a long scaly shaft, the araucaria had turned red, and the orange trees formed fruit. The slow loyalty of his plants had dug a tunnel under his agitated life, a passage through which the past flowed intact into the present.”
For Poncet, the only history that matters is a sort of perennial blossoming.
After months of journeying, Poncet and his rattled caravan finally make their way to Versailles, with nothing to authenticate their unbelievable adventures but the stories they have lived to tell about where they went and what they saw. The elephants have all died. The slaves have run off. And the royal gifts of gold and jewelry have been pilfered by thieves and con men. So in order to convince Louis XIV that the pudgy, silly man he brings with him is really the royal envoy of Abyssinia, Poncet must tell the story of his travels with energy and conviction.
He does, and Jean-Christophe Rufin does. The result is an absorbing and unforgettable book.*