[By Jean Christopher Rufin]
Article by Berhanu Tibebu
The Abyssinian by Jean Christophe Rufin, probably like many other novels of our time, ends in a happy note.
The end is the beginning
"In the chronicles of Italian Eritrea at the beginning of the twentieth century, the name Poncet once more appears. He was an apothecary in Asmara, perhaps a descendant of one of the four children of Alix and Jean-Baptiste. There is nothing to disprove it, but nothing to confirm it either, as not much is ever known about those who are happy. They live, and their happiness takes the place of history."
It is odd that a story that starts in Ethiopia should end in Eritrea. In actual fact, the story starts in Cairo and spins around Gondar where a King called Iyassu was reigning Abyssinia during the time of Louis XIV of France or otherwise known as the Sun King. The French King had a plan to absorb Ethiopia into the political and religious orbit of France.
Jean-Baptiste Poncet, a young and adventurous physician and a herbalist of high repute, leads a mission to Ethiopia travelling through the deserts of Egypt and the Semein mountains to arrive at the court of Iyassu. He wins the friendship of the Ethiopian King because the King was suffering from a disease that the hero was partially able to cure.
Either because of Iyasu’s desire to create an alliance with a European sovereign or the influence of Poncet, an Ethiopian mission is dispatched to Versailles with a message to the French King along presents including gold and spice. But it is aborted midway in Cairo by an intrigue hatched by circles around the French Consull whose importance in the story are twofold: first, he had a beautiful daughter by the name of Alix whom Poncet loved but was unable to win over because of the obstacle posed by her father; and second, the consul colluded with forces which wished to represent the Ethiopian mission as a sign of complete allegiance to the European power.
However, the Turks who were well entrenched in Cairo and exercised great political power in Egypt at that time did not want the Ethiopian mission to set foot in Europe much as they did not want the French King’s influence to spread south as far as Ethiopia. The mission is, thus, stranded halfway between Ethiopia and France. Outside the sphere of politics and religion, the story develops into a full-blown story of love between Poncet and Alix.
This does not mean religion and politics do not play an important role in the story. The French writer, Rufin, born in 1952 and described by the book as an official of the humanitarian organisation, Medecin Sans Frontiers, shows the reader how religion and politics coalesced during the period under consideration to threaten Ethiopian independence. He is known to have coordinated famine aid in Ethiopia.
Tells it as it is
The author impresses the Ethiopian reader by his incisive knowledge of Ethiopian customs at times critical and unflattering. No doubt he has been given that leverage by his experience in Ethiopian. We do not know, however, how long he stayed in Ethiopia to gather such a wealth of information. Whatever his profession when he came into our country, there is no gaining the fact that he is a talented writer and has a mastery of telling a good story well when he happens to find it.
Abyssinia is a historical novel. In simple terms, it is fiction plus history. Thanks to the British Council Library, I had the opportunity not only to read it, but also to renew it several times until I finished reading it. On the occasion of World Book and Copy Right Day, that was marked on April 23, I found it worthwhile to reflect on such a book – the concluding pages of which I read on my way to and from a trip to the countryside.
History versus story
The 422-page novel may not be doing justice to history. It lacks objectivity. The author’s personal bias is an obstacle. To guess the religious persuasion of the author or to assume his political and philosophical orientation are misleading approaches to the book’s qualities. This is a book that has won the Prix Mediterrane and the Prix Concourt for the best first novel and this is neither for its history nor for its narrative as for its literary depth.
For example, the book gives a clear indication that the French Revolution was born in the time of Louis XIV in spite of the glorious history of France during that King’s reign which the author clearly explains. The hero joins an insurgent group to escape from the French King’s court which had no inkling whatsoever to believe that an Ethiopian King existed leave alone seeking an alliance with France of some kind.
‘As for Abyssinia’
"As for Abyssinia," writes the author in his epilogue, "it was preserved from any foreign incursion for almost a century and a half – setting aside a few rare and peaceful voyages on the part of English geographers." He adds: "Only in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the completion of Suez Canal, did colonial greed once more turn toward the Red Sea and did Abyssinia see the return of those characters Poncet had delivered it from. Perhaps because the country had preserved its original faith, its sovereignty, and its customs, it had the strength to resist them."
The characters are real and life-size. As far as Poncet is concerned, the author tries to make us believe that we, Ethiopians, are indebted to him for the survival of our independence. Of course, the author is entitled to his opinion. One wonders, however, whether the hero was motivated by such an altruistic mission to purse a life-time adventure. Assuming that what was motivating him throughout was "love", it is difficult to believe that he was impelled by a burning desire to keep occupiers away from Ethiopia. For all that, we cannot but fail to admire him for his dedication to keep the promise he has made to the Negus.
Alix, the heroine, has a personal touch more than the hero. She had a disagreement with her father over her lover who is not of a noble birth. She succeeds in preventing a wedlock she did not approve of by frankly exchanging views with her father regarding her virginity. By Ethiopian custom this is unbelievable. If such frankness prevailed in Ethiopian custom, many a girl would not have been led astray to the extent of inviting disaster or tragedy over the question of virginity.
The friends of the hero and the heroine occupy a prominent place in the story, too. They are a man and a woman and they, also, are in love. Like all lovers, their desire is not realized until the end when they jump into the same room through the same window and find themselves in the same bed. How can this scene be told otherwise?
Thus the story has a happy ending not only for the hero and heroine but also for their immediate supporters. But it seems that the latter tend to be more blessed than the former at the end of the story. While they (the latter) find themselves back in Paris, the hero and the heroine (the former) fall short of the mark and settle in one of the exotic places in the Middle East.
This contradicts the feeling of the Ethiopian reader that Ponce and Alix will find a paradise on earth in Ethiopia living close to King Iyaus. Unfortunateely, Iyasu faces an untimely death and the xenophobic character of his successor discourages them from taking this choice. France would have been the best choice, but the political climate was not that inviting either.
The book published in French in 1997 was translated into English by Willard Wood and printed and bound in Great Britain in 1999. While it took two years to translate from French into English, it has taken five years to reach my hands. The translation does not give the impression that the original was French. It is difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish such a translation task in Amharic. It requires the right skill and a very sharp mind to select words without much loss of time.
Moroever, the copy right law seems to take a firm foothold in Ethiopia. What does this presuppose in print as in the music industry? In any case, the path from French to English and English to Amharic is a roundabout path. Can we talk to Poncet in French or can he talk to us in Amharic? Time will tell. In the short run, how is one to get a copy of this book? If the answer is: order and see, it is not as simple as it looks! Aside from financial consideration, does a man well advanced in age have the time to read a novel of such length, i.e. to sit beneath the boughs and read, and read, and read and "stare as long as sheep and cows" n