Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.35.6: THE ABYSSINIAN, by Jean-Christophe Rufin (1997)

V035-06_abyssinianDarfur, Somalia.   How many of us can explain to anyone, mush less ourselves, what all the mayhem and human carnage is about?   You can’t even tell who the players are with a program. Worse yet, how many of us even give enough of a damn to find out?   Somehow this area that includes other exotic names that call to mind black people killing black people, [1] names like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, that comprise the Horn of Africa that juts into the Indian Ocean, seems to jut onto our evening news screens with a terrible regularity.


Most of this novel, by French physician and writer Jean-Christophe Rufin, takes place in Cairo, a city marvelously recreated in the age of Louis XIV by his deft and imaginative pen.   He writes:   “A good walker could in those days make a tour of Cairo in three hours.   It was still a small city, one that travelers universally found ugly, worn, and charmless.   From afar, the fretwork of its slender minarets and tall, tufted palms lent it a certain character. But as one entered its narrow streets, the view was blocked by ranks of two-story houses, undecorated except for the mashrabiyya , or cedar lattices, jutting dangerously above the passerby.”   It takes three hours to go just about anywhere in present-day Cairo, and the mashrabiyyas are would only admit the polluted air its clogged traffic generates.


For the French in the late 17 th century, who retain their embassy there at the sufferance of the city’s Moslem overlords, this is the age in which their most daring explorers were often missionaries, and where the pursuit of commerce and converts were not easily distinguishable.   But it is also regarded as The Age of Reason, where European philosophy was finally beginning to emerge from the long period of Medieval scholasticism’s

Inability to reconcile faith and rational human thought.


Enter Rufin’s hero, Jean-Baptiste Poncet.   He’s somewhat of a product of his age, not a lettered doctor, but an apothecary/physician, sort of between the ages of alchemy and chemistry.   He collects, grows and studies the curative properties of all manner of plants, prepares, with the assistance of his friend, le Maitre Juremi, poultices, salves, and potions, by which he relieves and cures a variety ailments not yet named, or familiar to us only buy some of their symptoms, or their early names like catarrh and consumption.   Poncet does not appear to have the religiosity of his contemporaries, as befits, perhaps, a man of “science”. His friend and fencing instructor, Juremi, is however, a Heugenot, and hence a man “on the run” as it were, in French society at least.


And so, Rufin’s historically rich novel is enlivened by the rather picaresque tendencies of these central characters when they are persuaded to bring an embassy to Abyssinia, whose king is relatively unknown to the French other than that he has a distaste for Jesuits, who earlier attempted to convert him, and who happens to suffer from a chronic and painful skin disorder.   In those days it took a brave man to venture into those regions of Africa, but the commercial prospects, along with the political and religious, were a heady stew for the French, ad Poncet is enlisted to cure the king and ingratiate the French to him.


Part of what motivates Poncet is that the daughter of the French consul to Cairo, Monsieur de Maillet, has a ravishingly beautiful daughter.   If Poncet can raise his social standing with a successful mission to Abyssinia, well . . .

Enough of plot; Rufin does a far better job of telling his own story, and I risk making it sound like so much of the pulp thriller fiction that temporarily occupies the space between out forests and landfills.


It is, in some ways, a heroic adventure of the sort that could be set in any period, but The Abyssinian is so densely rich in atmospherics, so clever and convincing in the drawing of its characters, that it does for this reader, precisely what I am looking for in a reading “experience”— it takes me there.   I have never been to the lands that used to be Abyssinia, the closest being up (down?) the Nile to near the Egyptian-Sudanese border alongside Lake Nasser.    Today it is just the eastern Sahara, where sandblasting winds always seem to be blowing against the gaunt and frightened faces of refugees of one hapless people or another caught in the vortex where religions and post-colonial warlords contend for what seems to be worthless territory. [2] 


Abyssinia, whatever else it has been called, has long been a treacherous place for outsiders; Burton received a Somali spear through his cheek, back in his day, American soldiers were dragged through Mogadishu streets in our time.   Rufin takes us back to there to another time, just as risky as today, but we get out of there with no more than the prospect of a paper cut.

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.22.2006)

[1] Not to shortchange Rwanda, whose national anthem is “Tut-Tut-Tutsi, Goodbye.”   It should also be noted that the murder has not always been black on black.   The Italian Fascists, in WWII, in their revived imperialistic aims, did some nasty things to the locals.   I recommend reading A Café on the Nile , by Bartle Bull, for some interesting background on that debacle.

[2] I take that back.   Coffee, which takes its name from Kaffa, Ethiopia, was discovered here, by goatherders, in AD 1000.   At the time the Kaffa was ruled by a King Starbukia.   (Just kidding about the king)