The Abyssinian

Written by Jean-Christophe Rufin
Review by Trudi Jacobson

Abyssinia, cut off from Westerners for generations, is an irresistible goal for a number of Western contingents at the start of the 18th century. A century earlier, the negus (ruler) of Abyssinia welcomed Portuguese assistance after the country was attacked by Turks, being unable to obtain help from neighboring Islamic countries. He then fell under the influence of Jesuits who arrived after the fighting was done, and ordered the country to convert to Catholicism. However, the Jesuits wielded a pernicious influence that led to the collapse of the negus’s authority and terrible civil wars. The foreigners were murdered, and three generations of rulers have attempted to wipe out the legacy they wrought, while allowing no westerners into the country.

But time has passed and now competing religious orders see the country as ripe for conversion to Catholicism (the Eastern form of Christianity practiced there not being recognized as meaningful/acceptable), and the Sun King would like to send a delegation to emphasize the power and glory of his reign and to “lure that country into the political and religious orbit of France.” We enter the story from Cairo, where the French consul is charged to organize the King’s mission and to arrange for an Abyssinian embassy to travel to Versailles. The consul, of course, is loathe to leave the comforts of Cairo behind. But Cairo does contain a talented young French apothecary/physician, and it is known that the negus of Abyssinia is hunting for a doctor to treat a serious malady afflicting him. Poncet, the young healer, is willing to undertake the arduous journey, but for reasons entirely his own. He has fallen in love with the consul’s daughter, but has no hope of getting permission to marry her without gaining acclaim from carrying out the King’s wishes.

This book immerses the reader in the political and religious intrigues of the time, but does so through a thoroughly engaging story with living and breathing characters. The author’s skill at recreating a place grounds us in Cairo of 1699, and the reader, along with the consul and Poncet and the other characters in the book, feels the mystery and the pull of Abyssinia. A sequel, The Siege of Isfahan, is due out early in 2001. I will rush to read it.