A Book in Hand: The Case of “The Abyssinian”

(Adopted Partly from www.addistribune.com)

“The Abyssinian by Jean Christophe Rufin ends in a happy note.” This was the first sentence I wrote when reviewing the book before Addis Tribune ceased being published not long after the passing away of its publisher, Tamrat Bekele. The newspaper’s contents used to appear on the Internet every week, and my book review was no exception. Probably for some ten or so years, I used to have access to my own writing. Not any more.

The other day, I came across an Amharic version of the book ready for sa;e/ Before I could make up my mind whether or not to buy it. I decided to buy it the next day and went home. To my disappointment I could not find it for I was told that it had been sold at a price which was partly a cause for my indecision.

The story was not new to me; and there was no reason for me to regret my action. So, I decided to read again the book review I wrote to see whether holding a book in one’s hands is different from reading about it on the Internet. The Book Review is as follows:

“The end is the beginning

In the chronicles of [one-time] 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 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 relief aid in Ethiopia.

Tells it as it is

The author impresses the Ethiopian reader by his knowledge of Ethiopian customs at times critical and unflattering. No doubt he has been given that leverage by his experience in Ethiopia. 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 gainsaying the fact that he is a talented writer and has a mastery of telling a good story well when he happens to find it.

The Abyssinian 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 Copyright 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 award for the best first novel neither for its history nor for its narrative but 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

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 pursue 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.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

‘Twice blest’

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.

Fast Translation

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 it 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 copyright 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 person have the time to read a novel of such length with patience in an electronic age?” Time is not a crucial factor as much as the availability of  the book itself.

The Ethiopian Herald June 30, 2019


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