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The Abyssinian

by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Picador, pounds 14.99, 422pp

THE 17TH century is coming to an end. The Sun King, resplendent in Versailles, has decided to extend the influence of his Catholic faith to that land of legend, Abyssinia. But the realms of Islam that lie between are ruled by the hostile Turk, and hard to cross. His ambassadors decide to employ an unlikely emissary to the court of the Negus Iyasu: Jean-Baptiste Poncet, apothecary and bastard, who will soothe the emperor's skin disease and persuade him, in the process, to allow French Jesuits to enter his domain.

Our physician is made of stern stuff. Perched on a tree in his Cairo clinic when French emissaries arrive, Poncet only consents because he sees a chance to better himself in the eyes of the conservative consul de Maillet, whose beautiful daughter Alix has wordlessly stolen his heart. After a journey that combines Arabian Nights adventure with the scrupulously observed and slightly salacious anthropological detail with which he will later regale Paris, Poncet not only refuses to play the French game but adopts, instead, an oppositional perspective.

The ailing negus makes him understand how detrimental to Abyssinia's stability the infiltration of an alien ideology would be. Convinced, and yet in sight of his goal, Poncet departs with an entourage and gifts to Louis XIV's court. In France, he will find both king and subjects opposed to the possibility of a sovereign state in "savage" Africa, even if that state be one of the oldest Christian kingdoms. How he survives and finds his happy ending on history's margins makes up the rest of a long and entertaining story.

In this remarkably assured novel, Rufin almost proves two truisms: the most successful first novels are written after 40; and popular (or populist) fiction serves as the finest vehicle for the burden of ideas. Rufin's writing is elegantly readable; at times more reminiscent of Allende than Yourcenar (with the occasional reference to the Prophet's beard thrown in to pay homage to the Gadzooks school of fiction). He nevertheless has the ability to interweave the light-hearted threads of adventurous romance with the serious issues of religious intolerance and political manipulation.

There are longueurs, typical of historical novels. Vociferous tracts mouthed to explain political situations narrowly avoid clumsiness; characters, though charming and intrepid, are one-dimensional. But action, not subjectivity, is Rufin's concern. He illustrates the many ways in which history can make heroes and heroines of the most ordinary of us, and has a doctor's compassion (he has worked with Medecins Sans Frontieres) for the suffering so many endure, particularly at the hands of fanatics. At times, Catholic fanaticism seems to stand for the kinds of ethnic oppression we have known in our century, but this may be an over-determined reading of a novel so well embedded in its time.

Rufin isn't always averse to Orientalist kitsch, with lecherous Turks, Armenians and Yemenis robbing and fornicating their way through Africa, and predatory Ethiopian belles virtually raping our gallants. He has, however, a refreshing lack of the kind of misguided zeal that makes some western writers defend the most repressive practices as valid alternatives to Europe's norms. Rufin attempts, instead, to show us this world as it is, contrasting Islamic conservatism with the rigid class structure of France.

Poncet's partner Juremi, a Protestant fugitive, embodies the insurgent values of a victimised populace, while Muslim and Christian muddle along side by side in the regions of the Nile. Ultimately, it is the Egyptian Pasha's pragmatic attitude to Ethiopia - in bright contrast to Louis' intransigence - that helps Poncet to obstruct the progress of French Jesuitry. Our hero retires to practice medicine in Isfahan, and grow roses with his wife in the shadow of the Blue Mosque. "Happiness takes the place of history.