A Week in Books: Rufin delivers a delicious PC swashbuckler

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The art of medicine and the art of literature have kept close company ever since ancient times.

The art of medicine and the art of literature have kept close company ever since ancient times. The current British heirs to Smollett and Keats, Conan Doyle and Somerset Maugham, include poet Dannie Abse, novelist Phil Whitaker, and Jed Mercurio, the former houseman whose tales of the wild wards have been televised in Bodies.

Yet it's hard to think of any doctor-author on this side of the Channel who has achieved such twin-track eminence as Jean-Christophe Rufin. In fact, the brilliant career of this 52-year-old French physician and novelist has a third shining strand, as aid-agency chief and and informal diplomat. Already a young medical high-flier (whose doctor grandfather was imprisoned as a Resistance activist in Buchenwald), Rufin plunged into humanitarian campaigns after a revelatory stint in a Tunisian hospital.

He co-founded and jointly led Médecins Sans Frontières, and last year took over as president of the French charity Action Against Hunger. He made several official trips to regions such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Ethiopia. And, a month ago, he delivered a crucial government-commissioned report on racist attacks in France.

His first historical novel, The Abyssinian, won the Goncourt prize for debut fiction and his third, Brazil Red, the main Goncourt itself in 2001. It's almost as if the medically trained boss of Oxfam or Amnesty should pocket the Booker and then write the Macpherson Report on institutional racism. Earlier this year, Rufin also returned to fiction with the Globalia - his Orwellian dystopia for an age of terror-stricken affluence.

How good a novelist can the possessor of this frenetic CV actually be? Picador has published Brazil Red (£16.99) in Willard Wood's fluent, vivid and - as it should be - ever-so-slightly archaic translation. Deeply researched, intensively imagined, the novel revisits the ill-fated attempt of a French garrison to colonise Brazil in 1556. It traces the outpost's Conradian breakdown into religious strife between Catholic and Protestant factions, racial paranoia, and appalling cruelty. I'm afraid that foes of the too-clever-by-half will have to agree that the answer to my question is - far better than we have any right to expect.

Rufin delivers a delicious PC swashbuckler. He spices the storm-tossed voyages, winsome orphans and sadistic old seadogs of his plot with jungle interludes, as the young heroine Colombe learns the wisdom of nature from the Indians. Imagine Alexandre Dumas crossed with Anita Roddick, and you'll have an idea of the tone.

Rufin would, justly, claim that his pitting of Christian rapacity against pagan serenity has its roots in the ambivalence of 16th-century Europe itself about its bloody missions to conquer and convert. On the one hand stands the crazed colonialist, the Chevalier de Villegagnon, a sort of Norman Mr Kurtz; on the other, Paï-Lo, the gentle priest who went native and champions his naked, happy flock. The great Montaigne, first prophet of cultural pluralism, hovers over the narrative. Vain European theology leads only to hatred and slaughter, while the Indian worship of the earth nurtures both land and people. But the action skips along with such bustle and brio that Brazil Red stays well-nigh cynic-proof.

According to Rufin himself, his starry courses as doctor-activist and novelist run down separate tracks, not along the same lines. What links them, beyond doubt, is the French willingness to accept and applaud such multi-tasking by a small and privileged caste of cultural-political samurai. If Brazil Red were as lame and dim as most British novels by politicians and celebrities, we could dismiss this attitude as outmoded elitism. Sadly for Francophobes, it's not.