31 July 2016

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Sept histoires qui reviennent de loin (2011)

Jean-Christophe Rufin is a medical doctor who has done a great deal of humanitarian work overseas. Much of his fictional work, including his Goncourt-winning Rouge Brésil, involves the meeting of different cultures, of which there are several examples in these seven stories from far away, although not necessarily (only) far way geographically, but perhaps far away psychologically, in different concords or conflicts, perhaps of generation or language.

'Passion francophone' is an interesting example of Rufin's multilingual confusions. Here we have a woman from Germany in a hotel in France speaking French, although no one understands her: in fact she is speaking neither French nor German. No, the language she thinks she has been taught as French is Hungarian.

And then there's 'Les Naufragés', set in what seems to be Mauritius or L’île Maurice, but post-colonial Mauritius, where the native population has taken over, where the tourists flock to their tourist hotels where everything is done for them and they don't even have to leave their tourist ghettos and meet the true people who belong to the country, where they believe implicitly in the harmony that the guidebooks suggest exists: in a few words, Rufin demolishes the self-deception, the mindlessness of tourism. Meanwhile the native Indians increasingly express their birthright on the few existing post-colonists, who are ready for physical escape (like the narrator's husband) or suicide (like the narrator herself).

Set in the Dolomites, 'Le Refuge Del Pietro' is a kind of conflict between generations, when the old meet the young in a restaurant in the Alps, where a solitary Englishman (dressed in bizarre Alpine gear) tells the two other (young) diners about (almost) dragging his mainly ailing family through snow to find an inn, even lying to them, until they reach the place and find it in ruins.

'Nuit de garde', set in an unnamed place (mainly a hospital) where there is a hierarchy of staff with a cleaner from Guadeloupe and a junior doctor who makes the decisions about the deaths of patients, seems as if it has come from previous experience of the author.

'Les fiancés de Laurenço Marques' examines a capital city (now called Maputo) which preserves its nineteenth century history in the name of its beer and its colonial and Soviet communist of Marxist past in its street names, as if it wants not to forget its history. The narrator thinks likewise: he originally came to the city with his fiancé forty years before, although they went their individual ways, he as a musician, she as a writer, although now their spouses have died they are re-living the past, coming together in Maputo as if still twenty rather than sixty.

'Garde-Robe' too is about the return of age, with a businessman-turned humanitarian UN worker in war-struck Colombo in Sri Lanka telling the story of the Buchenwald uniform his father (a survivor who later killed himself) once wore that he's kept all the time as a reminder of man's inhumanity to man. Nazi-style inhumanity seems to be returning, though, he learns of the atrocities of civil war.

Finally we have 'Train de vie' in which a young African woman who works as a server in a restaurant in Paris goes off on a train to meet her German fiancé from a very wealthy family. The story is told from a young white French narrator's point of view, who comes to learn all about the woman's problems, her potential mother-in-law's opposition to the marriage, but her son's resolution to marry if she becomes pregnant. Looks that things will fall flat as the train loses hours and Rokaya will miss her connection on the very day of peak ovulation. Unless, of course, narrator Paul becomes (quite casually) a kind of surrogate lover for the night.

Judging by these highly readable stories, I'd say that the principal interest that Jean-Christophe has is difference, in its many varied forms. 

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