Age of Chivalry Not Over, French Doctor Says.
Jean-Christophe Rufin. Rouge Brésil. Gallimard. August 2001. (Translation forthcoming as Brazil Red. W. W. Norton. September 2004.)
A contemporary Balzac would do well to write a series of stories about Doctors Without Borders. Like that society of benevolents in La Comédie Humaine, the Brothers of Consolation—ranged against the other secret societies of criminals, capitalists, and libertines like Vautrin’s band or the fantastic Thirteen—Medecins Sans Frontières functions according to a series of Catholic, professional, and aristocratic principles. They do good work without evangelizing; they are dedicated to the craft of healing under difficult and dangerous conditions; and, most importantly for our would-be Balzac, the individuals involved have converted their ability and will for good into political and social power. Their ranks have produced a French minister of health, Bernard Kouchner, and now, in Jean-Christophe Rufin, a winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. For all the half-true talk of the French political class’s rigidity, French society does allow its professionals and intellectuals the kind of upward or lateral social mobility that America’s electorate only confers upon movie stars and sports heros (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Largent) or professionals willing to adopt the mindset of CEOs (Dr. Bill Frist). As a private society that encourages its members to assume power beyond the limited aims of the group, Doctors Without Borders is undeniably better than Skull and Bones, but members of both share a constant tension between an ideal of virtuous action and the gratifications of ambition and egotism. This tension is a curious historical leftover of an aristocratic consciousness; those with the power and skills to help should do so, but the awareness of obligation is never separate from a sense of superiority. They are better than you because they act, and they will not let you forget it when you receive the envelope asking you to make a symbolic contribution while they do the real work.
Something of this superiority seeps into Rufin’s pose as a dilletante novelist. Rufin is less a writer than a modern man of action cut in the mold of Richard Francis Burton, T. E. Lawrence, and André Malraux (whose mantle of world traveler, popular novelist, and political celebrity he is poised to inherit). He admits to the New York Times that he writes primarily to entertain himself. It’s hard to begrudge a hard-working doctor his bit of fun, and if, in the manner of the ancien régime, Rufin passes his leisure hours writing novels when the rest of us are wind-surfing or watching TV, so much the better for him.
But let’s not congratulate him too quickly. Novel writing, especially in France, may have begun as a leisure activity of aristocrats, often emerging out of salon parlor games. Now novelists have attained something close to the same professional status of lawyers or accountants. The amateur who sets himself up as a professional, competing for prizes, cash, advances, and, presumably, film rights, cannot be given a free pass or a round of applause for trying. His leisure takes bread out of other people’s mouths. As fewer French novels make it into English with each passing year, those that do had better be good.
An idea-driven pot-boiler based on France’s abortive attempt to set up a colony in Rio de Janeiro in 1555, Rouge Brésil is a novel which really belongs on shelves labeled young adult. Rufin’s hero is young, tall, muscuclar, dark-eyed with curly black locks, courteous, responsible, loyal, a knight without fear and without reproach, a little naïve. His heroine is young, tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed, lithe, with small, firm breasts. She is intelligent, humane, playful, and good in ways that supplement the blind spots of the earnest hero. They form a perfect whole. Even their names, Just and Colombe (Righteousness and Dove), are an allegory for Christian perfection. The anti-heroine is a dark, primly dressed Protestant hypocrite who likes to play the victim, the kind of girl who whispers “save us” seductively while she helps plot the assassination of the colonial governor. The villains are villainous: short, ugly, dark, with bad teeth, money-grubbing drinkers, traitors and fornicators all, except for the fallen angels, men like Villegagnon, the chief of the French expedition—a tall, once-muscular and dignified man who turns from Just and Colombe’s paternal protector and chivalrous soldier into a paranoid and cruel religious murderer and torturer. There are loyal servants who speak only to divulge hidden truths and disloyal servants who are malicious gossips. The novel may take place in the 1550s, but the characters belong to 19th-century melodrama by way of Walter Scott, Chateaubriand, and that most treacly of early French novels, Paul et Virginie. Did I mention that the savages are noble, naked, and muscular (though not tall)? They are free in their way, but like to submit to the authority of bold, kind, culturally sensitive Europeans who happen to be French.
The setting is the bay of Rio de Janeiro in its unspoilt primitive splendor. There are palm trees, exotic flowers, white-sand beaches, manioc roots, tapirs, and red butterflies. Rufin has done his research, that must be said. The details of the French colony down to the laundry lists are rendered in a static and repetitive way that suggests accuracy, or at least fidelity to a source. His descriptions of the Indians are taken from numerous accounts, 16th-century as well as contemporary anthropological. Everything is true, Rufin informs us in an afterword. Of course it is. Everything, that is, except the novel’s baroque plot and sense of character, which follow now Ptolemaic-seeming laws of 17th-century Romance or fifties Hollywood epic. While under threat of Portugese invasion, the French colony dissolves in internal dissension between Catholics, Huguenots, coastline traders out for profits, and Villegagnon, who is after greater glory for his sovereign. Frustrated by the pettiness of the colonists and alive to the hypocrisy of their civilizing mission, boy and girl head off into the tropical sunset, the mystery of their parentage revealed just in time to prevent anything unwholesome. Inside the rainforest they live in symbiotic harmony with the soon-to-be-wiped-out natives—a prefiguration of a Euro-Indian utopia that will never exist. Ridley Scott should direct, but it will probably be Luc Besson.
In the invisible treaty that divided up the world’s cultural markets, it has long been France’s privilege to produce pulp fiction for intellectuals and to have intellectuals who produce pulp fiction. It becomes clear that Rufin sets up his Brazil as a screen for a slightly displaced fantasy of his own life: helping various natives to lead healthier lives while fighting off the interference of bad Europeans, whether they are capitalists, expansionist-minded nationalists, or religious utopians.
Rouge Brésil is trash, but at least it’s not thoughtless trash. Despite the clichés, the romantic silliness, and the Hollywood dialogue, there is a real attempt to come to terms with liberty and happiness in their conflicting political and existential senses.
The modern state offers us a false Hobbesian bargain. Either we live free in a facsimile of the exciting and competitive state of nature or we surrender our liberty for the security and material comfort we call happiness. Rufin wishes it were not so. His writing is at its best when he manages to step back from his characters to raise these themes, while staying inside the world he has made for them. When Colombe, who has been dressed as a boy to avoid difficulties with the all-male colonial crew, flees the increasingly brutal and troubled colony and joins the Indian tribes, he sends her off with a blessing that is at once nostalgiac and hopeful:
Above all, she was happy to have dropped the mask and doubly affirmed her liberty: by revealing her true identity and by showing that, as a woman, she was not forced to shut herself up in those other prisons of modesty, false chastity, and flowing dresses. At that moment, running amidst the bunches of euphorbia and frangipani, her body cured and caressed by tribal markings, young and lithe like the engorged leaves of rubber trees, she felt herself at the crossroads of all capabilities and all sweetness, of all resolutions and all tenderness. No other place in the world, no other period in history, could have given her this liberty and this power. While the blue pallet of bay water rose above the trees she felt her spirit take on the same shadowless pastel shades of happiness.
Part Blue Lagoon and part Percy Shelley, Colombe’s flight allows full play to Rufin’s fantasies, tinged with the pain that these are, now, nothing but fantasies. Such a taint of self-consciousness makes Rouge Brésil an interesting document, if not quite an interesting novel. What does the modern man of action, our new natural aristocrat, dream about? Of healthy young bodies allowed their natural rights. Of a society which acknowledges inequality, but an inequality of merit and health, not of wealth. Of a world in which liberty and happiness are one and the same.
For American readers this talk of liberty from a beret-wearing, cheese-eating, income-redistributing, cigarette-smoking, surrendering, collaborating Froggy (with ten weeks of paid vacation) will no doubt be gratifying. There are more good French—i.e. French like us—than we have been led to believe. A superficial reading of Rufin’s latest and equally melodramatic novel, Globalia, gives the same impression. Again boy and girl—this time boy is Afro-American Aleutian and girl Moroccan-French—seek to fight free of a stifling, socially and scientifically engineered utopia. There, Rufin overtly criticizes what he calls “Totalitarian Democracy,” and quotes de Tocqueville. Although he may intend this to be a warning about American dominance, he often sounds like one of our own libertarians making a brief against the welfare state. Rufin wants to stick up for a personal vision of liberty distinct from the American way, but too often, with his loose writing about the thrills of danger on the wild frontiers at the edge of civilization, he makes it seem like these are the same.
This is not the case. Mademoiselle Liberté, stepping over the fallen with bared breast, is a different creature from Mr. Freedom, her Anglo-American counterpart, at least as he is now. For us, freedom is but choosing. To be free means we choose our cars, our long-distance company, our music, our clothes, our jewelry—to pierce or not to pierce—and our leaders, all from a small and rigidly limited set of options. Liberty, as the condition that allows us to fulfill our natural potential—the undammed river—without external constraints from government or society, has nearly been lost from daily American life. If it survives at all, it is only as resentment at being told what to do and how to live best by those wiser than ourselves. The most fulfilling form of this negative liberty has become the exclusive right of corporations and the privilege of the executive branch—they are free from just about everything. After years of watered-down libertarianism that allows our legislators to sit back and relax while a Randian “Objectivist” dictates economic policy, the word ‘liberty’ increasingly signifies a dull negativity. No taxes, no environmental programs, no money for education, no public lands, only the kindness of corporations. In depriving ourselves of these, however, we deprive ourselves of the liberty to dream and clothe our dreams in solid and bright actuality without the anxieties of merely getting by. We have been left our straitened freedom to live, compete for diminishing resources, and die, a freedom we now wish to impose on everyone else.
Understood as a profession of faith by a French man of action, Rouge Brésil is more political than literary. The award of the Prix Goncourt three years ago came down as an official endorsement of Rufin’s fantasies of healthy modern Gallic chivalry against the degeneracy of more stylistically polished rivals like Michel Houellebecq. As an export, Rouge Brésil has none of the artisanal merits the French like to claim for their products. It does however provide us with a necessary aid, like Lafayette supporting Washington. Here we are treated to the spectacle of a man who has a natural impulse to do real good, not just use the word until it is empty of meaning. Not only has he actually helped people, but he gives free rein to his cheery fantasies of natural goodness—as embarrassing to contemplate as all improperly mediated fantasies are. Here is a man willing to make a fool of himself on paper in a thoughtful way. He has even dedicated time to historical research—even though all he wished was to make a fool of himself in a thoughtful way.
Rufin dreams of a world of pretty naked bodies of all colors. He wishes to harmonize the traits of Amazonian natives and European aristocrats, two tribes whose ways of life are equally doomed by capitalism. Rufin’s utopia of the raw and the perfectly cooked never could have existed and, sadly, it never will. But perhaps some different beauty can be born. A new liberty maybe? Rufin feels the pangs of such a need. He has something of the can-do, frontier spirit of the imagination that used to be American: arrogant, doggedly inexhaustible and exhausting to others, a bit stupid in a sentimental way, but necessary.