This is my review of Sept histoires qui reviennent de loin (Folio) (French Edition) by Jean-Christophe Rufin.
Rufin’s impressive career as a doctor, with involvement in Médecins sans frontières, and as a diplomat have provided ample material for these short stories, often set in former colonies such as Sri Lanka or Mozambique, or involving migrants from France Outre Mer trying to adjust to life in l’Hexagone.
Varied in subject matter, the stories share a clear style, vivid descriptions of places, touches of humour with an underlying serious concern over moral dilemmas and man’s inhumanity to man, and a gift for building up a sense of anticipation. The denouement is generally predictable but that does not detract significantly from the enjoyment of the skill of the telling.
One of the best stories for me was “Les Naufragés” narrated by a woman consumed with nostalgia who cannot come to terms with changes to the island of Mauritius where she grew up in a world of white colonial privilege which is now giving way to the claiming of rights by the local people – to the extent of erecting a statue of Shiva on the secluded beach where she likes to swim. She persuades her husband to help remove the offending statue, but we know this is a vain attempt to deny the fact that, like the symbolic Paul and Virginie in the famous tale, the white residents of the island are all “les enfants d’un naufrage”, the wreck of their former lives.
Another is “Garde-robe”, topical in view of David Cameron’s recent highlighting of the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka where the story is set. In a lively dialogue seasoned with ironic humour, a man explains his distress over the discovery that an amiable servant on whom he has come to depend heavily should hold such rigid and bigoted views, and has probably been actively involved in violent acts in support of the rebels. He describes his fruitless attempts to convince the man that in adopting the criminal methods of a corrupt state, the rebels are in danger of becoming worse than those they wish to replace.
There are lighter tales, such as “Le refuge de Del Pietro” about an obsessive mountaineer. Also one very different and apparently autobiographical “Nuit de garde” about a young doctor who bears the heavy responsibility for declaring formally that a patient is dead, even though it is obvious to much more experienced underlings that this is the case. In the hierarchical world of medicine, his role is like that of a priest.
I understand the view that, given a style that is consistently objective and stripped of passion, some readers may feel a sense of disengagement which prevents them from relating strongly with the characters, but I feel that many, although clearly flawed, also evoke sympathy.