Between two worlds

This is my review of Katiba (LITTERATURE FRA) (French Edition) by Jean-Christophe Rufin.

Published in 2010, this political thriller is prescient as regards recent terrorist attacks in France and the radicalisation of young Muslims. Author Jean-Christophe Rufin’s experience as a globe-trotting doctor, aid worker, diplomat and historian have made him a novelist interested in serious political and ethical issues, with the first-hand knowledge to weave dramas around them. Having enjoyed his book of short stories based on far-flung parts of the world, “Sept histoires qui viennent de loin”, I had high hopes of this political thriller named “Katiba” after the training camps for Islamist fighters in the remote desert areas of North Africa.

It was therefore disappointing to find that, after a dramatic opening chapter, the novel becomes quite clunky and disjointed. This is partly because the author has chosen to switch continually between different characters in various locations as a way of juggling several parallel story threads. At first Jasmine seems to be the key character, an enigmatic young woman whose half-Arab origins have not prevented her gaining a post in protocol at the Quai d’Orsay, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Is anyone quite what he or she (although there aren’t many females in this book) seems, be it the charismatic Kader, an effective trafficker in drugs, cigarettes and arms, or Archie, the suave Director of Providence, the US-based private intelligence agency contracted to sniff out suspected Islamic terrorist plots? The one person we know to be working “under cover” is Dimitri, the disarmingly naïve young medic deployed to a Mauritanian hospital to spy on a possible cell of radical fanatics among the doctors.

Rufin can be quite long-winded and pedestrian over the banal details of an event, although the description of how to assemble a suicide belt makes compulsively shocking reading. In an attempt to create a sense of tension, he leaves some key points unclear for long periods, which can be confusing. Yet, when he chooses to enlighten us, there is too much reliance on having one character explain the situation to others, a device which is obviously for the benefit of the reader, when it would be much better, although clearly more of a challenge for the author, to reveal what is really afoot through dramatic scenes.

Admittedly, the plot builds up to a final climax, there are striking descriptions of the barren Sahara, which proved very accurate when I googled photos of it, and some perceptive observations, not least the recurring reference to the Senegalese proverb that “a dog may have four paws, but cannot follow two paths at the same time”. Yet overall, I found too many of the large cast of characters either stereotypes, or undeveloped. The complex, contrasting motivations of the key players were not explored in much depth, a missed opportunity.

On the other hand, this is a worthwhile read for practising one's French and is also likely to divide opinion, so is a good basis for discussion.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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