Intriguing tale entangled in verbiage and perhaps two hundred pages too long

This is my review of Brazil Red by Jean-Christophe Rufin.

When Just and his younger sister Colombe are left by their soldier father in the care of an unscrupulous relative, she seizes the chance to send them off on an expedition to found a new French colony in Brazil, children being in demand as future interpreters because of their ability to pick languages up quickly. It is the mid-1500s, and France is keen to curtail Portuguese imperial ambitions in the New World, to gain access to resources, such as the red dye obtainable from Brazilian trees (hence the title) and to convert the savage Indians to Christianity. However, with the Reformation in full spate, what are they to be taught: the old Catholic faith, or which version of Protestantism including the extreme, apparently abstruse, doctrine of Calvin?

The crew on board ship are a motley bunch, including criminals and Protestants escaping persecution, including a crazed band of Anabaptists, so Colombe’s disguise as a boy probably provides much-needed protection. Once the pair’s aristocratic connections become known, they are taken under the wing of the charismatic but unstable commander Villegagnon, based on a real-life character. Having reached their destination in Guanabara Bay, the site of the present-day Rio de Janeiro, Just readily accepts the life of constructing a fortress and learning how to defend it against future attacks. More reflective, Colombe who has been sent to learn the local Tupi language, identifies strongly with the Indians, living in harmony with nature and free from sterile wrangling over Christian rituals and doctrine.

With his experience as a diplomat and human rights’ worker, including a decade spent living in Rio de Janeiro, Rufin has researched the historical period in depth. This novel is a variation on a theme which absorbs him: the dramatic effects of the meeting between very different cultures, and the sense which many of those involved feel of being in a state of limbo, not clearly belonging to either.

Although Rufin creates a convincing impression of life on board ship, I found the first half of this book intolerably tedious. He no doubt intentionally adopts the formal, literary style of a nineteenth century classical novel, peppered with the authentic terms for items of clothing or parts of a ship, culled from histories of the sixteenth century. However, there are too many over-detailed or unnecessary scenes which could have been pruned down or omitted altogether. Colombe is idealised, and seems too mature and articulate for her age. Most of the other characters are caricatures, dialogues wooden and often the action does not seem far removed from a “Boys’ Own” yarn.

However, when the Calvinists whom Villegagnon has requested to assist him prove to be religious bigots, while Colombe’s experience of life with the Indians highlights the hollowness of so-called European “civilisation”, I began to find my interest engaged. It is as if, having waded through to the point where he wants to be, analysing cultural relations, Rufin comes into his own and his writing takes off, presenting points of view from all angles, with the irony becoming sharper. Yet he can never quite avoid straying into the corny or sentimental at the expense of his serious intent.

The descriptions of the landscape, the great bay with the distinctive sugarloaf mountain and forest teeming with unfamiliar vegetation and wildlife are very vivid. There is some thought-provoking philosophy, as when Pay-Lo, the wise old European conveniently gone native, enabling him to explain Indian thought to Colombe, justifies cannibalism. He likens it to the European habit of killing one’s enemies: to eat one’s enemy is merely a logical part of a life lived close to nature in which everything is recycled and returned to the earth to regrow. Rufin has sanitised and glamorised the lives of the Indians somewhat, but they are clearly underestimated by the Huguenots who decide that trying to convert them is as futile as the attempt to bring an antelope to the knowledge of Christ.

Despite the unusual and potentially interesting subject-matter, the novel is too long and laboured. I would have preferred a well-written history of the period.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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