Les Echos: "Rufin is a skillful storyteller."
Date: Jul 9 2013
Here, at last, is a bona fide hero for readers of Les Echos! Heroes of finance and commerce who inspire us as much as an enlightened prince or an explorer are rare in the history of France, but Jacques Coeur (c. 1400-1456), revisited by novelist Jean-Christophe Rufin, is not only a great medieval economist, he is also an idealist and a humanist who sees in the development of trade the means to make the world more fraternal. Rufin is a skillful storyteller—in this book, he has chosen to stick closely to the historical facts but gives free reign to his imagination when it comes to the forces that drove Coeur, Charles VII’s finance minister. From the first pages of The Dream Maker, we enter into the mind of Jacques Coeur. A refugee on the island of Chios, at the end of his life, he rushes to record his memoires before receiving the fatal blow from his enemies, who have hounded him since his fall from grace.
Jean-Christophe Rufin gives Coeur, a cool-headed dreamer, the time to explain his “brilliant career”: the timid childhood of this fur trader’s son who understands quickly that his intelligence is a weapon far more formidable than physical strength; his marriage to the daughter of a prominent bourgeois family from Bourges and his first forays into finance (the manufacture of currency); the call of the open sea, his voyage to the Orient and the creation of a vast trading network; his “employment” by the king, who took full advantage not only of his talent for filling the coffers, but also of his gift for diplomacy—with the Genovese, the Roman pope, and the sultan of the Orient; his pas de deux with Agnès Sorel, the Dame de Beauté, the king’s favorite; and finally the rejection by Charles VII, imprisonment, and flight.
Rufin paints the portrait of a cool-headed dreamer and does so masterfully. His “Dream Maker” is not guided by the lure of profit, the desire to accumulate riches: he has the spirit of enterprise and considers money a tool. A tool to put a definitive end to the Hundred Years’ War, render France lastingly prosperous, push back the frontiers of the world and reap the benefits of the knowledge of other cultures and continents. He even encouraged patronage, launching most notably the career of the painter Fouquet, creator of famous portraits of Charles VII and Agnès Sorel. Is Jacques Coeur bigger than Joan of Arc? Without a doubt, he is more useful to the kingdom in the long run. Through his hero, the novelist makes us relive an entire era.
Jacques Coeur is both a pioneer who anticipates the Renaissance and a sentimentalist who is nostalgic for the medieval golden age, courtly love and chivalry, which remain only in tournaments for celebrations at court—hence his passion for the castles he collects. His famous Bourges palace reflects this duality: fortress style from the back (overlooking the ramparts) and Florentine style from the front (overlooking the town).
Rufin doesn’t neglect his “secondary” characters. His blistering portrait of a Charles VII jealous and cruel, yet exceptionally intelligent, who renders his own strength a weakness, is gripping. Jacques Coeur, the liberated man, finds a kindred spirit in Agnès Sorel, the liberated woman. The writer doesn’t resist the temptation to make Coeur’s lover the passion of a lifetime. The portrait of the elderly Pope Nicholas V, inspired more by Greek philosophy than by the Gospels, is equally captivating.
In this time of the dehumanization of the economy and the globalization of the forced march, Jean-Christophe Rufin offers us a sort of return to the source. When commerce was considered one of man’s most beautiful conquests. The world, without limits, dreamed of a new birth. And the greatest dreamer could be a wealthy merchant, a tax collector—Jacques Coeur, the treasurer poet.