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The Irish Times: “Rufin has written a graceful, unpretentious little miracle, a morality play of immense skill.”

Date: Jul 4 2015

The Red Collar by Jean-Christophe Rufin review: dignified and compassionate

Rufin creates convincing individuals with pitch-perfect dialogue

Relentless heat incapacitates a small French town. It is the summer of 1919, and life is not quite back to normal. Adding to the unreality is the presence of a decorated war hero being detained in the otherwise abandoned barrack. His fall from grace is a mystery. The streets are deserted except for a weary old dog that has barked for two days, “making a deep sound that was enough to drive you mad”. Dujeux the guard is so irritated by the racket that he throws stones – but keeps missing.

It is a wonderful opening scene, stark yet evocative. The guard’s frustration is immediate; “being conscientious, he felt he couldn’t leave the premises . . . Dujeux briefly considered using his pistol. But it was peace time now; he wondered whether he had any right to fire a shot like that, in the middle of the town, even at a dog.”

Within a few sentences it is also apparent that, whatever about the guard’s failure to silence the stray, the ordinary people are angry about the hell they endured and blame the government.

The Red Collar is a brief, disarming, deceptively low-key novella – a surprise, considering the scale of Jean-Christophe Rufin’s previous works. This double Prix Goncourt winner is that rare thing, particularly in France: an old-style storyteller drawn to historical fiction. Rufin’s first winner, The Abyssinian (1997; English translation 1999) is a lush epic adventure seething with romance. A yarn worthy of the Dumas family, it is inspired by a delegation that Louis XIV sent, in 1699, to the Negus, or ruler, of Abyssinia, with the aim of luring that country into France’s political and religious sphere.

Rufin, a subtle satirist, has always cited Dumas and Victor Hugo as his major literary influences. As a doctor serving with Médecins Sans Frontières and, later, Opération Turquoise in Rwanda, Rufin witnessed international conflicts, including those in Kurdistan, Nicaragua and Eritrea, and the fall of President Marcos in the Philippines. He led the French humanitarian mission to Bosnia.

An astute observer, he has a natural feel for description, but his defining gift is probably characterisation. He creates convincing individuals who talk in pitch-perfect dialogue. The Abyssinian captivates even readers not usually drawn to historical fiction.

Much the same may be said of his other Prix Goncourt winner, Brazil Red (2001; 2004), which tells the story of an ill-fated attempt by French expeditionary forces in 1555 to colonise Brazil. Satirical in tone, it suggests that, had history worked out differently, modern Brazil may well have been speaking French instead of Portuguese.

This new novel is very different, spare and elegant, again demonstrating Rufin’s cinematic style. It is easy to imagine the sweaty faces, the prevailing airlessness and the laconic communal resentment.

Dujeux has no relief staff and has taken to sleeping in his clothes on a straw mattress in his office. “He was getting too old for this.” Convinced he has had no sleep for two days because of the barking, he is then caught napping by the arrival in the doorway of an officer “strapped into a royal blue tunic that was far too thick for the time of year but was nevertheless buttoned up to the neck”. The new arrival stares disapprovingly. There is no concession to a formal greeting. “Can’t you get that mutt to stop?” the military investigating officer asks. He too is sweating and turns to the window: “You should open this, it’s stifling in here.” To which poor flustered Dujeux replies to the much younger, although senior, man: “It’s because of the dog, sir . . .”

The conversation continues with the officer, a major, almost speaking to himself yet asking aloud about the dog’s breed. “It looks like a Weimaraner.” Dujeux has little interest aside from venturing: “With all due respect, I’d say it’s more likely a mongrel.”

Still the officer persists, speculating about the animal. “Dujeux thought it best not to intervene. Just another aristocrat obsessed with hunting and hounds, one of those country squires who’d done so much damage during the war with their airs and graces, and their incompetence.”

Rufin watches as his characters interact with each other. Social class defines and separates the men. The guard, who is 50, believes he has correctly assessed the major as “about thirty years old and, with this war they’d just had, it was quite common to see stripes popping up on men that young”.

When the major asks if Dujeux served, the jailer stands a little taller and starts to describe how he was wounded on the Marne. But the younger man cuts him off, leaving no doubt that he is more interested in the dog outside.

The narrative proceeds to the central story, that of the prisoner, Morlac, who pretends to be sleeping. It is only at this point that the major even bothers to introduce himself: “I’m squadron leader Lantier du Grez. Hugues Lantier du Grez. We’re going to have a bit of a chat, if you’d like to.”

The major prides himself on his conversational approach to interrogation. Just when it seems this superb novella can’t get any better, it does. The prose is measured and exact. In the exchanges between the major, whose pomposity and polite curiosity are tempered by empathy, the prisoner emerges as angry and candid but also as deeply hurt. Indifferent to his plight, he doesn’t care if he is executed. To the major this cannot happen; he suspects that although a mess exists, he, the major, alone can fix it.

The dialogue develops into an evasive sparring match. Adriana Hunter, widely praised for her translation of Veronique’s Olmi’s harrowing Beside the Sea (2001; 2010) has achieved an equally masterful rendition here, as Rufin is a writer of nuance. Each word and gesture is deliberate; he never leaves interpretation to chance.

Morlac is stubborn and blunt on the subject of the dog. Despite its devotion and its many battle scars, the prisoner, a farmer’s son, has little sentiment to spare. The major had seen action at the Somme; that Morlac had fought in the Dardanelles, not at the Western Front, is for him a mere sideshow, almost a source of fun. He does it on purpose. The strained rapport between the two men seems as natural as breathing.

Some kilometres away a haggard young woman waits. She has been wronged, but she can explain. Inspired by an anecdote shared by a friend, Rufin has written a graceful, unpretentious little miracle, a morality play of immense skill. “During the course of that endless war, Lantier had been through every kind of emotion.”

The story is about the depressed and angry soldier outraged by the vagaries of bad timing, yet it is more fully about humanity, a determined dog and dawning perception. Here is a dignified, unsentimental and compassionate narrative to make one feel enriched, somehow better for having read it.

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