It's one of those incredible -- what I mean is "rocambolesque"-- stories I love, set in exotic countries but also with a part in Paris.
The language is marvellous, French at its best, complex yet flowing, something you don't come across all that often in modern miterature.
The writer, JC Rufin, is himself an interesting man who is a humanitarian activist as well as a writer.
"A graduate of the Institut d'études politiques de Paris, in 1986 he became advisor to the secretary of state for human rights, and published his first book, Le Piège humanitaire (The Humanitarian Trap), an essay on the political stakes of humanitarian actions."
As a doctor, he is one of the pioneers of humanitarian movement "without borders", for which he has led numerous missions in eastern Africa and Latin America.
A former vice-president of Médecins Sans Frontières, he is currently president of the non-governmental organization Action Against Hunger."
Here is a review from amazon.com:
"This review is from: The Abyssinian : A Novel
According to the dust jacket, THE ABYSSINIAN by Jean-Christophe Rufin is a first novel. If so, I hope Rufin writes many more books because THE ABYSSINIAN is one of the best works of fiction I've read in a while. Rufin is a French physician who has spent many years working with Doctor's Without Borders. His writing reflects his medical background as well as his love of and regard for his fellow human beings.
Rufin is both romantic and a realist. A major thread in the plot of THE ABYSSINIAN involves a romance between his protagonist Jean-Baptiste Poncet, unlicensed lower-class medical practicioner living in Cairo, and Alix Maillet, the beautiful upper-class daughter of the French Ambassador to Egypt. Rufin's story is made real by his deft interweaving of actual historical events and evocative fictional episodes he has crafted from his obvious knowledge of the era and its political machinations.
The basis of the book is an event that occurred in 1699 when Louis XIV sent an embassy of ministers, Jesuits, and a physician to the Negus or King of Abyssinian. The Negus was sick and admitted the strangers only because they accompanied the physician whom he hoped would provide a cure for his malady. In the 17th Century, Abyssinia was a mysterious Coptic Christian country closed to outsiders for centuries. The nation-states of Europe and the Muslim countries of the near east struggled for control of Abyssinia which lay in North Africa southeast of Egypt. A desire for economic gain through trade lay behind the French King's offer of a physician to the Negus.
But other factors were at play. In the 17th Century, conflict continued between various Roman Catholic orders, between Catholics and Protestants, and between Christians and Muslims, all of whom sought relgious dominance. THE ABYSSINIAN is populated with French Jesuits, Italian Domincans, and Muslim imams all struggling to convert Abyssinians. The Jesuits' goal was to use the King's embassy as a means of penetrating the Coptic populace for the purpose of proselytization.
Like Dumas' action-thrillers, Rufin's book is filled with sword-play, gallantry, and back-stabbing, but unlike Dumas, Rufin's characters are fully developed. Poncet's sidekick, the apothocary Maitre Juremi is vividly drawn. Both Alix and Francoise (Juremi's love interest) are "real" women. Poncet is an honorable young man who seeks to win his fortune and claim his love's hand without selling his soul. His mission is dangerous and as he attempts to make his way back to Alix, the reader will wonder if he can possibly accomplish his goal in an age 'sans merci'. Long after you've read THE ABYSINIAN, you will recall the vivid imagery of an exotic place now lost to the world though civil war, and the wrenching suffering of a pair of lovers separated by the cruel irony of chance."
I also recommend its sequel "Sauver Ispahan"-- "the Siege of Ispahan."