Age of Chivalry Not Over, French Doctor Says.

Jean-Christophe Rufin. Rouge Brésil. Gallimard. August 2001. (Translation forthcoming as Brazil Red. W. W. Norton. September 2004.)

A contemporary Balzac would do well to write a series of stories about Doctors Without Borders. Like that society of benevolents in La Comédie Humaine, the Brothers of Consolation—ranged against the other secret societies of criminals, capitalists, and libertines like Vautrin’s band or the fantastic Thirteen—Medecins Sans Frontières functions according to a series of Catholic, professional, and aristocratic principles. They do good work without evangelizing; they are dedicated to the craft of healing under difficult and dangerous conditions; and, most importantly for our would-be Balzac, the individuals involved have converted their ability and will for good into political and social power. Their ranks have produced a French minister of health, Bernard Kouchner, and now, in Jean-Christophe Rufin, a winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. For all the half-true talk of the French political class’s rigidity, French society does allow its professionals and intellectuals the kind of upward or lateral social mobility that America’s electorate only confers upon movie stars and sports heros (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Largent) or professionals willing to adopt the mindset of CEOs (Dr. Bill Frist). As a private society that encourages its members to assume power beyond the limited aims of the group, Doctors Without Borders is undeniably better than Skull and Bones, but members of both share a constant tension between an ideal of virtuous action and the gratifications of ambition and egotism. This tension is a curious historical leftover of an aristocratic consciousness; those with the power and skills to help should do so, but the awareness of obligation is never separate from a sense of superiority. They are better than you because they act, and they will not let you forget it when you receive the envelope asking you to make a symbolic contribution while they do the real work.

Something of this superiority seeps into Rufin’s pose as a dilletante novelist. Rufin is less a writer than a modern man of action cut in the mold of Richard Francis Burton, T. E. Lawrence, and André Malraux (whose mantle of world traveler, popular novelist, and political celebrity he is poised to inherit). He admits to the New York Times that he writes primarily to entertain himself. It’s hard to begrudge a hard-working doctor his bit of fun, and if, in the manner of the ancien régime, Rufin passes his leisure hours writing novels when the rest of us are wind-surfing or watching TV, so much the better for him.

But let’s not congratulate him too quickly. Novel writing, especially in France, may have begun as a leisure activity of aristocrats, often emerging out of salon parlor games. Now novelists have attained something close to the same professional status of lawyers or accountants. The amateur who sets himself up as a professional, competing for prizes, cash, advances, and, presumably, film rights, cannot be given a free pass or a round of applause for trying. His leisure takes bread out of other people’s mouths. As fewer French novels make it into English with each passing year, those that do had better be good.

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