In 1699, Louis XIV of France sent an embassy to the most mysterious of oriental sovereigns, the Negus, or King, of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). Louis' hope was to lure that country into the political and religious orbit of France.Jean-Baptiste Poncet, young apothecary/physician to the pashas of Cairo, is the hero of this romantic epic embroidering upon the known details of that long-forgotten embassy. Selected by the French consul to lead the mission. Poncet travels through the deserts of Egypt and the mountains of Abyssinia to the court of the Negus, thence to Versailles and back again. Along the way he falls madly in love with the consul's daughter, treats the Negus for a mysterious skin ailment, and gains a disastrous audience with the king of France.
A fun, witty read, with an intrepid hero, a devoted lady love, and a delightful couple as sidekicks, Maitre Juremi and Francoise. Lose yourself in this one; I guarantee a good time.
The Cast: M. de Maillet (the Mallet) is the French consul in Cairo, married to a fluttery hen of a wife and father of a beautiful daughter (naturally), who catches the eye and instantaneously captures the heart of Jean-Baptiste Poncet, an herbalist and business partner of the dour Maître Juremi, an apothecary and restorer of fine art works, and the pulchritudinous Francoise. Mlle Maillet has already enraptured the Consul’s secretary, M. Macé, who on meeting Poncet for the first time, feels himself “invaded by a lively hatred..” Otherwise, Catholics, Muslims, and Copts seem to live in relative harmony and the French consul is only disturbed by domestic storms invariably whipped up by his own hypochondriacal overwrought imagination or by his wife’s panicked response to her husband’s lack of equanimity. Then a “Stranger Comes to Town” – the arrival of a mysterious Jesuit envoy (or is he?), Father Versau, bears a message directly from the Sun King’s court. Or, so he says.
Louis XIV wishes to create an alliance and “restore” the Catholic faith to Abyssinia and M. de Maillet is the man to do it. Except the consul demurs and proposes that a merchant undertake the dangerous venture into the land of the negus, one commander of the caravan, Hajji Ali. And the adventure begins, for naturally, it is Jean-Baptiste and Juremi who are assigned the task of escorting the envoy to the lands of the Lion. What better way to get rid of the unsuitable suitor, de Maillet thinks in response to his secretary's suggestion. And that is only the beginning.
My reading is punctuated by outbursts of my laughter at Rufin’s turns of phrase, such as the oxymoronic description of the consul: “. . .he was bursting with proud humility.” For Quixotic adventure, for acerbic commentary, for camels, for desert nights, for voluptuous lady loves, for the sheer joy of reading one can’t beat this novel.