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Note:  Jean-Christophe Rufin, a founder of Doctors Without Borders and a writer, was WINNER of the Goncourt Prize in 1997 and WINNER again in 2001.

“[Aurel] had often tried to imagine what hell must be like.  He had come to the conclusion that it was a place not unlike Conakry, particularly where the temperature was concerned, and in addition, rap music would be constantly blaring from huge loudspeakers.”

cover hanged man of conakrySet in French Guinea this “tasty comedy of manners,” as Paris Match describes it, features Aurel Timescu as its antihero, a former Romanian now working for the consular service of the Embassy of France in French Guinea. “As a protest against the unjust fate that had exiled him to this African capital…he dressed as he would have for the middle of winter in Paris.” Pinstriped suits, pointed collar shirts, a red and green-striped necktie, and a customary double-breasted tweed coat gave him an unusual formal look, and in this outfit he was more than a little fortunate because he “did not sweat.”  Aurel’s background is hazy, and though he works in Conakry, he has no close friends.  When an emergency at the marina brings him, the local police, the yacht club employees, the African police, and hordes of spectators to the scene, Aurel learns that a man named Jacques Mayères, who has been staying at the marina for six months, has been found hanging by one foot from the mainsail halyard.  He has been shot in the chest at point blank range, and a safe on his boat has been forced open.  Aurel comes to life with these developments.  He has always wanted to be involved in police work, and he quickly arranges to get a computer with internet connection, which he immediately puts to use to gain information about the victim and his family.


French Guinea became Guinea in 1958.

When he returns to his home, he immediately sits down at his upright piano, places the photo he has obtained of Mayères on his music stand and plays “Mac the Knife” and other songs of the period for most of the night.  Trancelike, he “never takes his eyes off the photo of the dead man.”  Research the next day and interviews with people who knew Mayères and his family reveal the man’s marriage – and Aurel’s own seemingly insatiable thirst for white wine.  Again, Aurel places Mayères’ photograph on his piano and stares it without blinking as he plays music by Satie until it is time to go to the airport.  There he picks up Jocelyne Mayères, physician sister of the dead man and takes her to the morgue to identify the body.  At this point, the reader learns more about Aurel’s own family, who believe that “the dead are present among us.” Aurel becomes convinced that “while it was he who had been gazing at Mayères in the photograph over recent days, today it was the dead man who had looked at him.  He had given him a pale smile, frozen to death.”

upright piano

Old upright, which Aurel took with him on his assignments around the world.

Clues regarding the crime begin to emerge from all the many sources investigating the Mayères murder, and the cast of characters grows.  Of particular interest is the character of Jocelyne Mayères, sister of the victim, a married woman very empathetic with Aurel and his investigation. Jocelyne, unlike every other woman in the novel, gives him credit where it is due and awaits his information with respect and encouragement.  Aurel, of course, enjoys this first experience with a woman who finds him helpful or interesting, and it is impossible not to believe that Aurel is on the verge of falling in love.  This relationship is in direct contrast to that of victim Mayères with his wife, and other characters’ relationships with Mame Fatim, a local prostitute.  As these and other issues become more complex, people hitherto regarded as uninvolved in the case begin to have connections to it, and the novel becomes more difficult to follow.

A small bronze helmet, a copy of classic greek armour, in the style used by semi-mythical characters such as Achilles

At the conclusion Aurel feels as if he will be involved in a duel to the death.

As he did in an earlier novel, Checkpoint, author Rufin has a tendency to “tell about” what is happening, rather than creating vibrant characters so full of life that the reader can remember them, their backgrounds, their hopes and dreams – and the action they face in the future.  Here Aurel is odd, so strange that he is difficult to identify with, and it is only in his reaction to Jocelyne Mayères that he seems to become a true human.  His preoccupation with the supernatural provides unusual interest, but it also serves as an escape for the author, giving him a way to include helpful information about a character and his thoughts without having to justify it in terms of the action or the characters’ own motivations. Suspense is amped up by broad hints given by Aurel to characters.  To Jocelyne, he says:  “Just one thing you should know.  To get at the murderers, we’re going to have to…blow the system wide open….Be ready to help me this evening.  Ready for whatever it takes.”  The elaborate system by which he came to some conclusions has made him feel “like a gladiator about to enter the arena for a duel unto the death.  What he was about to do was so unreasonable that it could be likened if not to a suicide attempt at least to deliberate self-destruction.”

Author Jean-Christophe Rufin, a founder of Doctors Without Borders

Author Jean-Christophe Rufin, a founder of Doctors Without Borders, and author of this book.

Here Aurel becomes a narrator, describing the action to another character, and solving the mystery, step-by-step.  Rufin is a talented writer with the ability to create complex mysteries and even more complex conclusions, and his success is well deserved.  For those whose interest in mysteries revolves primarily around the characters, their motivations, their feelings about the events, and the aftereffects upon them, however, Rufin sacrifices real action in favor of narration  – Aurel’s own wryly distorted version of the action, as told by one of the strangest “heroes” ever leading a murder investigation. Ultimately, Aurel himself acknowledges his significant limitations and sets about to correct the problem on a new level:  “He began to scrawl musical notes, humming all the while.  The theme was very simple, scarcely four notes…but from this rich seed a great tree might grow, a forest.  He could sense rhythm, variations, voices.  He began composing, crossing out, pausing from time to time to reread it all, singing.”

Photos.  The map of Guinea, formerly French Guinea, is from https://www.britannica.com

An old upright piano may be found on https://www.pinterest.com

The Greek war helmet appears on https://www.istockphoto.com

The author’s photo is from https://www.wheelercentre.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Absurdity, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Jean-Christophe Rufin
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 12/28/2021
ISBN: 978-1609457334
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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