15 June, 2002Issue 1.1EuropeFictionLiteratureSouth AmericaTranslation

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Two Children and Failed Colonisation

Céline Vacher

Jean-Christophe Rufin
Rouge Brésil
Prix Goncourt, 2001
550 pages

As he himself confesses, Jean-Christophe Rufin finds a particular interest in the moment of first encounter between two civilisations, which he defines as ‘an instant of discovery containing the seeds of future passions and misunderstandings’. An historical novel, Rouge Brésil brings us back to an extraordinary yet often forgotten episode of the French Renaissance: France’s attempt to compete with Portugal in the colonisation of Brazil.

In 1555, an expedition sent by Henri II and led by the Chevalier de Villegagnon leaves France in order to create a ‘France Antarctique’ in Brazil. In this period of humanism already shadowed by religious divisions — from Luther and Calvin’s ideas for Church reform spreading in Europe and leading to the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in 1559 in England — the New World was considered a land cursed by God and therefore to be conquered and ruled by faithful crusaders.

Two children, Just and Colombe, are forced to embark on this expedition to be used as interpreters with the Indians. Through their eyes, readers discover a new world. The wild bay of Rio, peopled with cannibal Indians, is progressively tamed and transformed into a fortress by Villegagnon. But beyond this small world, the forest and its wild precincts appeal to the innermost essence of human nature and offer a space of escape for those who reject Villegagnon’s increasing megalomania.

In this exotic, dangerous microcosm, the quest for their missing father leads Just and Colombe to solve the mystery of their origins and to grow up under the guidance of their respective spiritual parents, Villegagnon for Just, and the maternal forest and the Indians for Colombe. The confrontation of these two worlds leads to the colonists’ obvious domination of the Indians in the form of slavery and prostitution. The equation is further complicated by the arrival of Protestants in the island, called by Villegagnon in the hope of reviving religious feelings among his decadent troops.

The members of the Reformed Church, supposedly opened to reason and tolerance, appear to be as fanatic as their Catholic persecutors in France, and the uncompromising stubbornness of both factions leads to anticipated Religious Wars. The effect rendered is that of a progressive evolution from Villegagnon’s idealistic humanism, his belief in reason and virtue tinged by chivalrous reminiscences and his faith in God, to pure hatred and self-destructive divisions and rivalries. Hence, nothing but the return to France or even better, the return to the original state of nature, can purge the colonists.

Thus, in the subtle antithesis embodied by Just – following Villegagnon’s enthusiasm towards civilisation — and Colombe — discovering her femininity in the pleasure of wild life with the Indians — Rufin unfolds the vanity of the former’s dreams, and the precariousness of the latter’s.

Through language that recovers a sixteenth-century accent, Rufin draws a vivid picture of this multi-coloured world. The disfigured island, masculine, monumental, and soiled, symbolizes of the foolishness of man. The forest, feminine, virgin, protective, suggests the possibility of reaching a form of wisdom and casts the shadow of cannibalism and other bestial impulses.

The historicity of the novel is ingeniously intertwined with the dramatization of Just and Colombe’s fates as individuals, but we could justly reproach the author for offering caricatures in place of characters: Villegagnon’s sudden change from a passionate lover of humanity into the cruel Huguenot-murderer he historically appears to be, is scarcely realistic.

The ‘fictional’ part concerning Just and Colombe also lacks originality. Readers may easily recognize the story of human beings searching for their roots. Here, two children haunted by the absence of the father find parental substitutes to complete their education and eventually discover the truth about their origins, all in an exotic locale calculated to titillate more than to provide a point of contact with the average reader..

The final impression one has when closing the book is that of a deeply interesting and intelligent novel that successfully fictionalises an eventful and culturally dense period of the Renaissance. However, Rufin does not offer the reader enough to sustain the suspense. Each episode is programmed and easily predictable. This must be attributed to an inner weakness of the genre of the historical novel. By definition, such pieces recount an event that has already happened.

The greatest satisfaction one can draw from the reading of such a story may be the ability to appreciate the variety and richness of the multiple—literary, religious, historical—references that punctuate the text.

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TRANSLATION

Is it possible that a land could have remained hidden in biblical times, unknown to Alexander and Jesus Christ, to Virgil as well as Attila, and that the cause for such a banishment could have been a serious curse?

On the deck of the caravels, minds were haunted by this question. A surprising horror invaded those who most desired to see the land again when the black mass of the relief appeared in the West, tinted with the blue cold of the morning.

The sea, which they had first feared so much, had progressively become a protective shell. The mountain finger that slowly parted the smooth valves of the sky and of the waters announced a huge encounter, from which they did not know what to expect. For some, it was hope: always fond of cataclysms, the Anabaptists were dancing on the upper deck, looking forward to the eruptions to come, in the fires of which the old world they loathed would burn. The simple soldiers, fed by popular convictions inferred from Ptolemy, were moaning at the thought that they were going to pay for audaciously wanting to reach the edge of the world. The figures of giant monks or warriors in chasuble, outlined yet scarcely visible, as they approached the coast, certainly were those of executioners summoned by God to hurl them down into the void.

Others, better armed with religion, thought they were reaching either Hell, or Paradise, according to their natural optimism and their merits. (…)

As for Colombe and Just, they did not know what to think. For their own sake, they were evoking aloud the fabulous discoveries of King Arthur’s time, the islands peopled with faceless knights. But they could hardly believe in these stories. The long journey had left their bodies almost intact but had touched the soul’s invisible muscle that allows it to spring out of the tangible world. The only knights in which they now believed were no longer faceless: they were Villegagnon’s companions, with their thug faces, their swords eaten by salt by their sides, and the Maltese cross on their chests. Thus, they idealized the shore only to spare each other the cruel certainty that it really belonged to the ordinary world.

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Céline Vacher is a visiting student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France. She studies English literature and is presently working on Jane Austen and the theory of interpretation.