Set during a little-known episode in French imperial history (the failed colonization of Rio de Janeiro in 1556), Jean-Christophe Rufin’s Brazil Red is a swashbuckling melodrama with a distinctly 21st-century guilt complex. A physician-turned-writer, Rufin made his name in France with his humanitarian work (Action Against Hunger; Doctors Without Borders), and his novels are populated with the unmistakable archetypes (innocent third-worlders, Christianity-exporting Western devils) of an activist’s heavy hand. No exception, Brazil Red eagerly condemns its fair-skinned conquerors as misguided and hopelessly good-intentioned, but Rufin’s p.c. breast-beating sounds hollower than usual, a concession to the gods of action-adventure, and a sure sign that the author’s goal is a modest one—to entertain, to titillate, and in short, to put the story back in history.
Published in France three years ago, Brazil Red benefits from translation in at least one department: Its two diminutive protagonists, a brother and sister uprooted from bucolic Normandy to serve as interpreters in the New World, are named Just and Colombe—literally Justice and Dove (i.e., Peace)—and translator Willard Wood has wisely chosen not to provide the English equivalents of these absurdly totemic appellations. The inseparable siblings endure a hellish transatlantic passage (Colombe passes as a boy), but once they make landfall, their paths diverge—Just becomes the right-hand man of the expedition’s Captain Villegagnon, an ultra-devout Catholic whose zeal is likened to that of “an artist addressing a freshly quarried block of marble for a pietá.” Meanwhile, little sis puts her linguistic skills to use and goes native. Back in Europe, Venetian doges conspire with Portuguese royalty to unseat the French colonists while a retinue of Swiss Calvinists plots an even more forceful takeover. The various parties eventually converge on the colony—a veritable dress rehearsal for the wars of religion that would soon plague Europe.
All this ecclesiastical backstabbing is bound to leave the reader with one burning question: What would Umberto Eco have done with this material? Certainly, Rufin wasn’t interested in creating a labyrinthine historical thriller on the order of The Name of the Rose, but he has erred in the opposite direction, creating a narrative that is undeniably epic (covering close to 20 characters over the course of three years) and disappointingly airy. Ultimately, Brazil Red may itself be a victim of too many good intentions. Rufin embalms the native population in a righteous glow and the result is the literary equivalent of a museum diorama—lifelike but inert, richly detailed yet condescendingly simplistic. (The novel’s pulse quickens only when Rufin is cataloging his protagonists’ burgeoning adolescence.) Rufin does get one thing right: Colonialism is the closest thing Western Europe has to an original sin, a virulent strain of ambition that is realized not when the New World is conquered, but when the old one is left behind.