Lies can be more fun
Adventure and ingenuity are the rage in 18th-century Persia
"The Siege of Isfahan," Jean-Christophe Rufin's engaging sequel to his bestselling debut, "The Abyssinian," is a solid example of the adventure genre. In many ways, it's reminiscent of 19th-century British colonial fiction, like Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines," with its exotic setting, and the questions it raises about the fluidity of identity - in terms of gender, family, and nationality.
Set primarily in 18th-century Persia, "The Siege" once again follows the exploits of Jean-Baptiste Poncet, the doctor-hero from Rufin's first novel. (It's tempting to speculate about autobiographical parallels here - Rufin is a doctor, and one of the founders of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Medecins Sans Frontieres.) When the story begins, Poncet and his wife have settled into a pleasant, albeit somewhat staid routine in the Persian capital of Isfahan. He has a successful practice and a luxurious home, where he and Alix frequently entertain guests.
Because they are essentially exiles (Poncet eloped with Alix from Abyssinia, and was under suspicion for murder in connection with the affair), their life is centered around a determined pursuit of happiness. In some ways, it mirrors the hedonism of the waning Persian state, which, "at the height of its refinement, was being threatened on all sides, and seemed to take its increasing decadence as a spur to enjoy the pleasures of the moment."
But Jean-Baptiste and Alix are also secretly terrified by the prospect of the "unlimited expanse of tranquility open before them," and they cannot shake a persistent nostalgia for their past adventures. When Poncet gets word that their old friend, Juremi, has been captured by the Russians, it is just the excuse he needs. He sets off with George, their awkward adopted son, and a taciturn Mongol servant named Kuyuk, to rescue Juremi. They encounter a series of pitfalls along the way - as do Alix and their daughter Saba, back at home, when Isfahan is attacked by the Afghans.
While searching for Juremi, Poncet and his companions are joined by Bibichev, a Russian officer whom Peter the Great assigns to follow them, suspecting that they are plotting a coup. A Malvolio-like figure who dresses all in black, Bibichev reads elaborate - and wrong - meanings into everything the men do, which he dutifully records in long missives sent on to the Russian authorities.
Each time the men stumble into trouble, Bibichev interprets it as part of a master plan. For example, when they are captured by bandits who want to sell them as slaves, he notes suspiciously how quickly they befriend their captors, and concludes that it is all an elaborate money-transferring scheme. By the end of their journey, he is in awe of Poncet's ingenuity, and simply waits for the next development, "like a man confidently on his way to a performance by an artist who has never let him down."
Bibichev isn't the only character who invents his own narrative within the story. A number of characters either deliberately lie or misinterpret facts, highlighting the shifting boundary between truth and fiction. Indeed, the story's entire course of events is set off by a bold lie Jean-Baptiste tells at the beginning, in order to save a friend.
The implication is that, in the realm of the adventure story, lies can be more fun - and in some ways, more meaningful - than the truth.
As the nazir of Persia, to whom Poncet told the original lie, puts it: "We are halfway between India and the West, don't forget. To one side, the cycle of reincarnation, and to the other, the stifling reign of a single truth, whereas we have chosen a path between them: We create ephemeral worlds, dreams, tales, lies if you like."
Liz Marlantes is on the Monitor staff.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor