Checkpoint by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Translated by Alison Anderson

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

The first character we meet is Maud, a young and naive Frenchwoman who is apparently badly injured, being driven by Marc through the snow, pursued by forces they clearly fear but of which we know nothing. This prologue, it quickly appears, is not a prelude but a consequence of the narrative to be unfolded, of five ill assorted aid workers driving from France into a remote area of the former Yugoslavia.  The country is in a state of chaotic and shifting war, with boundaries between forces moving every day, alliances and assaults coming from nowhere, atrocity and bravery on every hand.  The confusion we feel at the beginning – how was Maud injured, who is pursuing them, what is the relationship between Maud and Marc – mirrors the confusion that envelops everyone in the country; no one understands, no one can see a way through.

The novel itself starts with Maud, too:

This was the time in the truck Maud liked best. The autumn evening was gently coming on; the cool air did not yet oblige them to roll up the windows. The bakelite steering wheel was so wide you had to spread your arms to turn it. It transmitted the vibrations from the engine, and when she drove uphill Maud felt as if she were clinging to the neck of an enormous beast.

Later, after they have been driving for several weeks, often camping at the roadside, trundling nervously through depressing scenery of grey and brown, overlain with human construction and destruction, she gets the chance in the UN building to have a shower:

Maud had experienced a moment of relief as she watched the dirt drain away, then combed her wet hair, its softness restored at last. But now she was not so sure that the miracle could happen again. She had reached the conclusion that all this grayness and mud and violence was clinging to her skin too firmly for her ever to hope she could slough it off. … she thought she looked old and damaged. 

Her companion, Marc, picks up the unspoken thought:

That’s what’s so terrible about this country. It’s ugly.  … In these mountains, the scenery is always sad. …the only thing that adds some color is blood.

The novel is set in 1995, but written later in 2015, and the edition is the first publication of the translation from the French, by Alison Andersen.  I have to say it’s generally a straightforward, unobtrusive translation (apart from the American spellings), but there oddities – one of the UN commanders, for example, says “Zounds” as an exclamation, and refers to someone as “his nibs”, which is most peculiar. But these are small exceptions, and generally the language is plain, clear and straightforward.  But one word demands special attention – Rufin, in an afterword, tells us that he has called his book Checkpoint, the word he uses throughout instead of point de controle, because of its edgier connotation, not of order and the state, but of challenges to the state, local violence and unpredictability.  This, of course, is a subtlety we lose  – we cannot spot that he is using the English word because the French just won’t do.

The five characters at the centre of the narrative are a mixed bunch, two ex soldiers, Marc and Alex, who are friends but have very different reasons for being part of a small aid convoy; Maud, a young girl who is idealistic, protective and frightened of her femininity and sexuality; Lionel, an aid office worker who is leading the team, mainly to impress Maud, and is out of his depth and knows it; and Vauthier, a loner who they suspect of being a policeman. From the outset, they quarrel, resent each others’ different views of the mission, and have secret motivations.  Alex, for example, is trying to get back to the Bosnian refugee he loves, and Marc is supposedly helping him, and illegally carrying explosives and equipment to help the Bosnian refugees run their coal mines. This is already secret from the others, but in fact Marc has quite another agenda.  Quarrels flare up under the stress of danger, relationships change quickly, and the shock of real experience – fear when shot at, a field full of corpses following a massacre – changes them unpredictably.

The twin themes of the novel are loyalty and futility.  Their loyalty to a humanitarian ideal wears through quickly, but just as fragile is their loyalty to each other.  The two soldiers stay together against the others while they think they are sharing a secret, but when Marc and Maud fall in love (at least she falls in love with him and surrenders her virginity to him in an abandoned building en route) they leave the group, taking one truck with them and tearing up the patterns of alliance and hostility.

But in the end, all is in vain.  The refugee girlfriend has left with another man, the military mission Marc is running would have failed anyway as he is outsmarted by Vauthier, but is irrelevant because of the entry of NATO into the conflict following an outrage in Sarajevo.  One feels that Maud’s love will not be returned, one of the five dies without achieving his goal, and another faces humiliation and failure on his return to France.

In his afterword, Rufin also gives us some insight into his own motivations and perceptions.  This is Europe tearing itself apart, a Europe where everyone has decided to take up arms for protection against the threat they are afraid of. There is a bit of our present day in this long-ago past and, I fear, a great deal of our future. He talks of the hope of hearing about love, about living, in the midst of the inhumanities he saw in Bosnia and we all hear about with Boko Haram in Nigeria, or ethnic and religious minorities in Syria, but his final sentence is fearfully ambiguous, possibly inspiring but possibly desperate and chilling: One would like to love these victims with a special kind of love: the love that is a call to arms.

Jean-Christophe Rufin,  Checkpoint  (Europa, 2017). 978-1609453725  300pp, paperback.

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