Jean-Christophe Rufin, one of the earliest members of Doctors Without Borders and former Ambassador of France in Senegal, spins a vivid tale of the physical, psychological — and philosophical — costs of supplying humanitarian aid to war zones in his latest literary novel, “Checkpoint,” translated from French by Alison Anderson and available in the United States through Europa Editions.
Set during the Bosnia war, five aid workers from NGO Le Tete d’Or set out in two sputtering transport vehicles to deliver aid to trapped women and children. But as they drive from Lyons, France, to central Bosnia, the mission changes as they learn their cargo includes not just medicine and clothing but something else that, if discovered at a checkpoint, could lead to their deaths.
They’re a motley bunch: Maud, the youngest and only woman, whose confidence and focus wains throughout the course; Lionel, the leader who’s more comfortable smoking dope than giving orders; Alex and Marc, former soldiers with personal reasons for joining the mission; and Vauthier, the grumbling old man who may or may not be a cop.
The novel centers around the larger philosophical question of what is humanitarian aid, as Rufin explores more in-depth in the novel’s afterward: “What do the ‘victims’ need — to survive or win? Where must the aid go: to their animal side, demanding sustenance and shelter, or to their strictly human side, demanding the wherewithal to fight even at the risk of self-sacrifice?”
Important and engaging questions, though they may have been addressed more pointedly with fewer characters and pages. The beginning slogs under the weight of the journey and back stories to be explored, and while the narrative is straightforward and engaging, the characters are disappointing and flat, particularly Maud, who borders on caricature, existing only, it seems, to interview the men as they drive; act weak in moments of crisis (“Alex touched her hand and she regained her self-control,” “Maud ... only seemed to recover her wits when she felt Marc’s firm hand around her arm,”), or present sudden reflections not grounded in the narrative: (“Why was it so difficult to be a woman — why did she wish she weren’t one?”) While she gets a moment of heroism in the end, the act only further cements her role as a romantic prize.
“Checkpoint” is an engaging, if uneven, book about the complications of humanitarian aid and war.