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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Operation Rimbaud

Jacques Godbout

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To purchase Operation Rimbaud

Title: Operation Rimbaud
Author: Jacques Godbout
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 156 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Operation Rimbaud - US
Operation Rimbaud - UK
Operation Rimbaud - Canada
Opération Rimbaud - Canada
Opération Rimbaud - France
  • French title: Opération Rimbaud
  • Translated by Patricia Claxton

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Our Assessment:

B : fun, wild idea, but a bit lean (in the wrong ways) for a thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'actualité . 1/5/1999 Gilles Marcotte
Canadian Literature . 207 (Winter/2010) Judith Leggatt
Lit. Rev. of Canada . 17:3 (4/2009) Esi Edugyan
Nuit Blanche . 14/1/2003 Jean-Guy Hudon
Voir . 24/3/1999 Raymond Bertin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Les événements s'enchaînent rapidement les uns aux autres, l'écriture court, amusée, cynique, parfois tendre – il y a deux jolies femmes dans le paysage -, dans un décor exotique que Jacques Godbout évoque superbement. Ce n'est pas seulement le missionnaire, le jésuite, qui a pris du tonus; l'écrivain est dans une très belle forme. Le personnage du narrateur, ce personnage auquel Godbout accorde toutes ses complaisances, lui donne une occasion nouvelle d'en découdre avec ces clercs, ces curés, ces jésuites enfin qu'il poursuit de son ironie depuis le début de sa carrière de romancier." - Gilles Marcotte, L'actualité

  • "Larochelle has an ongoing crisis of faith, and the physical manifestation of the Ten Commandments, central tenets of his religion, becomes more an object of monetary and political value than a religious icon. In his attempt to bring the Commandments out of Ethiopia, he breaks most of the rules written on the stones themselves" - Judith Leggatt, Canadian Literature

  • "Operation Rimbaud tells a rollicking story of adventure, greed and religious sterility set against the backdrop of revolutionary Ethiopia. (...) The playful, metaphorical language is not always successful (...) Having compared the original and the English text side by side, I can say that the translation is very faithful and extremely fluid. (...) Operation Rimbaud is both an adventure story and a satire. As with most adventure fiction with a strong satirical strain, you must suspend your disbelief to fully engage with the plot. But if you can, you are in for a fast-paced, often amusing story of romance and double-crossings that is also a meditation on the nature of religion." - Esi Edugyan, Literary Review of Canada

  • "Opération Rimbaud est un récit court, non transcendant, mais drôle et en général bien mené, malgré certains passages où la vraisemblance est mise à rude épreuve. (Mais n'est-ce pas un clin d'œil auctorial ?) C'est aussi un roman bien écrit où se révèle l'aisance de l'écrivain d'expérience et où s'affiche le vocabulaire idoine de qui a digéré des acquis culturels." - Jean-Guy Hudon, Nuit Blanche

  • "Le style de Jacques Godbout, limpide, coulant, est tout de même touffu; les références culturelles, historiques et religieuses s'y multiplient autant que les actions. Si tout y est à peu près vraisemblable, les ficelles sont parfois grosses. Il n'y a pas de psychologie, à point tel qu'on a par moments la sensation de lire un bon scénario, voire une bande dessinée. Léger et amusant, surtout pas ennuyant." - Raymond Bertin, Voir

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Operation Rimbaud is a slim little thriller -- and a high-stakes (and exotic) one. Godbout's narrator, Michel Larochelle, writes his account from the comforts of a luxury hotel in Biarritz, in the spring of 1967. He's shaking down nothing less than the Vatican, and spends his time waiting for an answer from the Bank of the Holy Spirit writing this account. As he explains, a third of the way into his story:

If the response to my demand is positive, the manuscript will never leave Eugénie's hotel, I shall burn it page by page in the fireplace in my room. However, if the Superior General of the Jesuits sends me a negative response, Moses himself will be turning in his grave.
       So the basic outcome seems fairly clear at this point -- the reader is reading the account, so clearly it wasn't destroyed, suggesting Larochelle did not get the pay-off he wanted. Still, until it gets to that point he can first regale readers with how he got to this one.
       In the novel's opening paragraph, Larochelle warns that his will be: "a sulphurous story":
You'll have to hold your nose if you want to hear it. Anyway, here I am this morning, writing something sacrilegious, satanic, scandalous.
       Larochelle is a Canadian in his mid-thirties. He had joined the Jesuits to escape his meager circumstances and as a means of getting a good education; once he completed his studies he then had the opportunity to travel widely and engage in activities he enjoyed as part of the organization (after taking his: "mercenary vows: poverty, chastity, mendacity"). Claxton translates the French 'Compagnie de Jésus' as 'Company of Jesus', though in fact they call themselves the Society of Jesus in English, but the 'Company'-connotations are on the mark too: in Larochelle's telling and experience:
The Company is a convenient cover for a certain number of clandestine activities
       While some associates do go in for the religious stuff, it's worldwide network also make a great cover for intelligence-type work, and it's this that Larochelle seems both quite good at and to enjoy (since, as far as his vows go, poverty and chastity have less appeal to him -- though he seems mostly fine with all the mendacity). Mostly, it's afforded him the kind of life he likes; as he admits: "I do belong to the Company, but it's a convenience" (rather than, say, a matter of any real conviction).
       It's the counter-culturing late 60's, and the times are impacting the Jesuits, as: "recruits had been defrocking in droves and our ranks were being decimated by a lifestyle revolution", so their options are somewhat limited when they're called upon to undertake a sensitive and dangerous mission -- but they decide Larochelle might be the man for the job. It is a pretty sensational undertaking: Ethiopian ruler Hailé Selassie has turned to the Vatican for help; visiting Canada shortly afterwards he spells out the details of the mission for the chosen one. (Points for authenticity here: the king of kings actually did visit Montréal around this time.)
       The Ethiopia of that time is already in some turmoil, and Hailé Selassie's position more precarious (though in fact he'd last until 1974 before being deposed). Larochelle thinks (to himself) that: "He didn't need Jesuits, he needed the American army or the CIA to deal with those nascent Marxist cells", but the emperor's specific concerns are different ones. He wants ensure the safety of the Arc of the Covenant -- or rather, its contents, the two stone tablets of the biblical Ten Commandments. Yes, these are supposedly in Ethiopia, and Hailé Selassie wants to smuggle them out before his enemies have the opportunity to get their hands on them.
       Larochelle is up for the challenge, and heads to Ethiopia, where he puts a plan into motion -- 'Operation Rimbaud' --, with the help of two of the emperor's natural children (i.e. the products of extramarital affairs).
       Operation Rimbaud moves along pretty quickly and straightforwardly. There's a plan, there are difficulties; not everything goes quite as hoped for (repeatedly).
       It's no small irony that the objects Larochelle is tasked with appropriating are the moral foundation of modern civilization -- and that in taking them Larochelle is breaking commandments left and right. Larochelle understands: "Our societies were built on these stones" -- but, in this time of crumbling societies, he's ready to do what it takes to get what he wants. So also then there's a change of plans, as he doesn't deliver the tablets to the Vatican but rather detours to the Louvre -- and then slips them away in order to hold them for (a considerable) ransom.
       It makes for a bit of an odd mix of a thriller. It certainly has all the elements -- and a solid main character in its wayward Jesuit-cum-secret agent narrator, as also his Jesuit connections and contacts make for an appealing and unusual element in this kind of story. The morality-tale elements add an interesting spin to the story as well -- even if Godbout doesn't mine the ten commandments for absolutely all they're worth. And, after all of it, Godbout even does manage to still shock with his conclusion (yes, Larochelle most definitely does not return to the fold).
       But much of it also all feels a bit thin. Yes, Godbout does provide quite a bit of decent foundational material regarding the characters and conditions -- sharp details rather than simple summary -- yet that makes one wish for more, as well: he shows he can do it, but only sprinkles it throughout the novel. Indeed, the very rich material -- including 1960s Ethiopia -- would all benefit from much more expansive treatment; certainly, between the Ethiopia of the time and the Jesuit order -- never mind the Arc of the Covenant --, Godbout has pieces -- huge chunks -- that could take up much, much more of the novel. The pacing would seem to be there -- events move along quickly in a fairly exciting plot (this really is a thriller, with all the standard elements and twists of one) -- but one almost feels like one is missing the gist. And a few things are stretched a bit far -- so, for example, Larochelle consulting Timothy Leary (who confidently declares the Ten Commandments obsolete and asserts: "I'm the new Moses"); at least that's not an alternative path (trip) Larochelle bothers to entertain.
       Operation Rimbaud is a neat little thriller, with a nice bit of frustrated anger in its narrator's voice -- even as he's also able to enjoy the finer things of life, when opportunity arises, a welcome contrast. Godbout perhaps doesn't do enough with such a potentially big story, but it's still a decent quick and agreeably thought-provoking read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 July 2020

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Operation Rimbaud: Reviews: Other books by Jacques Godbout under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Canadian literature
  • See Index of French literature
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Jacques Godbout was born in 1933.

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© 2020 the complete review

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