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In Leo Africanus, Maalouf delivers a masterpiece of historical fiction
on September 13, 2013
One might not expect a geographer to be a great inspiration for historical fiction. But when that geographer travels the lands he chronicles at a time of great upheaval and turmoil and becomes embroiled in every sort of adventure and meets major historic figures along the way, it can indeed become a lively and engaging novel. Such is the case with the titular Moorish traveler in Amin Maalouf's 1986 book, Leo Africanus.
Born as al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi in Granada in the 1490's, Hasan is forced into exile as a child after the Spanish Reconquista. This sets the tone for his life, as he's constantly on the move. He and his family move to Fez, Morocco, with other refugees, where Hasan comes of age and begins one of his many runs of success. On the way back to Fez from Timbuktu on a diplomatic mission, he happens to be in Cairo when the Ottoman Empire conquers Egypt. Later, he's abducted by Spanish pirates, taken to Rome, and sold to the Pope, who befriends him, baptizes him as Leo Africanus, and employs him as a diplomat to the Ottoman's. Oh, and at the same time as Leo is in Rome, Martin Luther is starting the Reformation. While in Italy, Leo begins the geography of Africa and an Arabic dictionary for which he is remembered.
That brief summary is just the tip of the iceberg. Maalouf does a fantastic job of placing you in the varied and exotic places Leo finds himself and really puts you right there with Leo through all his highs and lows. As exciting as the major political action is, Maalouf vividly brings to life Leo's personal journey as well. You really begin to understand the way this eternal nomad feels as the tide of fate carries him on, and the troubles and joys he finds along the way, in his family, romantic, and professional lives.
Leo Africanus really is an excellent example of historical fiction at its finest. Not only do you get to see interesting historical events up close or understand how ancient societies worked, but you get an intensely personal and touching story as well. Maalouf writes the novel in the form of a memoir from Africanus to his son, and there's a wonderful sense of introspection in the work.
Maalouf also writes beautifully. The language, the pacing, the descriptions - the novel at times almost feels like poetry, but it never veers into self-indulgence. It's even more amazing when considering that the novel was originally published in French and translated by historian Peter Sluglett, who is to be commended for rendering the work in English so well.
I highly recommend Leo Africanus. It does everything historical fiction aims for and does so in a beautiful, poetic, thoughtful voice. I certainly plan to read more from Maalouf, both historical fiction and history. He's a fantastic writer and is very talented at bringing you right into the scene, the time, the society he's describing. Alright, enough already - go get yourself a copy Leo Africanus and get started!