Posts Tagged ‘The Description of Africa’

Amin Maalouf: Leo the African

July 13, 2021

     I’d no idea it was so long since I last read this novel, which never ceases to amaze me, because it is a (fictionalised) account of a real life, and I really don’t believe you could make it up.

Jews, Muslims and Christians live reasonably peaceably alongside one another in pre-Reconquista Granada; there is a recap of events leading to the fall of Granada to the Spanish in 1492, and the mayhem which follows for those who are not of the Catholic faith. There is the full vileness of the Inquisition, persecution and the inability of Christians to accept that anyone might be different. Our hero, and narrator, is a Muslim. And though it’s technically a novel, it’s also an autobiography: we cannot have the same expectations of plot as we might have of a completely fictional text; the narrative is linear, but we do grow inevitably attached to people and places.

The narrator and his family leave Granada and settle in Fez; we learn of schooling and lifelong friendships. Eventually he becomes a rich and successful businessman, close to those in power, travels widely and is used on various diplomatic missions by the authorities. His weirdest adventure is his kidnapping by Christians and presentation as a gift to the Pope! Here, his knowledge and skills are put to the service of the incredibly corrupt Church at the time of the Reformation; he is baptised against his will, but escapes being ordained priest before one of his missions. In the end, after years of wanderings, he is able to return to his home and family and live out the remainder of his life in peace as a devout Muslim. I had mis-remembered the plot from my earlier readings, and forgotten how small a section of the novel is his life in Rome at the service of the Pope.

I realised that the narrator’s famous book The Description of Africa is based on his travels all over the north of that continent; when I last read the novel, I had yet to track down that book. Leo travels in the footsteps of his earlier Muslim forbear Ibn Battutah, whose journeys a couple of centuries earlier rivalled those of Marco Polo.

I found the first person narrative effective and convincing. In the back of my mind was always the thought, this stuff is true; the narrative style is that of a devout Muslim, whose faith is at the forefront of his life and deeds (most of the time), and the adventures are almost non-stop. Towards the end of the book, the narrator is at the centre of world-changing events, with the Reformation, the attempts of an incredibly corrupt papacy to consolidate its power and build alliances to secure its future, even if this means joining forces with the Ottomans, and also the various rivalries weakening the Muslim world in those tumultuous years.

Over the years I have come to realise how good a writer Amin Maalouf is. Not only has he written some very good novels, but also a number of very interesting historical and social texts in which he presents thoughtful and powerful analysis of the current state of the world. He has received recognition by being elected to the Académie Française, but that’s all, as far as I’m aware. At the moment, I’m reflecting on what is different about Arabic fiction, thinking of Maalouf, and also Naguib Mahfouz in particular. Maybe it’s my position as an ‘outsider’ to their world, but I’m conscious of a different feel to their novels, one which cannot just be explained by the Muslim background that is omnipresent in a way that Christianity isn’t in Western fiction, for instance. Does anyone out there have any pointers?

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