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BOOK REVIEWS: Trickster Travels; in search of Leo Africanus, a sixteenth century Muslim between Worlds by Natalie Zemon Davis
published by Faber, isbn 978-0-571-20256-0

How dare she, was my first thought. How brave, my second, as I wondered how anyone could sail another book on Leo Africanus past the Scylla of Amin Maaloufšs intensely imagined historical novel and the Charybdis of the dauntingly few facts known about the man. Nor does Natalie Davis follow a conventional approach, such as physically following in Leošs footsteps through the landscapes, peoples, courts and cities that are so vigorously evoked in his great work, The Description of North Africa. Indeed her work, far from being roughened by journeys across the Sahara, has seemingly been conceived within the rarefied world of a Renaissance library. For Trickster Travels is as much an analytical reading of Leo Africanusšs writings, set against the intellectual corpus of his time, as it is a narrative-driven biography. So much so that the differences between a unique 936-page manuscript of Leošs, still extant in Rome, and the first printed version of his book as edited in Venice, becomes one of the central sources of evidence.

But donšt let a 400-page examination of the writings of a minor 16th-century diplomat, born in Granada and educated in Morocco, who wrote the first geography of North Africa as a Christian captive-convert in Rome, put you off. Natalie Davis has created a brilliant book that succeeds in opening up new perspectives, not just on Leo Africanus but also on Mediterranean society at the time. While her undeniably weighty scholarship is driven along by a detective-like pursuit of the real nature of Leo Africanus, it is coupled with a free-ranging inquiry into the spirit and oddities of his times: as if The Quest for Corvo or The Hermit of Peking were sprinkled with some of the golden dust of Helen Waddell or Frances Yatešs idiosyncratic learning.

It is a warm and humane work, drained of the jealousy that too often defaces scholarship, and I was delighted to see Maaloufšs fictional Leo referred to throughout. Even when she unpicks the trickster devices that Leo used to excuse his changeling existence, at no point does the author lose affection for her subject. His attitude to race, sexuality, civilization, his Jewish colleagues, Islam, Africa and his adoption of Christianity are all examined with critically acute and unblinking eyes. Davis also looks at why he fails to comment on the great innovations of his day, such as the printing press and the circumnavigation of Africa. To my relief he comes out as a free-thinker beneath a thin veil of scholarly conformity.

Among the many passing pleasures of this book are Leošs interest in the transvestite community of Fez (who despite being outcast prostitutes, also had official status as society mourners and army cooks) as well as getting an opportunity to marvel with him at the complexity of zaširayat divination as practiced on the marble floors of Fez's Bou Inania medersa. The poetically-framed answers of this form of intellectual crystal-gazing had once so enchanted the brilliant polymath Ibn Khaldoun that Œhe danced and twirled with delight. Me too.

Having traced Leošs gradual advance in confidence, as his work in Rome moves from transcription to commentaries and translations, we can also appreciate how in writing his Description of North Africa, Leo felt cut off from the great works of Muslim scholarship that had inspired his youth, and how at the same time this was the making of him. For instead of respectfully following the structure of the past-masters of Arabic geography al-Masudi, al-Bakri, al-Idrisi et al Leo was forced to use his own memories of landscape and conversations to create his great living literary testament of North Africa.

The only time I thought Natalie Davis had failed to talk squarely to her readership was when she avoided a full exploration of the fact that Leo may well not have sailed off into the sunset (to quiet retirement in Tunis) but may have been murdered by Charles Všs mutinous German soldiery during the sack of Rome. And I wonder whether the Jewish practice of circumcising infants in the first fortnight of life was ever copied by Moors, who like all other Muslim communities, have made it the great celebratory rite of boyhood.

The cutting of foreskins is a fitting subject on which to end, to celebrate Natalie Davisšs careful resurrection of Leošs use of bawdy. Many an adulterous adventure is retold, as well as the tale of a farmer complaining about a sore penis with which he had been buggering his donkeyŠ I wanted more of this and so, I am delighted to find, did Professor Davis. Her unabashedly imaginative conclusion wishes on Leo a friendship which could have encouraged this talent for Rabelesian story-telling to the full.

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