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Monday, August 20, 2012

“Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds”, by Natalie Zemon Davis

448 pages, Hill and Wang, ISBN-13: 978-0809094349

This book does its best to wipe the cobwebs off the figure generally known in the West as Leo Africanus, a man raised in Fez by a family displaced from Muslim Spain during the Christian conquest, who travels widely as a diplomat through Africa, and then is brought to Rome as a captive where he authors a number of fascinating books, including a book on Africa and his African travels. This is a meticulously researched book, replete with voluminous footnotes full of both detail and insightful asides.

The book is doomed to fail in its central project from the outset: even after the author's diligent research and careful writing, Leo Africanus remains hidden behind the folds of Cleo’s gown. The underlying documentation of his life is simply too sparse. Too much of "Trickster" is too speculative. Too little of the book relies on quotations of the subject's own words. Too many threads are started but then reluctantly abandoned by Zemon Davis because of unavailable or incomplete sources. Most of what survives today of Leo Africanus is simply his work, his books written in Rome, and getting beyond the work to the man himself may simply be beyond the ability of any historian. Zemon Davis, however, is crystal clear throughout the book as to where she is speculating or supposing and where she has evidence, and what her evidence is, and she does incorporate a number of useful quotations. Every sentence of this book is the work of a truly diligent professional historian.

While failing in its central project, the book succeeds in helping us to visualize and understand key elements of the age, and Zemon Davis does a great job (particularly in those wonderful footnotes) of bringing to life both the life of an Andalusia family in Fez and the life of intellectual circles in 16th century Rome. Reading the book, I was struck on page after page with interesting thoughts and questions; the book truly sparked my curiosity. What of all those differing translations of Leo Africanus' work? What might they say about the societies in which they were written? What of all that poetry referenced by Leo Africanus? How did that Arabic poetic sensibility influence the Christian regions it touched? And what of those African civilizations he visited?

I am left wondering if this very good book Zemon Davis has written might have been a truly great book if its focus shifted just slightly from this fascinating but inscrutable man, perhaps acknowledging and acceding to the limitations of the existing research material. Her title refers to "a sixteenth-century Muslim between worlds", but it is the two worlds more than the subject himself that she best elucidates.

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