The Mediterranean world circa 1520
Amin Malouf’s first novel is a wonderfully vivid reimagining of the life of Hasan al-Wazzan, better known as Leo Africanus, the 16th century chronicler whose Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili che iui sono was for decades Europe’s principal reference work on that continent. Writing in the voice of Hasan/Leo, imagined as writing a memoir for his son, Malouf stays very close to the events in the life of this extraordinary merchant, traveler and diplomat, as drawn from Hasan’s own notes in his famous opus. Where Malouf’s literary imagination is best displayed, however, is in the passages where he goes beyond the documents, to enter into the imagination of this highly cultivated, multilingual, dark-skinned and thickly bearded, devoutly Muslim Berber who negotiated with bandits in Morocco, was nearly killed in the Ottoman sacking of Cairo (1517), then was taken as a slave to Rome where he became a cherished diplomat to Pope Leo X (who had him convert and baptized as “Leo” but where his unusual features gave him the sobriquet “Africanus”). After the death of Pope Leo, a Medici, and of his Dutch successor Adrian VI, and then the devastation of Rome (1527) by Teutonic Lutherans and other rebels during the reign of another Medici, Pope Clement VII, Hasan was finally able to return to Africa and revert to his original faith of Islam. Conversant and highly literate in Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, Italian and possibly Turkish, he was not only a very valuable diplomat but also a prolific writer and grammarian. Only fragments of other works besides his famous Africa book have survived.
Malouf has Hasan born in Granada in 1488, so that he retains some infant memories of that great Muslim city before its conquest by Fernando of Aragón in 1492. This permits a very believable and lively description of the Muslim city and the immense tragedy for Muslims and Jews of its fall to the Christian monarchs Fernando and Isabel. The real Hasan was born two years after the fall, but no matter: this is a novel, not a police report, and those first scenes of Granada are among the most memorable. Later on in the story, after the adventures with bandits and “Leo’s” peculiar sojourn in Rome, Malouf’s restriction of his tale to documented facts, with less attention to the protagonist’s mental state, lets the book wind down in intensity. However, the diminishing drama is more than compensated by the vivid recounting, from a privileged and distinguished Arab point of view, of the cultures and political conflicts that reshaped the Mediterranean world