Saturday 22 January 2011

Leo the African by Amin Maalouf

I've had a completely hectic week work-wise and the only book I've managed to finish is the enchanting Leo the African by Amin Maalouf.  It is based on the life of Hasan al-Wazzan, a sixteenth century traveller and writer.  And he had quite a life too; he was born in Granada and witnessed the end of Muslim Spain, before also being present at the Ottoman seige of Cairo and the sacking of Rome.  On the way he is captured by pirates, sold as a slave, flees the Spanish Inquisition and becomes personal advisor to Pope Leo X.  A real life Indiana Jones if ever there was one!

Score: 4 out of 5

I was always going to love this book because I find both the time period generally and the Ottoman Empire in particular fascinating.  But I loved it even more because the writing was just beautiful - at times I felt as though I could have been reading stories straight from Arabian Nights.  Maalouf described all the towns, cities and landscapes poetically and I could practically smell the spices and hear the chatter of the people. 

The novel is divided into four books, corresponding to the four main places where Leo spent his life (Granada, Fez, Cairo and Rome).  Within each book one chapter corresponded to a year of his life.  This structure worked very well at the beginning of the book, especially as Leo was growing up, but it seemed a bit restrictive in the section on Rome, which needed more detail than the structure could give.

What really struck me about the book was how unattached to everything Leo was - he happily left behind wives, children and friends without a second thought and was able to start afresh wherever he was.  He was gifted (or cursed) with the ability of always being in the centre of major political and religious events everywhere he went.  Whilst reading the book it seemed incredulous to me that one man could witness so much (a sixteenth-century Forrest Gump?) but it seems that Maalouf hasn't embellished on the major historical events at all.

My only criticism is that I would have liked to see more in the book of Leo himself rather than just him acting as a historian or reporter.  At one point he converts from Islam to Christianity and I would have liked to read more about the arguments he went through and his thoughts.  Overall a wonderful book though, highly recommended.


  1. Sounds like a great book. I absolutely adore books like this one. I've actually met people like that in my travels (backpacking for six months in S. America), most of them were excellent people even though I could not imagine living that kind of life - yet I miss it.

  2. Sounds like a "big" book to me. Nevertheless, I have always intrigued by history.. I've read about the Ottoman Empire in The Historian, which I enjoyed tremendously. Maybe I should check this book out someday.

  3. Man of la Books - sounds like you would love Leo the African! I would love to meet people like that and I admire them but I don't think the travelling lifestyle is for me.

  4. Wow it sounds like a book that could get you thinking about a lot of things. I like the fact that it is divided by geographic - not sure why but it appeals to me.

  5. Willa, the structure appealed to me as well. The book definitely did cover a lot of big issues such as religion, culture, the role of women and travel. I think you would enjoy it :)