In this wondrous book, Michael Allin seduces us into a wealth of political and intellectual history by weaving together a thousand facts that shimmer like fairy tale and myth. Zarafa shows the Egyptian tyrant Muhammad Ali modernizing his feudal country even if he has to brutalize his subjects, the 19th century's burst of discoveries of ancient Egyptian artifacts beneath the idle sands, the disputed legacies of the bloody revolution in France, natural wonders of the upper Nile and central Africa, the spread of European rationality and, by no means least, Napoleon Bonaparte, who mastered sound bites and media manipulation long before the invention of the cathode-ray tube.
But the narrative line of this extraordinarily satisfying historical synthesis tracks a purposely orphaned Masai giraffe, the Zarafa of the title. Captured as a calf in the Sudan in 1824, France's first living giraffe was Muhammad Ali's idea of the perfect diplomatic gift to the nation where his brightest son was studying Western theories and technologies. Allin's recent research and travel have solved some mysteries about Zarafa's two-and-a-half-year journey from Africa to Paris, but these speculations are also used to introduce the many colorful humans who fought desert wars, stole and fenced antiquities, spied for opposing forces and risked their lives for science in an age of virtually limitless thirst for new knowledge and exotica.
The climax of Allin's story is Zarafa's patient walk of 550 miles from Marseilles to the City of Light, accompanied by loving handlers, a famous if physically challenged scientist and at least one scoundrel, while the French gathered by the tens of thousands to watch her slow progress and admire her gentle ways.
For almost two decades, after sparking a predictably Gallic giraffomania in decorations and style, Zarafa lived serenely in the Paris Zoo, groomed daily by the Egyptian Arab keeper who climbed ladders every night to sleep within scratching reach of her head. He became a famous Romeo with French ladies interested in cultural exchange; no mate was ever found for Zarafa. Allin has written a revealing, stylishly spare, even elegant book that should be kept on the bookshelf and passed around to friends and family. Perhaps a kindly editor should have warned him that repeating a remarkable fact will diminish its impact, but the writing is characteristically clear and intrinsically trustworthy. Allin needs no footnotes to convince. The logic of his sentences is the logic of truth-seeking. By the end of Zarafa, we have seen the passing of exoticism into geopolitics, of curiosity into commerce, but Zarafa herself somehow abides. It will be surprising indeed if the dingy museum in La Rochelle that houses her stuffed body does not become a lure for a certain kind of sentimental traveler. Certainly, most readers will regret never knowing her in life, for Allin persuades us that everyone who ever saw her was enchanted by her, undeniably because she showed such surprising trust in them. Charles Flowers is the author of A Science Odyssey (William Morrow).