ZARAFA by Michael Allin

ZARAFA

A Giraffe's True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris
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KIRKUS REVIEW

In 1827, a giraffe sailed from Egypt to Marseille. It then walked to Paris. It was France’s first giraffe, and this is Allin’s first book. Both events are worthy of note, trailing surprise and pleasure in their wake. Allin tells the story of Zarafa, a giraffe sent to France’s King Charles X by the viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali. Ali had recently invaded Greece, and Europe was angry at the move; Zarafa was meant to insinuate Ali into the king’s favor by gracing the royal menagerie with an exotic. This all came about from a combination of circumstance and personality, both of which Allin ably delineates: the post-Napoleonic Egyptomania that gripped France; the cultured pirate Bernardino Drovetti, French consul general to Egypt, who trafficked in exotic animals and mummies; Ali himself, erstwhile Albanian mercenary, Francophile, up-from-nothing barbarian who consolidated his power from Nubia to Syria, and under whose reign “Egypt went from the Stone Age to the Enlightenment”; Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, scientific wunderkind of the Institut de France. And, of course, there is the giraffe (Zarafa is the Arabic-derived name Allin gives the beast): her capture as a calf, her journey “via camel, Nile felucca, seagoing brigantine, and her own four legs” to Paris and celebrity, a monumental addition to the national cabinet de curiositiÇs, an instant infatuation that generated vaudeville skits, hair styles, and the naming of a form of influenza in her honor. In the process, Allin gives readers glimpses of Napoleon’s corps de savants; histories of Alexandria, Messina, the Ptolemies; a fine caricature of European bureaucratic maneuvering in the early 19th century; and, not least, a superb description of the sea’s colors off Alexandria (Allin traced the route). Allin shares a talent seen in two other recent Walker books, Dava Sobel’s Longitude and James deKay’s Monitor: the ability to make an obscure subject incandescent through crisp storytelling and a felicitous handling of arcane details. (illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 1998
ISBN: 0-8027-1339-4
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Walker
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1998