I seem to be tapping into other peoples’ obsessions at the moment (the philosophers in Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder and the fictional counting-obsessive in Addition), and this book is certainly the fruit of a long-term obsession. In this case, the object of fastidious attention is the giraffe donated to the King of France, Charles X, by Muhammad Ali, the pasha of Egypt in the mid 1820s. The author, Michael Allin, gives her the Arabic name ‘Zafara’ and in this book he traces her journey from her original capture in Sudan, across to Khartoum strapped onto the back of a camel (I’m finding it quite hard to imagine this), then down (up?) the Nile to Alexandria, where she embarked a ship to Marseilles. On arrival at Marseilles, it was decided that after a winter lay-over, she would walk the 900 km to Paris. Her trip, which took 41 days, excited keen interest in the crowds that greeted her at each stop and indeed, the whole of France was convulsed with ‘giraffe-mania’. She took up residence in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where she lived for another 18 years. Her stuffed corpse now rests at the museum at La Rochelle where it is too fragile to shift further.
You might wonder how 200 pages can be devoted to a giraffe going for a long walk, but the book covers far more than this. We look at the use of exotic animals by the Romans, the effect of the Enlightenment on the flowering of scientific knowledge, and the fascination with Egyptology. The narrative lingers with the savants who stayed behind in Egypt after the defeated Napoleon sneaked back to France. It emphasises the deep effect of the Egyptian experience on these intellectuals once they returned to post-Napoleonic France, often deeply imbued with a love of Egyptian culture and continued admiration of Napoleon in a changed political climate. It links the gift of the giraffe with European diplomacy at the time, with the Pasha of Egypt hoping to distract and soften French and British anger over Egypt’s intervention in the Greek War of Independence.
This book is a real work of love and is beautifully presented with small pages with generously spaced print and many pictures. When the author finally finds the stuffed Zarafa beside the staircase in the French museum, you feel a rush of affection for her and want to cheer the author and slap him on the back for his dedication to his obsession.