Friday, November 21, 2014

Book Review 336: Zarafa

ZARAFA: A Giraffe’s True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris, by Michael Allin. 215 pages, illustrated. Walker

“Zarafa” is supposed to be one of those books bout a popular fad that either illuminates an age or provides a talented writer a launching point for extended but not necessarily tightly connected ruminations about a time. An Anna Nicole Smith for the 1830s, perhaps.

Unfortunately, the most that Michael Allin achieves is to be loosely connected.

The Romans imported hundreds, maybe thousands of giraffes to be slaughtered in the arenas, but for 1,500 years only a few more ever arrived. When Mohammed Ali decided to curry favor with France in 1826 with a gift giraffe, there had not been a live one in France for 350 years.

The cast of characters is promising -- various confidence artists, scientists, adventurers and the occasional writer like Stendhal, although Stendhal missed seeing the giraffe on his first attempt and Allin never bothers to say whether he made another. Nevertheless, Stendhal and the giraffe shared Paris for a while, so in he goes.

To say that “Zarafa” is unfocused is too kind. Nevertheless, we learn this and that about giraffes and one giraffe in particular. It is hardly worth the effort, especially since the book contains a number of niggling errors.

The strangest thing we learn -- by omission, since Allin never addresses it -- is that while the giraffe was a sensation, at least as much as the first pandas were in the United States, and charming and beloved by all, the French never gave her a name.

Zarafa was not her name, it is the Arabic for giraffe.

While "Zarafa" is not a good book for adults, I notice that it has inspired about half a dozen children's books since it was published in 1999.

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