~ by Adrian M. McGlinchey || Re-posted from original dated July 16, 2012.
People often make remarks about how much they hated history lessons during their schooldays… how boring it was, and how it seemed to be just a dreary collection of facts that no one cares about these days. Yet, in our heart of hearts, many of us feel a need to know where we and our forebears came from and what influences made us who and what we are today. Historically based drama and reconstruction can help to explore these issues in ways that never seemed possible when we were confronted by pedantic educators and their textbooks. A modern storyteller can breathe life into history and make it more accessible to us by helping us get into the hearts and minds of characters that had first-hand experience of a particular era.
While the Michael Allin does not use characters in the same manner that we would expect from an historical dramatisation, this real-life account of a giraffe being led across Africa and Europe by land and sea is what connects all the people who we encounter along the journey. I see the story of Zarafa as an allegory that entertains as well as informs. Zarafa the giraffe, the object of Michael Allin’s poetic fascination, turns out to have more historical connections than initially realised. Therefore, in pursuing his mythical vision of a giraffe that possesses almost magical properties, Allin also embarks on a journey through time and history. The book is as much a re-living of Franco-Afro colonial history as it is about the tale of a giraffe captured in the highlands of Ethiopia and taken to a zoo in Paris, France.
Allin has taken an interesting and refreshing approach to looking at history and, for me personally, this made the experience more enjoyable than reading some dry and dusty historical textbook. Having said his, however; the book meanders through a vast terrain of diverse historical sources, to the point that one wonders where all this is heading. Even Zarafa the giraffe does not show up until almost halfway through the book. This was off-putting for many readers in our discussion group, who found “Zarafa” (1999) [the book] to be terribly busy if not too confusing. Having a passion for historical investigation myself, I appreciate Mr. Allin’s ideas and his original presentation, and yet, for many readers, he did not quite pull it off. A fascinating read, nevertheless, for those of us who can interpret Allin’s historical references to famous people and incidents of Napoleonic North Africa.
WRAP-UP (with star-rating out of 5):
*** A complex maze of historical curiosities… short on analysis, but quite engaging for those who care to ponder the machinations of powerful people and their inter-Afro-European relationships during the Napoleonic era.