Friday, November 13, 2009

All's Fair In Love And War

Leo Africanus started to get a lot more enjoyable towards the middle and end, and I think I've got a handle on some of the themes that seem to be emerging. (Although it's been a while since I analyzed a work of literature and I might be a little rusty!)

Written in a memoir-style of "this is my life's tale", the eponymous narrator often displays not-very-subtle foreshadowing of "doom" that will afflict him in the next chapter. ("Little did I know then that this would be my undoing" etc.) In fact, this "doom-predicting" happens so frequently that I think it certainly shapes how we read the story of this Hasan, this Leo Africanus.

I read this story as having a decisively fatalistic edge to it. Hasan's exciting life is wrought with big changes that he clearly has no control over. His life fluctuates like a roller-coaster between good fortune and bad, and his telling of his story reflects his helplessness to maintain control of his own destiny in the face of Big Events like wars and women.

Wars and Women! These are the two forces in life, as expressed in this book, that man can never control. Wars, or rather, the whims of politicians, religious leaders, and rulers (and even just regular really rich guys with a lot of influence). Much of Hasan's life is spent catering to the whims of fat, greedy self-important sultans and politicians to try to save his own family and himself from humiliation and misfortune, and caught up in trying not to endanger himself getting caught up in political and religious rebellion. An adventurer and diplomat at heart, Hasan holds no clear convictions of religion or politics, but is certainly a man to take up arms for the women in his life.

Women, of course, are also major players in shaping the road Hasan takes through life, through the slave-girl Hibin who he loves but can never bear him a son and whom he eventually returns to her people in Africa, to his unattractive cousin Fatim who he has to marry (although lucky for him she eventually dies in childbirth!) as a promise to his dying uncle, to the princess Nur who entreats him to become stepfather to her young fatherless son, who is destined to one day rule Constantinople.

Of course this helping-women-streak was all started by his half-sister Miriam, who entreats him to save her from an arranged marriage with the violent, generous Zarwali. Her desperate plea to her estranged brother moves him to a point that he endangers everything to free her from this marriage. Although it ends up with her in a leper colony, Hasan's friend Harun marries her and takes her out of the city (and then makes her join him in his quest being what sounded suspiciously like being a Muslim Robin Hood, but hey, that sounds more fun than having to be married to some old guy). Then Harun kills the Zarwali for revenge and Hasan is banished for accessory to murder. The point is, Hasan's actions rarely have the effects he intended, but they certainly make life exciting.

Hasan is an adventurer through life, his individual path a boat and the tides of history the waves that push him one way or another. His lack of firm conviction towards wars and politican disputes, his lack of a nation to call his own, all of these make him the perfect person to tell us how great historical events are experienced by the "everyman" (of course, an "everyman" with significant more opportunities for travel and influence than every other everyman, but still.) He's just some dude trying to make a buck and score some chicks, and if he has to talk to some sultans or leaders of religious rebellion to do that, then, that's just how you gotta roll to stay in the game.

-katie dempsey


  1. I loved your post. I too believe that Hasan is the perfect person to tell us about the events of this time period. He has few biases without a home of his own, and without strong views about the wars he encounters. And I too am forever excited to see the customs of the day, as we see with his travels and with his relationships to the women around him. Because we do see a sort of powerlessness that Hasan has (his actions not creating desired results), I have been contemplating what power any of us have as human beings.

    --Arielle Parris

  2. I found this post very funny, but true. I also believe Hasan through all his experiences is the perfect person to tell us about all these events. Because he appears so universal and unbiased, we can receive history from a middle perspective not just one side