Trickster Travels, by Natalie Zemon Davis

Donkey diplomacy

How dare she, was my first thought. How brave, my second, as I wondered how anyone could sail another book on the 16th-century traveller and scholar Leo Africanus past the Scylla of Amin Maalouf's intensely imagined historical novel Leo the African, and the Charybdis of the dauntingly few facts known about the man. Nor does Natalie Zemon Davis follow a conventional approach, such as physically tracing Leo's footsteps through the landscapes, peoples, courts and cities that are so vigorously evoked in his great work, The Description of North Africa.

Indeed, her work, far from being roughened by journeys across the Sahara, has seemingly been conceived within the rarefied world of a Renaissance library. For Trickster Travels is as much an analytical reading of Leo Africanus's writings, set against the intellectual corpus of his time, as a narrative-driven biography. So much so, that the differences between a unique 936-page manuscript of Leo's, still extant in Rome, and the first printed version of his book as edited in Venice, becomes one of the central sources of evidence.

But don't be put off by the idea of a 400-page examination of the writings of a minor 16th-century diplomat, born a Muslim in Granada and educated in Morocco, who wrote the first geography of North Africa as a Christian captive-convert in Rome. Davis has created a brilliant book that succeeds in opening up new perspectives, not just on Leo Africanus but also on Mediterranean society at the time. While her undeniably weighty scholarship is driven by a detective-like pursuit of the real nature of Leo Africanus, it is coupled with a free-ranging inquiry into the spirit and oddities of his times; it's as if a classic literary inquiry such as The Quest for Corvo or The Hermit of Peking were sprinkled with the golden dust of scholars such as Helen Waddell or Frances Yates.

This is a warm and humane work, drained of the jealousy that too often defaces scholarship, and I was delighted to see Maalouf's fictional Leo referred to throughout. Even when she unpicks the trickster devices that Leo used to excuse his changeling existence, at no point does Davis lose affection for her subject. His attitude to race, sexuality, civilisation, his Jewish colleagues, Islam, Africa and his adoption of Christianity are all examined with critically acute and unblinking eyes.

Davis also looks at why he fails to comment on the great innovations of his day, such as the printing press and the circumnavigation of Africa. To my relief, he comes out as a freethinker beneath a thin veil of scholarly conformity.

Among the many passing pleasures of this book are Leo's interest in the transvestite community of Fez (who, despite being outcast prostitutes, also had official status as society mourners and army cooks); we also have the opportunity to marvel with him at the complexity of za'irayat divination as practised on the marble floors of the Inania madrassa in Fez. The poetically-framed answers of this form of intellectual crystal-gazing so enchanted the brilliant polymath Ibn Khaldoun that "he danced and twirled with delight". Me too.

Having traced Leo's gradual advance in confidence, as his work in Rome moves from transcription to commentaries and translations, we can also appreciate how in writing his Description of North Africa, Leo felt cut off from the great works of Muslim scholarship that had inspired his youth. Yet, at the same time, this was the making of him. For instead of respectfully following the structure of the masters of Arabic geography - al-Masudi, al-Bakri, al-Idrisi et al - Leo was forced to use his own memories of landscape and conversations to create his great living literary testament of North Africa.

The only time Natalie Davis fails to talk squarely to her readership is when she avoids a full exploration of the fact that Leo may well not have sailed off into the sunset (to quiet retirement in Tunis). but may have been murdered by Charles V's mutinous German soldiery during the sack of Rome in 1527. And I wonder whether the Jewish practice of circumcising infants in the first fortnight of life was ever copied by Moors, who like all other Muslim communities have made it the great celebratory rite of boyhood.

The cutting of foreskins is a fitting subject on which to end, to celebrate Davis's careful resurrection of Leo's use of bawdy. Many an adulterous adventure is retold, as well as the tale of a farmer with a sore penis - with which he had been buggering his donkey... I wanted more of this, and so did Davis. Her conclusion wishes on Leo a friendship which could have encouraged this talent for Rabelesian storytelling to the full.

Barnaby Rogerson's 'The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad' is published by Abacus