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Stretching for Historical Curiosities

A giraffe's true story from deep in Africa to the heart of Paris


By Michael Allin

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215 pp., $22

This charming tale of a young giraffe's journey from Africa to Paris offers cultural history from a refreshingly oblique angle. "Zarafa" also traces the author's enthrallment with a dream that began "lives ago," he tells us. It was inspired by a poem's reference to Paris's Jardin des Plantes, which houses the world's first urban zoo, founded in 1793.

Years before visiting the Jardin, Michael Allin became entranced with it as a legacy of Enlightenment rationalism bent on assembling the world's curiosities in menageries and collections. Both before and after the French Revolution, the savants of Europe were reaching out to previously unknown climes to taxonomize and study the wider world.

A tiny aside in the history of ideas concerns the odyssey of Zarafa (from the Arabic for "charming" or "lovely one"). Years after his initial entrancement with the Paris zoo, Allin stumbled on mention of France's first giraffe in The New Yorker magazine and set out, finally, in the fall of 1996, to trace Zarafa's intercontinental route in 1826-27. Along the way, he makes lively side excursions into Egyptology, archaeology, zoology, and the history of the Middle East.

The history begins with Napoleon's invasion at Alexandria in 1798 as part of a scheme to capture India from the British. The venture ended as a fiasco, but French interest in Egypt continued, spurred by the corps des savants that accompanied the Grand Army of the Orient.

After Muhammad Ali came to power in 1805, he courted French favor in an effort to modernize Egypt. One overture to Paris was his gift of Zarafa to King Charles X. Much ado accompanied her final overland passage in France.

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Along the way we learn the story of Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul in

The Spotted Tale of a Giraffe's First Trip to Paris

Cairo and a trader in African exotica, and tienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who founded the Paris zoo "with animals saved from the [revolutionary] mobs that had attacked the royal menagerie at Versailles."

Many other curiosities are strung on the thread of the giraffe's progress, among them the fact that a fit of "giraffomania" seized the French spectators, who turned out for her 550-mile walk, in just over a month, from Marseille to Paris. After her arrival in the capital, women sported coiffures " la Girafe," and men donned giraffique hats.

This seemingly slight story expands in radiating concentric circles, suggesting that we can start virtually anywhere and end by talking of the whole world. Such a principle naturally makes for digression and delay, and the actual Marseille-Paris trek does not begin until this slim book is three- quarters done. By then, we see that the point was never just the journey, but rather the author's love affair with a story in which so many other stories nest.

Allin is circuitous, allusive, and recursive, all in the scope of 200 pages. He lavishes attention on the sleuthing job that enabled him to reconstruct Zarafa's voyage down the Nile, across the Mediterranean, and up the Rhone valley into Paris.

In places, this painstaking approach is marvellous, but in the final stages, it wears on the reader. Once the gentle creature is released from quarantine in Marseille, what follows is oddly anti-climactic. Too much text is given over to correspondence between Paris and the prefect of Marseille, and to observations along the way by the giraffe's shepherd.

To be sure, this is a charming book, befitting its subject. It has the quality of a fairy tale, just as the giraffe's passage must have had to gaping French villagers en route.

Allin's is a work of love, long nursed in conception, deftly compacted in style. It offers an intriguing taste of the long spell cast by Africa on the Western imagination. Yet, one comes away with a touch of disappointment, wondering where this little chronicle will lodge in memory.

* Rockwell Gray is freelance writer based in St. Louis.

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