History and Literary License

Dagmar A Riedel, April 2005

To the Editor:

Stuart Sears's comment (in the February 2005 Perspectives) on the main character of Amin Maalouf's historical novel about Leo Africanus (ca. 1492–ca. 1550)—"a Mediterranean traveler who is entirely plausible if not real"—seems somewhat misleading with regard to both fact and fiction.

Despite the scarce data for his life, Leo's works are among the important European (sic) sources of 16th-century descriptions of non-European territories, especially Africa; see, for example, O. Zhiri, L'Afrique au miroir de l'Europe (1991) and D. Rauchenberger, Johannes Leo der Afrikaner (1999).

The point of Maalouf's historical novel is that the main character is a historical, though obscure person ("real") so that the novelist uses fiction to supplement the scanty data in a "plausible" manner. This literary ("poetic") license was already described by Aristotle.

— Dagmar A. Riedel
Institute for Iranian Studies
Columbia University