When I saw it first, I was lost in the bowels of the London Library, searching for an obscure volume on shrunken heads…
A leather-bound book, an inch thick, jammed up against a water pipe. Without thinking, I reached up and yanked it out. Cupping the book gently in my hands, I pulled it open at the title page and began to read. That was the moment my obsession with The Narrative of Robert Adams began.
– Tahir Shah, preface to Timbuctoo
When Casablanca-based writer Tahir Shah came to the Legation last year, he and his family toured our research library before his book presentation. With what seemed like x-ray vision, Tahir honed in on bookshelves and could spot titles from a distance.
It was almost a re-enactment of the scene from the preface. He was ecstatic that TALIM owns an 1816 copy of The Narrative of Robert Adams (image, below). Shah helpfully provides a facsimile of the original Narrative on his website.
Tahir Shah's rollicking romp through Regency London – with the illiterate Adams dictating his adventure to a scribe of the Royal African Committee – is a thoroughly enjoyable read. It's clear that Shah has done his research on Adams and his time. Not an easy time to be an American in London: the War of 1812 was just coming to an end, and Britons were used to thinking of Americans as the enemy.
You can't read Tahir Shah's Timbuctoo without thinking of another great historical novel based on an African adventure: T.C. Boyle's Water Music, the story of Mungo Park's fatal wanderings along the Niger River. There is some of the humor of Boyle's work, though not in the parts of The Narrative on his capture and captivity that Adams is shown dictating. That's all pretty grim – we're talking slavery – Adams as a Christian slave in the Sahel 200 years ago.
No, the rollicking is all in London, and Shah has created a colorful back story to what was a major challenge to Adams' credibility: everyone in London was convinced that Timbuctoo was an African Eldorado. Fascinated as Londoners were with Adams' tale of survival, his description of Timbuctoo as nothing more than a collection of mud buildings flew in the face of the Royal African Committee's plans for a gold-hunting expedition.
Just as Tahir Shah's Timbuctoo was being released, the real life Timbuktoo in Mali was being overrun by Islamist rebels, bent on destroying the city's real treasures: its UNESCO World Heritage buildings, and perhaps its priceless manuscripts. Tahir Shah appeared on the BBC to condemn these acts of cultural barbarism.
I was provided with a complimentary e-book version of Timbuctoo, my first experience reading a book on something other than paper. And I must say that the electronic page-turning was fun, though I still much prefer reading a "book," in the tangible sense of the word. Here is a link to the official Timbuctoo site, with excerpts and plenty of background material.