cover image The Rock of Tanios

The Rock of Tanios

Amin Maalouf. George Braziller, $18.5 (275pp) ISBN 978-0-8076-1365-8

At age 15, in 1836, Tanios, the illegitimate son of a Lebanese Catholic sheikh, turns completely white-haired-an omen that he must be a ``wise fool,'' or ``old-head,'' one who appears briefly to redress injustice in troubled times. In this seductive, exotic novel, Maalouf (Leo Africanus) limns a protagonist who is an endearing mixture of precocious maturity and naivete, of remorse and resolve. Tanios's adoptive father, Gerios, the sheikh's servile majordomo, rashly murders a prelate who had lured away Tanios's girlfriend for his own nephew. Terrified, Tanios and Gerios flee to Cyprus, where the wise fool is recruited by an English spymaster in a scheme to topple the Emir, a Middle Eastern tyrant whose agents entrap Gerios and have him hanged. Tanios, who displays last-minute leniency toward the Emir, embodies the spirit of justice tempered by mercy, an alternative to the cycle of revenge and violence that holds a fractious region in its grip; and so he gives modern relevance to a leisurely tale full of intrigue, twists of fate and seedy imperialist jockeying by the French, English, Turks and Egyptians. (Oct.)