A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In 1527 a small army of Spanish conquistadors and settlers arrived on the coast of Florida, led by Pánfilo de Narváez, and began to search for the gold they knew must be there. In 1536 four survivors of this expedition were found. They went gladly back to the Spanish settlements in Mexico, and one of them, Cabeza de Vaca, went on to write what Laila Lalami calls a travelogue of his adventures, dedicated to Charles V. In this there is the only evidence about the fourth survivor of the expedition: ‘The fourth survivor is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor’.
From this unusual survival in a contemporary document of not just the name but also the origins of a black African Muslim, present during the conquest of the Americas, Laila Lalami has produced a marvellous story of Esteban, or Mustafa’s, travels. Annoyingly, in my edition of the book there is no map, but you can see it online on Lalami’s website, to show you where she envisages Mustafa’s travels took him. The line meanders through the islands of the Caribbean, up the western Floridian coast, and across into Texas before heading south to Mexico. Also annoyingly, the complete bibliography for Lalami’s research, as promised in the UK edition of the novel, is not present on her website (yet), so I only have the books listed in the acknowledgements as those she found most useful in her research to help me think about where Lalami’s inspiration came from, and how she used her materials in her novel. The most pertinent of these earlier sources, apart from Cabeza de Vaca’s original account, is Robert Godwin’s 2008 Crossing the Continent. This seems to be a lively historical investigation and retelling of Esteban’s adventures: the Washington Post’s slightly dismissive review is here.
It doesn’t matter one bit that Lalami is retelling a story that modern historians have already had a go at. What’s important is that she’s making retelling the centre of this story. When I tweeted about this book just after I started reading it, I got the title wrong, calling it The Moor’s Tale, thinking dimly of Chaucer. Story-telling, and retelling stories in different ways, are its point. The proper title, The Moor’s Account, brings to mind the related questions of trading, owing, and owning, all central to the plot.
Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori tells his account in two streams of narrative. One is an account of how Narváez’s expedition set out, and how it fell apart, and the other is the story of how this Arab from Azemmour in Morocco found his fortunes changing, from being a prosperous trader to being a slave, renamed Esteban and later Estebanico, and the property of a Spanish nobleman on a ship to the Americas. The two narratives alternate in chapters, called, for instance, ‘The Story of the Three Rivers’, ‘The Story of Culiacán’, ‘The Story of the Sale’. Mustafa relates his mother’s stories of his birth, and the story of the embroiderer, and the story his father told, of how the sultan’s vizier Al-Wattasi rescued Tangier from Henry the Navigator. These stories fill in the gaps of daily life and world history to make Mustafa’s own story more real.
As the Narváez expedition staggers from one disaster to another, Mustafa realises that his desperate need for the expedition to find the gold is driven by his desire for freedom, which he painfully hopes that Durantes, his owner, will return to him. Mustafa’s remedy for this hopeless desire is to tell the true story of the expedition, in his own words. After eight years of survival, Mustafa realises that he will never be free unless he leaves Durantes, and the corruption of white Spanish rule. His own understanding of his condition of slavery waxes and wanes as he sees and understands what the Spanish do to the Indians, and how the Indians accept or rebel against Spanish rule.
This is a very, very readable novel. It’s received many reviews due to its presence on book prize longlists: the 2015 Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker Prize are two of the most prestigious. It thoroughly deserves to be read, and enjoyed, because it’s a skilful, absorbing and beautifully told story. The political dimension, of recovering the black and Arab presence in the colonisation of the Americas by white rule, is important. It’s also a clever and insightful tweaking of the form of the historical novel, since there is no constructed climactic ending or rise and fall of tragic fortune. As Salman Rushdie says on the cover, it reads as if it could have happened. Lalami deserves to do well with this novel, and her next, and those following: she’s a fine writer.
STOP PRESS! The Moor’s Account was joint winner of the 2015 Arab American Book Award.
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account (Periscope Books, 2015) ISBN 978-1-85964-427-0, £9.99 – to be published in the UK on 27 August 2015.
You can read Kate’s interview with Laila Lalami on katemacdonald.net.
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