Book review - The Moor’s Account

Laila Lalami, now based in Los Angeles, is the first Moroccan-born author to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her previous works, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005) and Secret Son (2009), focused on some of the issues faced by Moroccans today — migration, poverty, corruption and Islamic fundamentalism.

In The Moor’s Account, she turns her hand to historical fiction. Already published in the US, where it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won the American Book Award, the novel is a retelling of Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez’s disastrous real-life expedition to Florida in 1528.

By 1536, there were only four survivors. As Lalami discovered from Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s chronicle La Relación, one of them was Moroccan. Taking as her starting point his throw­away mention of “Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor”, Lalami has created a vivid portrait of the invasion of the New World and the role of black slaves in conquest.

Estebanico is sold to Andrés Dorantes, a Castilian nobleman who joins the Narváez expedition. The armada sails across “the Ocean of Fog and Darkness” to what is now the Gulf coast of the United States in the hope of seizing land, gold and glory. The 600-strong contingent includes soldiers, settlers, four friars, 10 women, 13 children and around 50 slaves.

One of the pleasures of Lalami’s novel is Estebanico’s penchant for wry observation. As the Requerimiento, a legal justification for seizing land, is read out by the armada’s notary — the presence of Indians was not required — he muses “how utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians — just by saying that something was so, they believed that it was.”

Narváez’s downfall was his decision to split the contingent in two, telling the able-bodied men that gold awaited them in “a rich kingdom called Apalache”. The remaining 300 were instructed to sail along the coast to wait for them in the port of Pánuco. Within just a few weeks, the colonisers were being ravaged by disease and starvation: “We lived in fear. We feared the fever, the Indians and our hunger. We feared the swamps, the water lizards and the berries of unfamiliar bushes.” Estebanico swiftly recognises his shared humanity with the Indians they capture, noting: “One of them had a lazy eye, just like my uncle Omar.”

Later, the depleted forces are separated and further diminished by the hostile environment. Estebanico and his three fellow survivors become healers, travelling with the indigenous tribes across the continent until they arrive in Mexico. There he decides to set down his account in order to correct the expedition’s “official” history compiled by the Castilians: “my companions began to modify its more damaging details. They attributed to Narváez all the poor decisions, they omitted the torture and rapes they had witnessed, they justified the thefts of food and supplies, they left out the Indian wives they married and they magnified their suffering at the hands of the Indians as much as their relief at being found.”

The Moor’s Account is skilfully constructed. Lalami tracks back and forth in time and gives us the story of Estebanico’s birth as Mustafa, his childhood in Azemmur and the drought that forced him to sell himself into slavery in order to save his family from starvation. On his arrival in Seville he is given a new name and realises “A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world.”

Estebanico’s journey is a quest for truth and redemption. As a merchant in Azemmur, he had himself sold three slaves for profit. Afterwards, he learns humility, the destructive nature of greed and the real value of freedom. He also recognises that his ancestors had once been the colonisers: “They had carried the disease of empire to Spain, the Spaniards had brought it to the new continent and someday the people of the new continent would plant it elsewhere. That was the way of the world.”

Lalami’s lack of speech marks gives the novel a sense of immediacy, of numerous voices constructing history. The Moor’s Account is also about the nature of storytelling and how the past is often rewritten: “Telling a story is like sowing a seed,” Estebanico cautions, “you always hope to see it become a beautiful tree, with firm roots and branches that soar up in the sky. But it is a peculiar sowing, for you will never know whether your seed spouts or dies.” Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow and Lalami’s story is a fertile blend of fact and fiction.

The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami, Periscope Books, RRP£9.99

Originally published by The Financial Times