“To the excited fancy of the Spaniards the unknown land of Florida seemed the seat of surpassing wealth,” wrote Francis Parkman in his magisterial France and England in North America, “and Pamphilo de Narvaez essayed to possess himself of its fancied treasures. Landing on its shores . . . he advanced into the forests with three hundred men.” Of those men, about whom Parkman wrote that “[n]othing could exceed their sufferings,” a mere four survived. One, Cabeça de Vaca, wrote a popular account of the ordeal. Another, an African slave, is barely mentioned in that work (and absent even from Parkman’s footnotes), but he has escaped oblivion as the narrator of Laila Lalami’s novel The Moor’s Account.
The slave, a Moroccan Muslim, introduces himself to us as Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, but soon enough he is simply “Estebanico,” a chattel of the Castilian hidalgo Andrés Dorantes. He has been through a hell of slavery, shipwreck, and wandering in the Land of the Indians; the conceit of Lalami’s book is that Estebanico has written his own true relation to correct the Joint Report of his fellow survivors. He is no longer “beholden to Castilian men of power, nor bound by the rules of a society to which [he does] not belong,” and thus is at liberty to dispense “truth in the guise of entertainment.” Whether his chronicle is entertaining or terrifying will depend on the reader’s temperament.
No one who has read about the Spanish conquest of the New World will be surprised by the course things take. The Spaniards are after gold, first and foremost, and are willing to engage in cruelty, masochism, and self-delusion in doomed pursuit of it. In search of the Kingdom of Apalache, an imaginary paradise along the lines of Cibola or El Dorado, they find only “the brown of thatched roofs, the red of doorway blankets, the green of ripening corn.” Disappointed, they torture the natives into “confessing” that, though the conquistadors have reached the vicinity of Apalache, they have yet to reach its glittering capital. Thus are they sent on a fool’s errand that is also, for most of them, a death sentence.
The early New World chapters alternate with ones describing Mustafa’s childhood and young manhood in Azemmur. “My father,” he tells us, “wanted me to learn how to read, memorize the Holy Qur’an, and later attend the Qarawiyin, in the hope that I might take up the same profession as him. . . . This image of me as a dutiful recorder of events in other people’s lives did not particularly inspire me.” What does inspire Mustafa—to become a merchant, and occasionally a slaver—is the mystery of the souq, or marketplace:
There, I watched fortune-tellers, faith healers, herbalists, apothecaries, and beggars. They promised a healthy child, a painless life, a pliant husband, a dutiful wife, or a path to heaven, perhaps different versions of the same things, but the stories they told or foretold comforted people, inspired them, allowed them to imagine a future they had denied themselves.
Mustafa inhabits a world, it turns out, in which such stories are often all that stand between one and despair. Drought and invasion by Portuguese caravels create conditions of poverty and panic that lead Mustafa to sell himself into slavery. Reborn as Estebanico, he is passed from master to master in payment of a gambling debt. The eight years of his travels in the New World, from what is today Tampa Bay, Florida, all the way to Mexico City, are recounted by Lalami in such exhaustive detail that they take on a hypnotic, hallucinatory quality; it is difficult to believe the journey could have ended in anything but death. The manner in which Estebanico secures his survival among the Indians, working as a “healer” who relies as much on storytelling as on medical knowledge, is the stuff of fairy tales.
The Moor’s Account is filled with brutalizing hardship and sudden, stunning violence. Mosquito swarms, stomach afflictions, thirst, and dwindling rations reduce men to grizzled brutes. Spaniards and Indians alike are whipped, beaten, shot with arrows, bled from slashed throats like butchered animals. When men drown fording rivers or piloting rafts, their deaths seem relatively peaceful. The image of a captive with his nose cut off, whose bound hands prevent him from brushing away flies, is hard to put out of memory. As adventure stories go, this one is short on swashbuckling, long on savagery so casual and expedient that it borders on the infantile, like one child biting another for snatching away his toy.
If life is cheap in “La Florida” and the New World, autonomy is expensive, and Lalami’s depictions of coercion—up to and including slavery—are on balance more disturbing than her vivid scenes of torture or murder. She is adept at evoking helplessness and humiliation in forms both monstrous and subtle. A hidalgo becomes, almost without realizing it, the slave of an Indian tribe; a yet more degrading fate awaits when incompetence at hunting gets him relegated to “women’s work.” The removal of Estabanico from his homeland and family is easy to pity; the emasculation he suffers at the loss of his birth name—“A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions”—is more abstract but, in its way, more affecting.
The power of storytelling is Lalami’s most insistent theme, but her approach to it can be off-puttingly of the present day. Though she strives with great success to draw complex and compelling characters, she often seems to be talking not of storytelling as such but of what our news media call, without a trace of self-awareness, The Narrative: control of the facts and the power inherent in it. Lalami demonstrates a conviction, familiar to fans of Howard Zinn, that the dominant cultural voice can only lie. So, though the conquistadors come off badly enough, by today’s standards, in their own narratives, we are given to believe that since they have not confessed to rape or cannibalism, they must therefore have committed rape or cannibalism.
The problem with this is not that it is unfair to Spanish conquistadors. It is that it is far too fair to mankind in general. Lalami is willing to present a villainous Indian, or to steep Estebanico in guilt for having traded slaves, but it is tiresome nevertheless to read a book in which only the designated underdog is capable of grasping and repenting his moral failings. One decent man is too few for a credible book; indeed, none would be more plausible. Men of all times and places have been capable of hating injustice not because it is unjust but because they are its victim. Estebanico’s smooth moral transformation, along with his unfailingly superior expertise, insight, and wisdom, ever threaten to pull The Moor’s Account down to the level of a didactic YA novel.
Threaten, but do not succeed. Though the book’s realism suffers some weaknesses of characterization, it is in other respects triumphantly authentic. Estebanico’s voice is lively, optimistic, and attentive to beautiful details as well as ugly ones; as is so rarely the case with historical fiction, it is almost completely devoid of the anachronistic phrasings and modern thought patterns that can jar a reader out of his time-travel reverie. Consider the simple but arresting imagery of this spellbinding moment:
The rays of the setting sun colored the walls of Hawikuh an orange color, the color of the gold that the servants of empire so desperately sought and so rarely renounced. Of all the places I had visited in the Land of the Indians, none looked to me so much like my hometown in Barbary, with its houses huddled together against the light. I thought of Azemmur in the spring, when the fig trees bloom and the fields are a sea of green and white. How I longed to see those fields again, to lie in them and listen to the humming of the bees, to swim in the Umm er-Rbi’ again, to sit on a boulder at the edge of the river and watch the shad swim against the current. How I longed to lay eyes upon my mother, to visit my father’s grave and whisper a prayer for his soul . . .
The most fascinating and challenging aspect of the book’s realism is this: We are witnessing the subjugation and forced conversion of a people, as told to us by a man whose own prized identity and faith are the result of a subjugation and forced conversion. We are reminded that though conquest may seem like a dusty, embarrassing fact of our past, the human drive to freedom is likely to struggle with the human drive to dominate others until the end of time.