In The Moor’s Account*, Laila Lalami spins a tale of marvelous scope from one sentence in a sixteenth-century Spaniard’s account of adventures in America: “el cuarto se llama Estevanico, es negro alárabe, natural de Azamor” (“the fourth [survivor] was named Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor”).
Estevanico, or Estebanico, or Esteban, is in Ms. Lalami’s rendering Mustafa ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori. He presents in The Moor’s Account the story of how he came to be one of four survivors of the Narváez expedition, an ill-fated Spanish mission of exploration and conquest to what is now Florida’s Gulf Coast.
His account begins in medias res, as the expedition’s leader makes a series of poor choices, splitting up the company for a march into the interior and neglecting to ensure a safe rendezvous with his ships. The goals of the expedition are clear: to claim the land they find for the King of Spain, and to find gold. The expedition’s treatment of native peoples is predictably horrendous, but Ms. Lalami avoids caricaturing the Spaniards as faceless villains. Though many of them are brutes, Mustafa finds gentleness and courage in some of them.
In the first half of the novel, stories of the expedition’s progress alternate with takes of Mustafa’s birth, family, and upbringing, as well as his successes as a merchant and the desperate circumstances that lead to his enslavement.
The second half of The Moor’s Account finds the expedition’s forces scattered, and the survivors facing one calamity after another as they make their way, over a period of years, toward established Spanish settlements. In their shared struggles, Mustafa finds freed in practice, if not in law; as readers know from the first half of the book, he surpasses his “master” in skill and ingenuity, and in compassion.
Ms. Lalami’s writing shines; Mustafa’s voice is exquisitely rendered. The descriptions he offers blend the merchant’s eye for detail with the pragmatism of a factual recounting of events. He offers up his own weaknesses as evidence of his truth-telling, and the result is a tale that’s rich in myriad ways. A story of fortitude, loyalty, memory, and adaptation, The Moor’s Account is a tour de force, and highly recommended.
Tomorrow: An interview with Laila Lalami, author of The Moor’s Account.
Bostonians: Laila Lalami will be reading at Harvard Bookstore on October 9 (a week from today) at 7p.m.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.