The Moor's Account, by Laila Lalami

>> Tuesday, August 04, 2015

TITLE: The Moor's Account
AUTHOR: Laila Lalami

PAGES: 336

SETTING: 16th century North America, Barbary and Spain
TYPE: Fiction

In these pages, Laila Lalami brings us the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America: Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico. The slave of a Spanish conquistador, Estebanico sails for the Americas with his master, Dorantes, as part of a danger-laden expedition to Florida. Within a year, Estebanico is one of only four crew members to survive.

As he journeys across America with his Spanish companions, the Old World roles of slave and master fall away, and Estebanico remakes himself as an equal, a healer, and a remarkable storyteller. His tale illuminates the ways in which our narratives can transmigrate into history—and how storytelling can offer a chance at redemption and survival.

For the last few years I have read (or, at least, attempted) as many books as possible on the Man Booker longlist, and all of the ones on the shortlist. Last year was a particularly good one, and I discovered several books that ended up on my Best of 2014 list (if you haven't read them yet, do pick up The Wake, We're All Completely Besides Ourselves and The Bone Clocks; they're fabulous).

I start as soon as the longlist is announced, so I always read a few that don't go through as well. I have previously tried to guess which ones would go through and start with them, but I'm crap at guessing. I will therefore just start with whichever one sounds most interesting to me. This year, that was The Moor's Account.

The Moor's Account tells the story a young man from what's now Morocco who becomes enslaved by the Spanish and is taken by his master on an expedition to La Florida. We know from the start that the expedition was a disaster, and that he was one of only 4 survivors.

The official accounts of this (very real) expedition are based on the testimony of the three Castillian survivors. All we know about our protagonist is statements that the fourth man was a Moorish slave called Estebanico. Lalami imagines this man's story and gives him a voice and a name, Mustafa al-Zamori, distinct from the one imposed on him at his (most likely involuntary) conversion.

We see his early life and the circumstances that lead to him being enslaved. We also see the Spanish expedition and the interactions between Castillians and Native Americans through the eyes of a man who is neither, one whose self-interest sometimes clashes with his ideals of justice.

Mustafa is an interesting character. He starts out as someone whose loss of freedom has led to a loss of hope. He sees principles as a luxury he can't afford, as a slave and sees his only chance of freedom as being a favour from a grateful master. But as disaster and suffering equalises master and slave, he changes and becomes a different man, one who realises he can't rely on someone who would own another man and can only take his freedom himself. It's a really interesting character arc, but the morality tale element of his story is maybe a bit too 'on the nose'. He's now a slave, but when he was a merchant, he traded in slaves. He was too enamoured of the process of buying and selling, he's now the object of buying and selling. It feels almost too neat.

In the end, though, what worked for me most was that this is about erasure and the power of being able to take your own story. Lalami's account tries to undo the erasure from the official record of both a particular man and of the brutality and evil of the Conquest. The message is that stories and histories have power. The official, cleaned-up account of the expedition had power, but so does this story.



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