The title of this book, The Moor’s Account, hints at an alternative point of view, suggesting an enticing combination of the political, the historical, and the personal. It didn’t let me down.
The book is a fictionalised account of the Narvaez expedition to claim Florida for the Spanish Emperor, Charles V. It’s told from the point of view of Estevancio, known to himself as Mustafa. He was one of only four men to survive the journey. He is also the one about whom history tells us next to nothing.
All that is known is contained in one sentence in La Relacion, the record of the journey from the expedition treasurer Cabeza de Vaca:
The fourth (survivor) is Estevancio, an Arab Negro from Azamor.
Laila Lalami has brought him to life, creating a character I cared about, who helped me see his milieu in a different way—his way.
This is a traditional quest story. Three hundred men, conquistadors, set off to explore and conquer the New World, what we now know as Florida, and to take riches for themselves. They face unexpected catastrophes and often insurmountable odds. Most perish.
But The Moor’s Account is about more than the ill-fated attempt to conquer Florida, it is also a quest for freedom. And it is this that kept me hooked, turning page after page, to see what would happen next, to learn how Estevancio responds to the almost impossible challenges he faces.
But there’s more too. I’m always interested in the relationship between perception and story and truth. And in The Moor’s Account the author Laila Lalami explores the nature of story, the way we use story to describe “reality”, the way story can become our salvation.
From the first lines, written as if for a formal record, the author hints at the tensions between truth and story:
This book is the humble work of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, being a true account of his life and travels from the city of Azemmur to the Land of the Indians, where he arrived as a slave and, in his attempt to return to freedom, was shipwrecked and lost for many years.
Those lines told me I was in the company of a masterful story teller, and I settled in for a good read.
Lalami riffs on this theme again and again, throughout the book, only adding to the depth of the reading experience. Two of many examples:
In the very first Chapter (loc 190) the protagonist observes:
How strange were the ways of the Castilians—just by saying something was so, they believed that it was. I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice truth, but to create it.
And at the very end of the book, at loc 5866:
Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories … Maybe if our experiences, in all their glorious, magnificent colours, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth.
I knew that this novel had been short listed for the Pulitzer and I found myself wondering how on earth it had missed out. With Mustafa, I narrowly escaped crocodiles and storms and starvation and disease, and Indians who wanted to stop what they rightly understood as a threat to their very way of life. With him I dreamt of freedom and wondered at the power of “story”.
I read and I wondered who could have trumped this and taken the Pulitzer.
Answer: All the Light We Cannot See which I read, loved and reviewed here last year.What a job the judges must have had in 2015! Having read this, I think I’ll check out the other 2015 finalists.
Wondering what else I’ve been reading lately? Check out my book page
Categories: On Books