Book Review: The Moor’s Account

Tuesday 11 August 2015 by

The Moor's Account, Book, Laila Lalami, Periscope, ReadingThe Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

Published by Periscope

In 1527 the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez arrived on the coast of modern-day Florida with hundreds of settlers, and claimed the region for Spain. Almost immediately, the expedition was decimated by a combination of navigational errors, disease, starvation and fierce resistance from indigenous tribes. Within a year, only four survivors remained: three noblemen and a Moroccan slave called “Estebanico”. The official record, set down after a reunion with Spanish forces in 1536, contains only the three freemen’s accounts. The fourth, to which the title of Laila Lalami’s masterful novel alludes, is Estebanico’s own.

Lalami gives us Estebanico as history never did: as Mustafa, the vibrant merchant from Azemmur forced into slavery and a new name, and reborn as the first black explorer of the Americas, discovering and being discovered by various tribes both hostile and compassionate.

In Estebanico’s telling, the survivors’ journey across great swathes of the New World transforms would-be conquerors into humble servants and fearful outcasts into faith healers. He remains ever-observant, resourceful and hopeful that he might one day find his way back to his family, even as he experiences an unexpected (if ambiguous) camaraderie with his masters.

The Moor’s Account illuminates the ways in which stories can transmigrate into history, and how storytelling can offer a chance for redemption, reinvention and survival.

~*~

The Moor’s Account was the first book I picked up from the Man Booker longlist. It tells the story of Mustafa/Estebanico, and his journey with the Spanish to the New World.

Mustafa is a slave. He travels with Dorantes, his owner, and a group of explorers and settlers to Florida, looking for gold. Just a few years earlier, the Spanish had conquered Mexico, discovering riches beyond imagination, and these explorers want the same. But Mustafa is simply looking for freedom. Through a series of unfortunate events, the expedition is a disaster – leaving a mere handful alive and living with the Indians. Mustafa tells the story of his experience, writing a “true account” of the events.

This book is really just a collection of stories – one layered upon the other. Each chapter tells a story, and remembers a story, and begins a story – until the novel becomes a tapestry of tales. Beautifully written, it is a compelling tale, driving you forward as you feel Mustafa’s frustrations and fear and his hope. He is a modest storyteller, when in fact he could add frills and would still offer the same joy in reading. He is naïve and reckless, but he is also compassionate, honest, yet wily. After all, he survives.

This is exactly the kind of book I love – filled with danger and excitement, but written as if to a melody. There is an uplifting feeling when reading The Moor’s Account, that this is a labour of love, that this is the result of someone’s passion. There is nothing overreaching about its goals – no literary flourishes that jolt you from the story, and no nervous moments when the writing doesn’t quite hold up under scrutiny. There is relish in its telling – as if it’s been waiting to be told for years. Lalami world-builds with Tolkien-esque skill, and you can almost smell the campfires.

I am impressed at the amount of research that must have gone in to this book; the locations of the tribes and their customs/habits, the dates and exact timings of certain events. Even simply the idea that history slides its way in at several points (there’s a reference to Henry VIII that I particularly enjoyed). It feels authentic, authoritative and not at all patronising. There aren’t huge swathes of facts to show off how much the author knows, but equally it’s not so vague so as to leave you baffled.

The perfect start to my Man Book 2015 experience, this has not got the literary tricks that previous winners do (The Luminaries and its star-gazing, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and its tricksy storytelling) but fills the reader with the joy of a good tale well told. And one to treasure.

Related Posts

Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *