This is a really hard review to write, because every time I try to start, I think about another genius aspect of The Moor’s Account. So let me start with this-this book is absolutely brilliant. It’s stayed with me since I finished it about a week ago, and I just want to kidnap someone so I can ramble on about how this book tackles issues like racism, slavery, and the difference between history and truth. I already know my review can’t do this book justice. Laila Lalami’s book is a testament to what good historical fiction can do.
In 1527, Panfilo de Narvaez, six ships and a crew of 600 men sailed to the New World to claim Florida for the Spanish crown. After storms, shipwrecks, disease, starvation and hostile natives, only four men survived- Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado and a slave called Estebanico. When he got back to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca wrote an account of their experiences, painting his crew as absolute heroes-virtuous and brilliant explorers who tried to convert the “savages.” That became the official history of the Narvaez expedition.
His 1542 account of the ordeal make up the bones of Lalami’s story. Her narrator is the Morrocan slave Mustafa, renamed Estebanico by his master-and barely mentioned in de Vaca’s account. In Lalami’s story, Mustafa sold himself into slavery to provide for his starving family. But he’s not just an innocent victim. As a merchant, Mustafa sold three men into slavery, telling himself, “that I had not done anything that others had not done before me.”
Fate has a twisted sense of humor.
Mustafa forfeits his freedom and his name and eventually makes it to America as the slave of a conquistador. As more men die the line between freeman and slave, between Spaniard and Indian, grow dimmer. Mustafa becomes a leader, only to see his freedom once again stripped away when the survivors run into Spanish soldiers.
Throughout the book Mustafa keeps thinking about how the slaveholders changed his name. “A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world. Losing it meant losing my ties to all those things too. So I had never been able to shake the feeling that this Estebanico was a man conceived by the Castilians.” The book is about historical erasures-the erasure of Mustafa’s name, of his contributions, of the Natives who helped and loved the survivors, until all that’s left is a sanitized shadow of the truth. The other survivors provide a their own history of their ordeal, conveniently scrapping stories of the rapes and murders they watched their fellow soldiers commit, the help the Natives provided, and the Native women they loved. And Mustafa, handicapped by his social standing and his skin color, was never asked for his version of events.
The Moor’s Tale is (among many, many other things) a testament to storytelling. Mustafa knew his account would never be taken seriously in Spain, but that doesn’t mean he should remain silent. “Telling a story is like sowing a seed,” he says. “You always hope to see it become a beautiful tree.” Maybe by telling our stories, we can ensure that the conquerors’ versions are not the only ones that become history.