Published by Pantheon
Publication date: September 9th 2014
And thus it was done. Of all the contracts I had signed, this was perhaps the only one my father could never have imagined me signing, for it traded what should never be traded. It delivered me into the unknown and erased my father’s name. I could not know that this was just the first of many erasures.
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami is the story of Mustafa, a young man who lives in Morocco in the early 1500s and sells himself into slavery to save his family from starvation. The first thing that is taken away from him is his name when he is renamed by a Spanish slaver and becomes Estebanico. Soon he is sold to a Castilian conquistador and embarks with him on a voyage to the New World, landing in what is now Florida. What was supposed to be an ocean voyage followed by a quick conquering of a native population, the discovery of copious amounts of gold and a return to Spain as wealthy heroes turns into thirteen years of disease, death, and enslavement by the Indian tribes they encounter. The original 500 passengers of soldiers, clergy and settlers are reduced to four men who wander from Florida all the way to Mexico, known then as New Spain.
The novel is Mustafa’s version of those years, in opposition to the accounts given by the three other men, who as Spaniards and gentlemen are loath to admit the failure of their mission. It is Mustafa who details their lives through the years when they searched first for their ships and gold and then as part of the nomadic tribes of Indians with whom they lived. With his honesty we watch these arrogant men brutalize the natives, lie to them and then call them liars when what they desire (gold) is not to be found. They are the untrustworthy devils and as disease decimates their group as well as the natives they watch in horror and then resignation as they become the slaves, serving chieftains and being abused and starved.
For Mustafa, this is nothing new. He realizes the horror of what he has done early on and that there is no way out. It is only in their sixth year, when they encounter a tribe in need of a healer, that things change. Mustafa’s black skin already marks him as different from the feared white men and now his knowledge of healing and facility with the various Indian dialects gives him power as a shaman. Suddenly, his master looks to him to save their lives and in doing so, makes promises to him about his freedom when they finally get home. Two years later they find another set of Spaniards and the novel takes on a not unexpected but tragic tone.
Unfolding with the strange and wonderful beauty of a new land and foreign cultures, The Moor’s Account is lushly woven together by Lalami’s prose. She writes with such strength and surety of this long ago time that you expect to look up and see forest from the doorway of your hut. Mustafa is given a quiet dignity even as he suffers. Even though he is the sole narrator there is no question that his account is anything less than the truest truth. And while he has a fierce desire to get home, to recapture what he so thoughtlessly gave away, he accepts that he has no control over his own fate.
The Moor’s Account is beautiful but deeply sad, as a novel of the conquest of the New World must be. Even when the Castilians are assimilated into the Indian tribe and marry their women, they shed this skin as soon as they are able and revert to their previous attitudes and behavior. Lalami has written a novel of profound depth and solemn sadness from a time long ago but the feelings it evokes are fresh and raw.
The Elliott Bay Book Company is partnering with the Seattle Public Library to host Laila Lalami on Tuesday night, September 16th. Event details here.
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