Reviewed by Helen Skinner
In 1527, the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez embarks on an expedition to the New World. With five ships and six hundred men, there’s every reason to hope that the voyage will be a success and will result in the area now known as the Gulf Coast of the United States being claimed for Spain. Within a year, however, most of the men have succumbed to disease, lack of food, extreme weather and encounters with Native American tribes. Eventually, only four of the original party remain: the treasurer of the expedition, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; the nobleman Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, an explorer; and finally, Estebanico, a Moroccan slave in the service of Dorantes.
The story of the disastrous Narváez expedition is told in a chronicle written by Cabeza de Vaca, known as La Relación, yet Estebanico – one of de Vaca’s three fellow survivors – is only very briefly mentioned. Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account gives Estebanico a voice of his own and an opportunity to tell his side of the story, including details which were omitted from the official records.
As well as his account of the expedition, Estebanico also tells us about his early life in Azemmur, Morocco, and how his fortunes rose and fell. Born Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, he was once a trader, selling men into slavery – before, ironically, becoming a slave himself. The two threads of Estebanico’s narrative are told in alternating chapters and I found that as I learned more about his background I gained a deeper understanding of the sort of person he was and of the qualities which helped him to survive when so many others did not.
Unlike most of his fellow explorers, Estebanico has not come to the New World in search of fame and fortune; all he wants is to be given his freedom and a chance to return to his beloved Azemmur. He is in a unique position, being part of the Castilian party yet not fully accepted by them – at least not until his intelligence and his gift for learning languages make him indispensable to the group and the barriers between slave and master break down for a while. His status as slave means that he offers a different perspective on events and also a more sympathetic view of the tribes of indigenous people they encounter. Estebanico has respect for these people, which contrasts with the arrogance of many of the Spaniards, but he is careful to describe the hostility and violence on both sides, making his account feel fair and balanced.
Lalami very successfully conveys the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the world in which Estebanico has found himself: the landscape, the plants and animals, the native tribes and their customs – all of these are described through the eyes of someone to whom everything is fascinating and new. I also liked the names the Spaniards have for the places they pass through: for example, the Land of the Indians, the Ocean of Fog and Darkness, the Island of Misfortune and the Bay of Oysters. A strange reptile discovered near the beginning of the expedition is given the name El Lagarto because it looks like a giant lizard – this, of course, is the animal we now known as the alligator. Names have a special significance to Estebanico, having had his own name (and with it part of his identity) taken from him.
Although Estebanico’s account does not really exist and Lalami is simply imagining how he might have chosen to tell the story had he been given the opportunity, the novel is written in such a way that I could easily believe everything in the book happened as Estebanico describes. I appreciated the author’s efforts to make the novel feel like a convincing sixteenth century manuscript – while it isn’t entirely authentic, it never feels inappropriately modern either and strikes a good balance between readability and historical accuracy. For those readers left wanting to know more about the expedition, a list of sources is given at the back of the book.
A major theme of the novel is the power of storytelling and the right we all have to tell our own story and make sure our voice is heard. It’s fortunate, then, that Laila Lalami is such a talented storyteller herself. The Moor’s Account is an educational read (unless you’ve read about the Narváez expedition before, you’ll probably find, as I did, that there’s something new to learn on almost every page) but it’s also both a fascinating travelogue and a gripping adventure novel which kept me turning the pages wondering where Estebanico’s journey would take him next.
Helen blogs at She Reads Novels.
A Q&A with Laila Lalami can be found in our BookBuzz section here.
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account (Periscope: London, 2015). 978-1-85964-427-0, 430 pp., paperback original.
BUY The Moor’s Account from the Book Depository.