Fiction – audiobook. Read by Neil Shah. Audible, 2015. Originally published 2014. 13 hours, 18 minutes. Purchased.
In 1527, the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez sailed from the port city of Sanlúcar de Barramedawith 450 troops, officers, and slaves and another 150 sailors, wives, and servants to the newly discovered island of La Florida (present-day Florida, which is obviously not an island). His goal was to claim La Florida for the Spanish crown and find Apalacha, a city rumored to have been built with gold and filled with other coveted jewels and minerals.
Of the 600 people who started out with the Narváez expedition, only four survived: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Dorantes’ Moor slave Estebanico. The historical record of their eight-year journey from Florida to the capital of the Spanish colony, present-day Mexico City, is based on Cabeza de Vaca’s 1942 memoir, La Relación.
According to Lalami’s afterward, very little is known about Estebanico, the first African to reach the present-day continental United States. He is referenced only once in Cabeza de Vaca’s memoir, a short line saying “The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor”.
In The Moor’s Account, Lalami presents the events of the Narváez expedition from Estebanico’s point of view. Lalami’s novel is written as the memoir of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori – Estebanico’s name before he was sold into slavery and forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism – and purports to be “a true account of his life and travels from the city of Azemmur to the Land of the Indians”.
“Telling a story is like sowing a seed – you always hope to see it become a beautiful tree, with firm roots and branches that soar up in the sky. But it is a peculiar sowing, for you will never know whether your seed sprouts or dies.”
I started reading a hardback copy of Lalami’s novel earlier this month but struggled to push past the first seventy-five pages. I found it difficult to visualize the geographically ungrounded setting – Mustafa/Estebanico often has no idea where he is – and, even with Estebanico’s experiences with slavery, the pro-Indian viewpont seemed too modern for the time period.
I considered passing on the book, an unappealing idea given that Lalami is one of my favorite writers. The audiobook version is only available on Audible, and I debated whether or not I wanted to spend $14.95 on a book I already knew I wasn’t that into.
However, Audible apparently now allows customers to return books they do not enjoy with 365 days of purchase, and I figured that was no harm in given Lalami’s novel another shot in a different format.
I am so, so glad I decided to try it as an audiobook because kif there was ever a novel meant to be read aloud, it is this one. Estebanicio’s voice becomes richer when read aloud; his story became far more engaging and interesting.
Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca, and Castillo are too fixated on gold, glory, and their perceived racial superiority to truly appreciate the landscape and the differences between the tribes they encounter, but Estebanico views events from a unique point of view. He eagerly takes in the beauty and the contradictions of this newly discovered landscape. As a slave and as a forced convert, he sympathizes with the Indian tribes who are subjugated by the Spanish explorers.
But, as the alternating chapters focused on his past in Morocco show, he was once gripped by the feverish desire for wealth that dictates the actions of Narváez, Dorantes, Castillo, and Cabeza de Vaca. His comeuppance was being sold into slavery; his fellow survivors experience their comeuppance by the way some Indian tribes treat them. And the presentation of these events helps explain why the seemingly more modern viewpoint on colonization and the humanity of Indians is appropriate for this tale.
In some ways, Lalami’s novel reminded of The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which I read back in November 2016 and never reviewed. The feeling that things cannot possibly become worse quickly propels the reader along, and the action never quite lets us. But the more nuanced morality of Lalami’s tale pushes it to stand above stories about other ill-fated explorers. This novel is one of the best pieces of historical fiction that I have ever read.
This is my thirteenth book for #20BooksofSummer. I received a printed copy of this book from PaperBackSwap in September 2015, but purchased the audio edition in July 2019.