The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami is a fictional account loosely based on the 1527 expedition from Spain to Florida of conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez. The goal was to conquer land, claim it for Spain, subdue the indigenous population, and find gold. The story is told in the voice of one of the four survivors of the expedition, Mustafa/Estebanico, a Moroccan who sold himself into slavery to provide for his destitute mother and siblings.
The first part of the novel consists of chapters in the alternating time lines of Mustafa’s life before and after the expedition. Mustafa recounts his childhood, his early success as a merchant, the death of his father, the famine that compelled him to provide funds for his family by selling himself into slavery, and his early life as a slave in the home of a Spanish merchant. These chapters alternate with his journey to Florida and experiences in America as a slave to the explorer Andres Dorantes who joined the Narváez expedition. Of the 600 people on the expedition, Mustafa and three Castilians were the only survivors.
Mustafa, renamed Estebanico by the Castilians, describes the harrowing journey across the ocean and on land. The expedition experiences one disaster and disappointment after another. Men are lost to disease, betrayals, ambushes, drownings, and bloody skirmishes with various Indian tribes. The few who survive do so by accommodating to the demands of the tribes they encounter and by learning survival skills from their hosts. The four survivors spend several years moving from one location to the next while developing a reputation as healers. Eventually Estebanico orchestrates his escape and returns with his Indian wife to her village to live out the rest of his days in peace.
Lalami brings events alive through the voice of her narrator. She skillfully transports us to a different time and place. We witness harrowing tales of survival, brutality, torture, cannibalism, as well as tales of compassion and generosity. Mustafa/Estebanico is an engaging story-teller who demonstrates tact, resilience, intelligence, adaptability, and impressive survival skills. We follow him as he encounters strange surroundings, animals, and people. And we watch as he learns to adapt and embrace his new life. But Estebanico is not without his faults since he traded in slaves before becoming a slave. Lalami depicts her characters as multi-dimensional, unique individuals with idiosyncrasies and foibles keenly observed by her narrator. The three Castilian survivors are well-rounded and believable, each with a different personality, and each of whom experiences growth.
The novel tackles the themes of slavery, colonialism, othering, greed, freedom, sacrifice, and family. Perhaps the most prominent theme to emerge is the power of story-telling. Mustafa/Estebanico discovers the great power that resides in story-telling—who is telling the story, whose voices are being silenced as a consequence, and who has agency to reshape the story to suit his purposes. As his adventures in the New World unfold, Estebanico’s voice gradually gains in strength and with it comes a corresponding increase in agency. His stated purpose is to provide an honest recording of events to correct the erroneous report compiled by the three Castilian survivors. Mustafa/Estebanico’s voice, which had once been silenced during his tenure as a slave, will be silent no more.
A convincing and laudable reimagining of events. Highly recommended.