Sunday, January 4, 2015
Review: 'The Moor's Account'
By Laila Lalami
Literary historical fiction
Winners may control the narrative, but in Laila Lalami's latest novel, who wins and who gets to tell the true story depends on how one views it.
The Moor's Account is based on one line in a report of a Spanish expedition to the New World in the 16th century. Nothing is known about the black slave who survived, but that one line was enough for Moroccan-born Lalami to weave a tale of many stories in a densely packed novel.
Mustafa is the hard-working and greedy son of a trader who takes his life and freedom for granted. When his Moroccan city is captured by the Portuguese, times get hard and his family struggles for the basics. He decides the way to save the others is to sell himself into slavery. His years working for a Spanish merchant offer few moments of happiness, and his loyalty and ability to help his master make a fortune are not appreciated. He ends up the slave of a soldier traveling to the New World to seek gold and lands for the king of Spain in New Florida.
Just as hubris helped lead to his downfall in his native city, ignorant pride leads to disaster for the Spaniards. Their journey through the wilderness does not lead to the gold they thought would be found easily. As their number dwindle and they are reduced to the most base forms of trying to survive, Mustafa, who was renamed Esteban, then Estebanico, finds ways to survive and thrive.
Mustafa's inherent dignity and willingness to meet the circumstances of each day as they find him, or his resilience, are shown more than told about in the novel. Indeed, every aspect of the novel is subtle, whether it's how Mustafa and the Indians are regarded by the Spaniards, or the small differences in how individuals view the world and their changing circumstances.
Written in a highly formalized fashion, The Moor's Account is more like a series of fables than a fast-paced novel. There are adventures aplenty, but the action is not the point It is the appreciation for the sun, the rain, food and good company you can count on that matters. It is the opportunity to tell one's story so that one is not forgotten.
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