A Pulitzer finalist and long-listed for the Man Booker Prizer, The Moor’s Account is a work of fiction based on real historical events and people. Through the eyes of our narrator Mustafa, aka Estebanico, a Muslim from Morocco, the reader experiences the life of a successful merchant in Portuguese controlled North Africa, enslavement, and an ill-fated Spanish quest for gold in La Florida. Lalami’s inspiration came from Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 La Relacion or Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition, which occurred from 1527-1536. Only four men survived the ordeal — de Vaca, two other Castilian gentlemen, and one Moorish slave named Estebanico. The three Castilians gave testimony to the Viceroy about their experiences among the natives, but Mustafa was not invited to do the same. He writes his own chronicle so that he might one day be remembered among his own countrymen and because he feels that the Spaniards’ accounts omit and/or exaggerate details of their adventure.
… I, who is neither beholden to Castilian men of power, nor bound by the rules of a society to which I do not belong, feel free to recount the true story of what happened to my companions and me.
In so doing, Mustafa aims to provide readers with “truth in the guise of entertainment.” Laila Lalami entertains her readers with Mustafa’s compelling personal journey to enlightenment and freedom while detailing the brutally violent historical background of the “Age of Exploration.” This is a story about owning one’s own story, telling it, and knowing the freedom that comes from that.
Lalami’s narration switches back and forth between Mustafa’s life in “The Land of the Indians” and his life in North Africa and Spain prior to that. From his mother, he learns the story of his birth, which involved both travel and violence. We learn that Mustafa’s father was a moderately successful notary, i.e., recorder of other people’s major life events (a kind of story teller), and that he had Mustafa trained academically to take up this honorable profession. Mustafa, however, was drawn to trade and had had great success as a merchant’s agent until Portuguese oppression and economic ruin took him in a completely different direction. We also learn that Mustafa carries a lot of guilt about his past decisions, decisions that his father opposed but never prevented him from fulfilling. Mustafa’s greatest hope, once he is enslaved, is to be free once again and return to his family in Azemmur. Mustafa describes the coping mechanism that he developed on the slave ship:
To overcome my fear, I shackled myself with hope, its links heavier than any metal known to man.
Mustafa finds himself on the journey to La Florida with his new master Andres Dorantes de Carraga — one of the four survivors. Dorantes comes from wealth but gambles away much of it. Tales of Cortes’ conquests have captured the imaginations of many hidalgos, and Dorantes, his brother and a friend all participate in the Narvaez expedition. Among the truths that Mustafa relates that the other three survivors don’t are Narvaez’s poor decision making, cannibalism, fraternization with native women, and enslavement to native tribes as a matter of necessity. The details of the expedition are sometimes harrowing, as men fall to illness, attack, storms, etc. The more interesting story though is the effect all of this has on Mustafa and his hopes as well as its effect on the surviving Castilians. Mustafa’s dream of returning home a free man is initially linked in his mind to his service to Dorantes; he believes that if he serves well (and this means finding gold and valuables at first), then Dorantes will reward him with freedom later. Dorantes has promised no such thing, but Mustafa shackles himself to this hope as a survival mechanism. With time, as the party dwindles in number and the years grow longer, Mustafa realizes that he has been mistaken to link his freedom to someone else’s will and actions. Moreover, Mustafa sees the ambition in the Castilians and recognizes himself there; he remembers that he had been a self-serving young man grasping after riches and renown but that it had only harmed him and others. Mustafa’s experiences have given him the intelligence to learn native languages and powers of observation to learn their habits and understand their way of living, but life has also given him an empathy for the natives. As the Castilians struggle to survive, it seems that some of them are changing as well; social barriers disintegrate and at times, the men are themselves enslaved. They learn to adapt to native life and even take wives. A camaraderie develops among the survivors of the Narvaez expedition that is threatened only by the reconnection to fellow Spaniards in Mexico after many years of wandering.
The scenes at the end of the novel were among my favorite, as it shows how some people, even after 8 years, can revert to type pretty quickly, and that any good will toward natives would be viewed suspiciously by representatives of the Spanish governing authority. If you want to know what happens to Mustafa, you’ll have to read the novel. It is well worth your time! The Moor’s Account is an excellent work of historical fiction that tells a timely and timeless story about truth and freedom, about having the courage to speak up and to change.