Published by Pantheon on September 9th 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
Summary from Goodreads:
**PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST**
A New York Times Notable Book
A Wall Street Journal Top 10 Book of the Year
An NPR Great Read of 2014
A Kirkus Best Fiction Book of the Year
In this stunning work of historical fiction, Laila Lalami brings us the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America—a Moroccan slave whose testimony was left out of the official record.
In 1527, the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez sailed from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda with a crew of six hundred men and nearly a hundred horses. His goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown and, in the process, become as wealthy and famous as Hernán Cortés...
A change in perspective can make all the difference! This is a contemplative book I’d recommend to any fans of historical fiction wanting to hear an old tale retold in new light.
First, a little background
This novel is based on the real-life writings of Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, one of 3 members (of an original 600-man crew) to survive the doomed Narvaez expedition. Once separated from his men, Cabeza de Vaca and company spent 8 years wandering through modern-day Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico.
Think about that for a second. 8 years of wandering the pre-colonial Southwest United States, with no maps, sunscreen, or local language skills. It really is incredible that they found their way home at all.
Years after his return to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca wrote a report to the King of Spain detailing the storms, starvations, cruelties, and kindnesses they faced at the hands of the natives. Given his need to please the king, Cabeza de Vaca probably isn’t the most reliable conveyor of facts and anthropological detail – but he makes a clear attempt to show the natives in a sympathetic light and humanize in the eyes of the crown.
One of the only non-Europeans mentioned in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative is mentioned for about two sentences, and then never again: Estebanico, a black Moorish slave. The Moor’s Account re-imagines Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative from Estebanico’s perspective.
While fighting for survival among new lands and peoples, Estebanico navigates ambivalent relationships with the Spaniards, leading a precarious journey from slave to conquistadors’ comrade.
The real villain of this story: rapacious greed
All the characters fluctuate variously between a hunger for gold and a respect for universal human dignity.
The conquistadors, obviously, have come to the New World in the hope of ransacking it for gold and treasure – but Estebanico is no innocent, either. He’s painted as an ex-slaver who was himself brought into slavery.
Over time, we see Estebanico become a braver and better man, clinging to his religion and his memories to help him move forward. His Spanish companions, when removed from their own society, gradually recognize the humanity in Estebanico and in the natives – but upon their rescue, the trappings of empire return, and their materialism and greed fall right back into place.
What’s in a story?
Estebanico emphasizes the power of storytelling, narrative, and names to wield power or to heal. There’s a fantastic part, only slightly embellished from Cabeza de Vaca’s account, about a group of natives who press Estebanico and his comrades to become impromptu healers:
“If I was confronted with an illness I did not recognize, I listened to the sick man or woman and offered consolation in the guise of a long story. After all, what the sufferers needed most of all was an assurance that someone understood their pain and that, if not a full cure, at least some respite from it lay further ahead. This, too, was something I had learned in the markets of Azemmur: a good story can heal.”
By writing down his own account of events, Estebanico also seems to be healing himself from trauma, hopelessness, and exhaustion.
Lalami’s fictionalized Estebanico is very much in keeping with the tone of Cabeza de Vaca’s account (which is to say: a little bit dry, with religious overtones and constant acknowledgement of his reader).
I highly recommend reading this book alongside its source text, Cabeza de Vaca’s Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. When read together, you get to see which parts of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative were challenged, omitted, or embellished, and how Lalami built whole characters out of the tiniest hints and inferences.