I‘ve set a goal for myself this year to read intentionally diverse literature: male and female authors, books set in or about different cultures, books by authors from different cultures, books about different American subcultures, books in translation. I feel like I generally do a pretty good job in some of these areas, partially due to authors, genres, and parts of history that I tend to gravitate towards, but I could do better. And what is reading for if not learning more about both the world and yourself at the same time?
To start the year, I’d run across Laila Lalami’s stunning The Moor’s Account several times in my book list perusals and finally asked for it for Christmas this past year. A finalist for the Pulitzer, nominee for the Man Booker, and winner of the American Book Award, I should have asked sooner. Not that awards are everything, but in this case, they are well-deserved. And now, after finishing it in February, I am finally getting around to reviewing it.
Lalami’s tale tells the fictionalized story of the real Mustafa al-Zamori, a North African merchant who sells himself into slavery to support his debts and becomes the first black explorer of the Americas as part of the doomed Narvaez expedition to La Florida. Known to his master, Dorontes, as Estebanico, Mustafa tells his story in alternating chapters–his past and his present–until the two converge as he and 3 other men, including the legendary Cabeza de Vaca, struggle to find a way back to Spain as the sole survivors of the Narvaez expedition.
This was a really interesting book for me. I found it to be incredibly dense in terms of what was packed on the page. The plot moved incredibly quickly, but I would be shocked at the end of the train ride to find I’d only read 15 pages. It’s not a long book–only about 320 pages–but each page is chock-full of important details, events, interactions, and characters. Nothing is excess; everything is necessary. In support of that, Lalami structures each chapter as a story told by Mustafa, most with titles like “The Story of Fill-in-the-Blank.” Mustafa alternates between telling stories of his past as the child of middle-class North Africans with ambitions to be a merchant, gaining wealth and power, to his present as slave of the Spanish explorer Dorontes. These chapters alternated until past and present converge about 2/3 of the way through, and we begin to experience Mustafa’s life along with him. Because each chapter is itself a self-contained story that combines with the other chapters to create an overarching narrative, it really emphasizes this economic density of Lalami’s language.
Do not mistake this for a short story collection, though. It is most definitely a novel, one that ruminates on the importance of owning one’s story, the differences and overlaps between one’s story and one’s identity, and the sometimes itchy relationship between one’s story, one’s truth, and one’s experience…and even “the” truth. As the title of the novel suggests, Mustafa is intent on controlling the telling of his personal story, and so we the readers get to experience his hopes and dreams, his successes and failures, his loves and losses. We get to know him as a fully-formed human being, which is not as common as it might seem in literature. Yet in all of this, Mustafa jealously guards his story from those around him. It is his story that grounds his identity as Mustafa rather than “Estebanico” as the Spaniards call him. It is his story that contains his personhood, even when what is visible to those around him is his slave status. It is his story that helps him maintain his humanity, his faith, and his hope when all those around him are losing theirs. For if we cannot control how we tell our stories, what can we control?
I do have to say that I had some trouble understanding geography and distances while the characters were in La Florida. For a long time in reading the novel, I thought they were spending years wandering the length of Florida and that the fabled “Isle of Doom” was somewhere off the east coast of the now-state. Turns out, the “Isle of Doom” is Galveston Island, not an hour and a half from where I grew up. (And those less charitable among us would argue that Galveston still is the “Isle of Doom”. I enjoy Galveston myself.) Silly me.
But that’s a small quibble and does not diminish the splendor of Lalami’s tale or the enjoyment of her writing. I found this book to be incredibly beautiful, heartbreaking, horrifying, honest, and hopeful. In short, it is a masterful account of a universal need within a unique and uniquely human and experience. I urge you to read The Moor’s Account. I don’t know how you will enjoy it, but it will certainly be a thoroughly worthwhile experience.