The Moor’s Account promises swashbuckling and pulse-pounding adventure in the new world and, although it dawdles far too often, when it delivers, it thrills.
The Spanish conquerors of North American never gained the same level of fame as their conquistador brethren in Middle and South America. While Cortez’s name and the images of a strangled Incan king still live in infamy, the tales of Cabeza De Vaca and other Spanish glory seekers are murkier, even though their influence has stretched from the flags that once proudly flew over Texas to modern lingo and food. The murk that covers general knowledge of the northern exploits of conquistadors makes it a fertile ground for fiction. Or, at least, that’s Laila Lalami’s mindset going into the strange tale of The Moor’s Account.
Lalami uses the general outline of De Vaca’s reports on his ill-fated travels to the new world. It begins promisingly with the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez that struck into the heart of modern day Florida, when Narváez attempted to plunder the land. Troubles for the explorers grow quickly, in the form of mysterious diseases ravaging the group and attacks from Indians thinning their ranks. Finally, only De Vaca and three other men are left from the original horde of would be conquerors. According to De Vaca’s actual historical account, one of the four survivors was Estebanico, a slave mentioned only once in the document. Lalami saw an opportunity in that single line from De Vaca, and began crafting.
We quickly learn that Estebanico, in Lalami’s reality, was once Mustafa, a child running wild through the North African city of Azemmur, annoying his parents and siblings, ignoring his father’s advice to become a clerk. His childhood isn’t all a bundle of happiness, but Lalami imbues these passages with a dream-like sense of nostalgia. Mustafa recounts these moments while in North America, and his daydreams are often interrupted by his master, Senor Dorantes, or, in more terrifying cases, Indian attack. “The soldier opened his mouth wide, but the only sound that came out was the bubbling of the blood inside,” says Mustafa, remembering the first proper encounter he had with Florida’s native people. Some of Lalami’s most compelling writing comes from the jarring moments when Mustafa’s daydreams turn into nightmares, when he describes the horrors that surrounded him with a distant dispassion. One of the first (of many) attacks has Mustafa watching his master cut down dozens of natives: “He hacked an Indian on the shoulder until blood sprayed out from him. The man fell down to his knees, and Senor Dorantes trampled him as he moved on to the next.”
This is Lalami at her finest. The brutality and beauty of the new world are wonderfully intertwined, which only makes the sections about Mustafa’s time under Spanish rule more frustrating. Before his former owners go feral in the American wild, Mustafa spends a dull time working for them. The dispassionate tone that made the violence so shocking does a disservice to the passages about the grand adventure, shrouding them in a kind of boring haze. The way Mustafa is sold into slavery should be a striking plot twist, but Mustafa’s constant hints, combined with the droll way he describes his final weeks in Azemmur, makes it a more like a waiting game. Whenever Lalami has Mustafa dip into his non-American memories, the effect feels perfunctory. Lalami knows her book’s great moments come when two continents clash and mix, but she dwells in the old world for far too long, trying too hard to build anticipation for the next chapter in Mustafa’s trek.
For all the filler, North America offers enough excitement and beauty to justify a novel-length story. Mustafa bounces between tribes, sometimes as slave, sometimes as a revered visitor. Even his former superiors act kinder to him as he proves exceptionally resourceful and lucky. The Moor’s Account promises swashbuckling and pulse-pounding adventure in the new world and, although it dawdles far too often, when it delivers, it thrills.