The Moor’s Account: alternative fiction

Book cover: The Moor's Account - Laila Lalami (a red-tipped quill on a parchment texture background)In 1527, a Spanish colonial expedition landed in Florida to establish new colonies. 9 years later, the only 4 survivors finally reached Mexico City: 3 Spanish noblemen and 1 Moorish slave. This is his story.

From time to time, I like to dip into a bit of historical fiction – especially if its an opportunity to learn about a period I know very little about. I was cautious in approaching The Moor’s Account – our only surviving historical account of the expedition is almost certainly of questionable accuracy as the survivors needed to present themselves to the Spanish authorities in the best possible light – but intrigued by the opportunities intrinsic in telling their tale from the slave’s point of view.

Mustafa introduces himself as a storyteller, and the book feels like an oral account – this isn’t polished literary prose, it’s plain speaking, personally biased. Each chapter is positioned (and comfortably read) as a more or less self-contained story or episode in Mustafa’s life, with the chapters alternating between the travails of the expedition and Mustafa’s life story.

The advantage of telling the tale from Mustafa’s perspective is that it can be unflinching in its portrayal of colonial violence and hypocrisy. Mustafa is as horrified as a modern reader (should be) by Narváez’s ruthlessness in slaughtering the tribesmen and putting them to the question.

That said, his account never wallows in the violence. He is stoic in the face of his own mistreatment, and experiences the horrors of battle, rape and torture from the periphery. Yet the snatched glimpses and nightmarish sounds Mustafa overhears are more than powerful enough to leave an indelible impression. Game of Thrones take note: you don’t have to show all the graphic details.

It is impossible to tell whether Narváez could communicate with his captives as he claimed, or whether he told self-serving lies to an expedition eager to hear stories of cities of gold ripe for conquest. Any challenge to his authority (and bear in mind that Narváez didn’t have a track record of success) is crushed by a politician as cannily populist as any we currently contend with: any hidalgo who questions him is swiftly undermined, common sense met with accusations of cowardice. You can practically hear Narváez say cuck. It’s a telling moment when Mustafa’s master Dorantes refuses to intervene in the rape of the Apalache women, because the perpetrators aren’t his men (they are Narváez’s).

It’s almost a relief when it all begins to go wrong. It feels like judgement – which contrasts sharply with Mustafa’s own religious guilt: for him, his experiences are a purifying fire through which he must walk to redeem himself – although his sins (greed, arrogance, disrespect) really don’t merit such harsh punishment. Notably, it is compassion rather than guilt that tempts him to risk punishment and sneak food to the brutalised captives, when fear of retribution otherwise keeps him cowed.

The interspersed memories of his childhood slowly lead us to the events that led to his enslavement, underlining just how unfair his circumstances are. Told by a homesick man across an ocean, these chapters are inevitably tinged with a rose-tinted nostalgia, vivid with bright colours and rich scents. While they’re not always comforting (his mother’s choice of fairy tale!), they were by far my favourite aspect of the first half of the book, his affection for his home town and his family making them more engaging than perhaps they should have been.

Once his history sees him sold off to Dorantes and headed to the New World, we are trapped in the current timeline – but as this broadly correlates with the expedition dissolving into anarchy and sickness, it becomes more intriguing. The second half of the book focuses on the struggle for survival, the multitude of different tribes (and tribal attitudes), and Mustafa’s evolution from disregarded to slave to valued companion as he loses his fear of his masters and gains the confidence to put forward  his own ideas.

Here, of course, we come to the joyous meta-fiction of the novel: if Cabeza de Vaca’s surviving account should be viewed as suspect (because of course he never made a bad decision, or took any actions that could bring him into disrepute), then so too should we question Mustafa’s account (if we were to treat it as history). Where he is dragged along by the expedition through the first half of the book and can bear no responsibility for their terrible actions, he is undeniably the hero of the second half. His actions (which I won’t spoil) contribute more to the survival of the group than anyone else’s; and he is the one who is above reproach.

However, it never feels forced or self-serving. Mustafa is an entirely credible storyteller, sufficiently self-deprecating about his flaws to ensure he never feels like a Gary Stu – instead, he is often desperate, sometimes naïve, frequently in fear of his life, making the best he can of each situation as it arises. It makes for a good story, although I found it repetitive at times.

I had other quibbles, of course: this is inevitably a male-dominated story, and the few female characters are often rendered invisible by enforced segregation. I would have liked to have seen more of Oyamasot. I would have liked a more nuanced depiction of the Native Americans, who are largely antagonistic and at times as racist and as brutal as the Spaniards (even when unprovoked). There is a strong whiff of superiority from Mustafa for the tribes’ superstitions and perceived greed, and as this is Mustafa’s account, there’s little to balance these impressions.

Most critically, I struggled in the end to believe in Mustafa’s choice to go to Mexico. I enjoyed the the evolution of Mustafa’s relationship with the Spaniards, from a slave expected to take personal risks to secure his master’s comfort to a friend (at least to Diego and Castillo) and respected companion (even by Dorantes, in so far as Dorantes respects anyone). But it was inevitable that this hard-won equality would evaporate once back on Spanish soil. History dictates that Mustafa accompany them back to Mexico City, but I struggled to buy into the narrative’s demand that we believe he will do anything to go home, rather than accepting the life he has established with the tribes.

However, it does allow Lalami to wrap up with two notes that resonated strongly for me: the benefits of recognising the good in our lives and seizing joy where we can (rather than fixating on things we can’t have); and a reflection on the shifting, ephemeral nature of objective truth that is particularly appropriate to a historical fiction based on what is almost certainly fictionalised history:

Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague reflections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought. Maybe if our experiences, in all their glorious, magnificent colours, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth.

Which leaves me with just one regret: that we will never hear the tribes’ accounts.