R88. The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami

Year Published: 2014
Pages: 324

First Sentence: In the name of God, most compassionate, most merciful.

I'm sad to report that The Moor's Account is one of those books that I was sure I'd love based on its premise, but that, when I actually ended up reading it, I just didn't connect with.

Here's that excellent premise: the book is based on a man most commonly known as Estevanico, who was the first known black person to visit the Americas. He was a slave and presumably involuntarily a member of the Narváez expedition to Florida. This expedition ended up failing spectacularly, with only four survivors making it across the North American continent to safety*. These four men, with the hindrance and help of the indigenous people, walked from Florida to Culiacán in Mexico—and eventually to Mexico City—over a period of several years.

So you may, like me, anticipate an exciting and interesting story based on that premise. You would be only half right. The story Laila Lalami invents for her lead character, who narrates the story in the first person and thinks of himself as Mustafa) is pretty interesting. The strongest parts are his recounting of his past as a merchant in Azemmur. Although this is just as invented as the rest of his story, it's obvious that Lalami had many more sources to work with to make her invention more vivid in this section. She clearly took care with how she portrayed her indigenous characters, at least in terms of providing a balanced portrayal, but I think that care led to them all being very flat.

In case it's still not clear, The Moor's Account may be interesting but it certainly isn't exciting. And I don't mean exciting as in action-packed, I mean exciting as in stimulating ideas and feelings. I wanted the characters and themes to grab my attention.

Maybe the book's biggest issue is the amount of plot that takes place over such a small number of pages. The book covers many years and miles in Mustafa's life, so that it rarely has room to breathe in any particular location or develop the characters there. It also doesn't give Mustafa as much space as he needs to grow as a character. Because the book is his memoir, he's already come to the end of his journey by the time he begins telling his story. There was very little sense of how difficult it would actually be for someone to learn and adapt to culture so much different from their own, while also coming from a position of disempowerment.

Ultimately the book doesn't go deep enough into its setting and its characters. There's a lack of description of the environment that was very much to its detriment. Throughout the book I was uncertain what part of the landscape the characters were supposed to be crossing at any given time, whether there were forests or deserts, whether there were mountains or huge rivers. Any of these landscapes would likely have been alien to Mustafa, but he doesn't bother to describe them much. This would have helped to ground the book in a time and place. In fact, the one thing it does really well is to show how vibrant and dense the existing population of North America was prior to European conquest. I've always had a feeling, shared with many other members of settler culture, of this part of the world being vast and empty prior to the arrival of Europeans, but of course it wasn't. Barring the invention of a time machine, we'll never know how many people were here, but I like that Lalami envisions a continent with a flourishing and varied population.

Overall, The Moor's Account is a good book but not a great one. I'd invite you to read it and see for yourself.

* The expedition began with about 600 people. For some reason every narrative I've found is very hazy on what happened to the members of the expedition who Narváez ordered to remain on their ships and sail up the coast, but it does seem that most of these made it along with the four survivors who walked overland. Still, not a successful expedition.

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