There can be a beguiling allure to fictional memoire: the endless possibility of the imagination reinforced by a framework of real events. This idea of truth lies at the heart of The Moor’s Account by Laili Lalami, which is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize 2015. It is told through the eyes of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, a young Moroccan, once rebellious and avaricious, whose first step to redemption is to offer himself up to slavery to provide money for his mother and siblings.
Bought from Portuguese traders by Senor Dorantes, a Castilian nobleman, he is renamed Estebanico, a symbolic stripping away of his identity. The erasure of his history. He is not just a lesser being than his new master. He is no individual being at all. He is taken by his new master on an expedition led by Conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez to claim and settle La Florida on the Gulf Coast of the United States.
Almost from the beginning it’s a singularly ill-fated venture (as was de Narvaez’s earlier one). Despite setting sail with five ships and more than 600 men, driving cupidity, brutality towards the indigenous population and petty jealousies that subverted common sense see the numbers rapidly decimated until only four of them remain.
Now the roles are reversed. The men are barely tolerated within the various Indian clans that they had once been their targets and it is only Estebanico’s skills that helps them all eventually establish a tolerable existence within the community. He allows himself to believe that the barrier that had been created between him and his companions has also disappeared. But when they are eventually rescued, the three Spaniards begin a systematic reshaping of events. Estebanico realizes he will he never be a free man and is “once again living in a world where written records were synonymous with power.”
His only identity is through his voice, writing his account of what happened, as a counterbalance to the official version. Ironically, Estebanico’s narrative is as heavily weighted to the lot of the Indians as the Castilians skew their story in favour of themselves. But, as he says: “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. To God belong the east and the west; whichever way you turn, there is the face of God. God is great.”
The Moor’s Account is an elegant dissection of a brutal period of history, peeling back the layers of racial, religious and cultural imperatives to reveal the ultimate sameness of human beings.
The Moor’s Account by Laili Lalami is published by Periscope. Lalami is professor of creative writing at the University of California. Her previous books are Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son. She was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. The short list for the Man Booker Prize 2015 will be announced on Tuesday 15th September and the eventual winner on Tuesday 13th October.