Monday, January 25, 2016

The Garden of Fiction: A Long Slog with the Florida Conquistadors in 'The Moor's Account'

Like the subject it portrays, this book went on too long. "The Moor's Account" delivers an "alternative" account of a 1527 Spanish exploration of the Gulf Coast of Florida. Since few of us know anything about the "official" account of this (or any other) Spanish expedition to North America, I'm not sure that there's a crying need for an alternative. Nevertheless, my opinion is definitely a minority report on a novel widely and extravagantly praised by reviewers. The novel (as Amazon tells us) was a  A New York Times Notable Book, A Wall Street Journal Top 10 Book of the Year, An NPR Great Read of 2014, A Kirkus Best Fiction Book of the Year, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
             Nevertheless I have a sneaking submission that the critics are rewarding author Laila Lalami for her good intentions rather than the actual experience of reading this book. Here is Goodreads' capsule summary: "In these pages, Laila Lalami brings us the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America: Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico. The slave of a Spanish conquistador, Estebanico sails for the Americas with his master. .." And, when they get there, to make a very long story short, nothing goes as planned. The expedition's leader captures some Indians and tortures them. The captives tell him what they realize he wants to hear (that's what torture gives you): there's gold in them there swamps, and the expedition blunders on, meeting various disasters, suffering from malaria, until only a few surviving members (including, notably, the Moroccan slave now called Estebanico, who naturally is the only one among them with sense). 
         Here's the moral of the story (via Goodreads): "As the dramatic chronicle unfolds, we come to understand that, contrary to popular belief, black men played a significant part in New World exploration and Native American men and women were not merely silent witnesses to it. In Laila Lalami’s deft hands, Estebanico’s memoir illuminates the ways in which stories can transmigrate into history, even as storytelling can offer a chance for redemption and survival."
           In short, it's revisionist history. Why do some people (the people who write such reviews) find revisionist history so satisfying? Is it guilty compensation for writing "black men" out of the story of early American history?  
          Our hero is a Moor, from Morocco. Americans such as myself know little of the history of Morocco. That's what I'd like to read about. 

Anyway here's my dissenting review of "The Moor's Account":
          I think the best parts of "The Moor's Account" by
Laila Lalami have to do with the central figure's life in Morocco, at a time when the country increasingly falls under the thumb of the Portuguese and Spanish. Falling into debt because of the Colonial takeover of his city, our hero sells himself into slavery to provide money for his family and is sold again to a Spanish nobleman who takes takes him on an expedition to pillage Florida. 
           I was hoping that an imaginative re-creation of a journey of exploration that receives little attention from our Anglo-centric history of the New World would prove fascinating. But the tale our author spins is perhaps too much like the real thing: long, confusing, filled with tedious physical suffering, and offering little light on what the indigenous people were like. There's even less to like, or to choose from, among the drearily egocentric Spanish characters. As I understand matters, the fictional premise is that this work is the enslaved Moor's first-person account of this 16th century expedition -- an account excluded from Spain's official record. Acting on her premise, the author appears determined to dramatize in detail every encounter in her hero's survivalist odyssey. But we can't tell these indigenous tribes apart. They blur together and end up being what the Indians have always been to their conquerors: the natives. 
            The book's hero loved Morocco, and his family there. He thinks about his mother and brothers all the time, to wonder how they are faring. As a reader, I wanted to know how they were doing as well.
            But nobody, in the Anglo-speaking world at least, has ever loved these Spanish exploiters of the New World. The subject of this novel needs more wonder, poetry, and meaning than "The Moor's Account" delivers.