History sometimes uncovers skeletons which a fiction writer can clothe with flesh. One tiny bone appeared in the account by Cabeza De Varca of an ill-fated expedition to the New World which set off in 1527 with a fleet of 600 men and landed on the coast of Florida. Only four men survived, one of whom was a slave tersely described as ‘Estevanico, an Arab Negro’.
Upon this slender inspiration, Laila Lalami has built a remarkable novel, now longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. ‘Estevanico’, originally Mustafa, was from Azzura, a Berber town in Morocco. He was thus a distant compatriot of Lalami, a Moroccan by birth, and her book is told from his viewpoint.
‘The Moor’ was not captured: he sold himself into slavery in a time of famine in order that his family could buy food. He embarks with the wealthy Senor Dorantes and follows him through hurricanes, starvation and Indian attacks till they reach northern Mexico and join the existing Spanish settlements. The beauty and cruelty of the New World are astonishing to Moor and Christian alike. Gold is the object of the expedition, but its unsuccessful pursuit lures them ever deeper into danger.
Estevanico observes the savagery of Narvaez, leader of the party, and captures the dual nature of the Conquistador temperament: its courageous thirst for discovery and its ruthless greed. Gradually the barriers between slave and master break away, until eventually they resort to cannibalism in the struggle for survival. Return to “civilisation” will, of course, mean for Estevanico a return to slave status, so redemption would be a bitter-sweet prospect.
The wonders of new creatures and plants are lusciously described, and Lalami has evidently researched American pre-Conquest history very deeply but without allowing it to deaden her powerful imagination. The reader is gripped as the expedition lurches from disaster to disaster, a series of astonishing visual images held in an almost-cinematic exploration of “the other”.
The Moor is of course an outsider to both parties – the colonialists and the indigenous peoples. Lalami thus overcomes the great difficulty of historical fiction: how to tell a story objectively without viewing it through modern eyes. Here, Estevanico holds the balance, and Lalami hauntingly evokes his reminiscences of a lost, loving family and a religion he has nominally been forced to abandon. He must eventually turn to one or another of the two cultures between which he moves, though his memories of an earlier life sustain him throughout his sufferings. But what will the future hold for our transcultural guide? “Peaceful conquest is the new way”, claims Don Francisco Coronado, in hot pursuit of the “Seven Cities of Gold”. The omens are not good.Reuse content