A New York Times Notable Book.
In this stunning work of historical fiction, Laila Lalami brings us the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America--a Moroccan slave whose testimony was left out of the official record. In 1527 the conquistador Pnfilo de Narvez sailed from the port of Sanlcar de Barrameda with a crew of 600 men and nearly a hundred horses. His goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown and, in the process, become as wealthy and famous as Hernn Corts. But from the moment the Narvez expedition landed in Florida, it faced peril--navigational errors, disease, starvation, as well as resistance from indigenous tribes. Within a year there were only four survivors: the expedition's treasurer, lvar Nez Cabeza de Vaca; a Spanish nobleman named Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; a young explorer named Andrs Dorantes de Carranza; and Dorantes' Moroccan slave, Mustafa al-Zamori, whom the three Spaniards called Estebanico. These four survivors would go on to make a journey across America that would transform them from proud conquistadores to humble servants, from fearful outcasts to faith healers.
The Moor's Account brilliantly captures Estebanico's voice and vision, giving us an alternate narrative for this famed expedition. 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.
©2014 Laila Lalami (P)2014 Audible Inc.
Anyone who grew up in Texas, as I did, and attended a public Junior High School remembers the requisite Texas History course. The most fascinating events to come out of that class were the Alamo, of course, and the story of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. As the treasurer and royal representative of the ill-fated Spanish exploratory expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez, he was one of only four known surviviors. The others included two Spanish officers and noblemen, one of whom was Andreas Dorantes, who owned as a slave, the fourth survivor, a Moor named Mustafa al-Zamori, whom his master renamed Esteban. These four eventually became the first Europeans, and, of course, first African, to wander across the future states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Later, being found by a group of Spanish slave traders in present day Sonora, Mexico, they ended their eight year rambling trek in the capital of New Spain, present day Mexico City.
This outstanding work of historical fiction shows the duplicitous nature of these Spanish would-be conquistadors as seen in their avowed goal to bring Florida under the control of the King of Spain and bringing Christianity to the natives which contrasted with their more obvious self-serving goals of gold, personal wealth, and fame. The Narvaez expedition of 300 men, which landed in Florida near Tampa Bay in April of 1528, completely underestimated both the physical endurance required to navigate through that land as well as the ability of the native tribes to defend themselves. Viewed through the eyes of Esteban, with flashbacks to his days growing up and working as a merchant in Morocco, Neil Shah delivers a 5-star narration, giving the main Spanish characters distinctive voices along with Esteban’s haunting voice and those of several native characters. The story follows Esteban through the miseries of how he became a slave in Spain, traveling to the New World, suffering through the decisions of Narvaez and others that doomed the expedition, and then the struggles thereafter. All the while “The Moor’s” desire to regain his freedom is paramount in his thoughts and deeds.
My only criticism of the story line was there were infrequent descriptions of the lands themselves once having left Florida, so one had difficulty determining exactly where they were geographically, since movement through time was based on moving from tribe to tribe ever westwards. At some point they moved across plains to mountains and eventually to Culican on the Pacific Coast without any geographical references. That said, the fascinating depiction via Esteban of the characters, events, and trials of these four men who end up lost in a 16th century landscape of the present U.S. southwest is an engrossing and entertaining read. The nature of humanity in all its forms of good, evil and everything in between are there.
Yes! - the biography of Esteban the Moor is fabricated by author- but the story of the Cabeza de Vaca expedition is one of the most interestingin the entire Age of discovery.
The personalities of the various Conquistadores were well done as was the presentation of the life of the various Indian tribes before the white man came.
The narrator Shah makes it all come to life! Good job.
Dorantes - his master - he goes through various personality changes as he reacts to becoming a slave rather than a Castillian hidalgo.
Cabeza de Vaca's account of his years spent with the Indians is fascinating - sometimes as a brutalized slave sometimes as a revered healer. The first white man to record the life of the Indians of the SW before the subjugation of the white man. This is a different spin - we know little about the Moorish slave Estebanico.
Performing an audio-book can be an actor's dream: where else can s/he demonstrate the breadth and capacity of dramatic talent needed to portray 20 characters simultaneously? However, I found Neil Shah's performance to be rather over the top, sometimes ridiculous, and often distracting. I appreciate the seriousness with which he endeavored to give each and every character a different vocal pitch, speed of talking, and an accent particular to their nationality and social status, but as an overall effect it took away from the book.
The plot is of the Adventure genre presented in a Historical Fiction landscape: imaginative perspectives of actual historical events, but without lingering too long on any one location or thought process, such that things move forward at a steady clip. I appreciate that Lalami refrained from delving too far into gore and details of suffering -- only two rape scenes, and the physical battles, bouts of disease, and other hardships were rendered tactfully, given how grim everyday life was in the 16th century and the tendency of many historical fictionalists to wallow in those details.
I think it is probably helpful if the listener understands some Spanish. My Spanish is extremely limited, and occasionally I felt like I may have missed something when the Spanish characters spoke to each other using their native language, particularly towards the beginning of the novel. This might also help the listener keep track of the many characters' names.
I chose this book because it was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Although it is an interesting tale, and probably took a lot of research to produce, it didn't move me the in the manner I would expect from a Pulitzer finalist.
I don't know much about Laila Lalami. I was initially impressed with her ambition to write about this subject considering so little is known, but so many have speculated on it. I've read a few pieces she wrote for The Nation, which I liked, but this was the first of her novels. That being said, I'm not sure who might really enjoy this book. Apparently the judges for the Pulitzer prize I guess.
I just downloaded One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Yes. The narration wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great either. Maybe that is part of my hang up. I can't really offer a specific criticism, he did better than I would do, but he's no Stephen Fry.
Every scene in Morocco. I actually skipped the last few Morocco chapters because they were slow and didn't help develop the character any. It's a fairly standard "he had everything and lost it" cliche. She didn't have to spend a third of the book telling me about how rough Portuguese imperialism was.
I'm a seventh generation Texan going back to the war for independence from Mexico. I also have native ancestry. I've read a lot on Texas history, and I've been especially interested in pre-Colombian tribes ever since I found some ancient arrowheads and a grinding basin as a kid. I've read the English translation of The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (which is where this story comes from), and I've given serious consideration to writing a historical fiction novel set about the same time as this one. This is what drew me to The Moor's Account. However, I grew up on Michener, and maybe it's his version of Esteban that I can't shake, but here is what bothers me the most about Lalami's protagonist (light spoilers ahead):Esteban (I kind of feel bad calling him this now) went on one of the greatest journeys in American history after being shipwrecked near or on Galveston Island. Virtually none of the natives he and the other three survivors encountered had ever seen someone from the other side of the Atlantic. He arrives in Texas (according to Lalami; it's important to remember essentially nothing is known about the historical Esteban as a person other than where he comes from) because he sells HIMSELF into slavery in a desperate attempt to raise funds for food so his family can survive, and is eventually bought by a Spaniard. He then spends the rest of the book complaining about how much being a slave sucks. Also, his internal dialogue is that of a Saint, and it's clear that he is the only one who can truly tell right from wrong, and thus predicts the impending disaster about to befall the Natives. He comes across as a tepid blend of Jesus and Oroonoko. I'm not going to argue that being a slave doesn't suck. It's essentially a life of hard labor combined with a death sentence. But instead of reminding himself that his continued sacrifice saved his family, he acts more like a captured West African who was forced into bondage. He is absolutely allowed to feel bad about being a slave, but his attitude of righteous indignation regarding slavery comes off weird considering how he got there. Did I mention that he used to sell slaves himself? Anyway, this is the backdrop to the narrator's attitude throughout the book. Instead of diving into the rich, mysterious histories of the native people, (which is what I was hoping for) Lalami tells us very little about their day-to-day life, and goes with a well-worn story of European abuse. I can see where she was going with it, although evidently not as well as Pulitzer prize people. I think it's supposed to be a tragedy/redemption story, but I don't buy it. The only true tragedy is what happens to the natives, but the sharpness of their ultimate betrayal is dulled because, as Lalami explains it, they were warned not to follow the Spaniards over and over again, but they still went. Also, all the struggle and pain does not result in redemption of the main character. Considering the potential of this story, this book is just meh.
The premise of this alone makes it stand out: a North African man, who’s had to sell himself into slavery to pay his family’s debts, arrives in 16th Century “New Spain” to serve as part of a Conquistador’s mission of conquest. On top of that, though, Lalami adds a thoughtful layer of what it means to tell history, and we’re left with an original and provocative story.
The premise here reminds me of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. (If it is not as accomplished as that novel, don’t worry; very few things are.) Both of those books imagine the New World at a moment before it coalesced into a place capable of the sort of slavery we know. Each explores (and largely rejects) the possibility of friendship and partnership between people of different races, but each does so at a moment in American history before there is an America.
The best parts of this one come as the explorers get their first glimpses of a southern North America that, if familiar to us, is bewilderingly new to them. There may be a sameness to our experience of their discoveries – it does get difficult to distinguish one new tribe or one new river from another – but the group’s gradual diminishment changes their experience in ways that sustain the narrative. They lose their arrogance, and the nature of their encounter takes on an ever-changing tone.
Early on, the narrator notes of the would-be conquerors, “They gave speeches not to voice the truth but to create it.” They name everything they see as if they are in a world without history.
Later, once their hardships compel them to acknowledge the history and power of the land around them, they become more descriptive. The narrator even subtly mocks them for switching to a shorthand of “first river” or “second river” where once they thought of themselves as drawing a new map.
Lalami adds to that drama the sense that the very business of telling the group’s story follows a similar pattern. The arrogant tell their story and think of it as history in full. And, at least as I have learned the history, the Spanish story feels like the full and familiar one.
The central joy of this book is the realization that, without “the Moor’s account,” we have only a partial history of that awful and awesome time. It takes a black man, enslaved to the Spanish, to help us see those Native Americans in a new light. If the picaresque of this occasionally drags (but only occasionally) that implicit narrative correction to our history makes it all come together as a compelling and entertaining story.
this was a well researched, intimate, and human account of a historic moment. i loved every bit of it.
It took me a while to get used to the narrators style and the accent change for the other characters. However I imagine it would have been a difficult book to narrate. I don't doubt that historically it was accurate, but I was not transfixed on the storyline.
The story was well written, but the narrator, although he did a good job at distinguishing the voices of different characters, was otherwise monotonous and mechanical sounding when reading narration or any of the first person dialog, making the central character sound a little deadpan and emotionless.
A less monotone narrator, I couldn't get into the story so gave up.
More animation to the reading
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