Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Moor's Account

The Moor's Account The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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