In "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" and "Secret Son," Laila Lalami probed individual lives to illuminate the contemporary social complexities of her native Morocco. She pulls back for an even broader perspective in this rich novel based on an actual, ill-fated 16th century Spanish expedition to Florida. Narrated by a Muslim slave on the expedition, "The Moor's Account" offers a pungent alternative history that muses on the ambiguous power of words to either tell the truth or reshape it according to our desires.
Mustafa, once a merchant in the Moroccan city of Azemmur, sold himself into slavery to save his family from starvation. A quiet, shrewd observer, he sees the arrogance and willful ignorance that lead the Narváez expedition to disaster in the New World. After the expedition lands in Florida in 1528, he watches sardonically as its notary reads a declaration that the unseen natives are required to acknowledge the Spanish king and queen as "lords of this territory," so designated by the pope, "governor of all the men in the world."
"How utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians," comments Mustafa. "Just by saying something was so, they believed that it was."
Their education in reality commences shortly after their commander announces that captured Indians have told him the gold avidly sought by the Spanish can be found in a kingdom called Apalache, "as rich as that of Moctezuma … two weeks' march north of this village." The gold seen thus far is a single pebble-sized nugget, and the Indians have been tortured until they say what the commander wants to hear. But these inconvenient facts don't deter him from leaving behind all the ships and most of the supplies to march inland with a small contingent of armed men.
Lalami alternates between the expedition's march through impoverished villages and Mustafa's recollections of his youth in Morocco, "when one empire was falling and another was rising." The surrender of Azemmur to the Christian Portuguese shatters his devout father, further disappointed by Mustafa's embrace of the ungodly pursuit of wealth. It's only after he becomes a slave that Mustafa realizes the evil consequences of a life devoted to the same "allure of profit" that sends the Spanish in search of nonexistent gold.
"The Moor's Account" is both an indictment of colonialism and a classic Bildungsroman that shows Mustafa, chastened by hardship, achieving greater understanding of his past and clarity about the present.
"I taught myself to savor what joy was within my reach," he writes, after hunger, disease and a raft of bad decisions have reduced the expedition to four survivors dependent on the charity of local tribes. "I began to fashion a new life for myself in the Land of the Indians."
His owner, Dorantes, and the two other Castilian survivors slowly adapt as well; the four men take native wives and gain respect as healers based on their rudimentary knowledge of Western and Arabic medicine, enhanced by the storytelling knack Mustafa acquired as a boy from his mother. "A good cure, combined with just the right story and a little showmanship, could restore anyone's spirits," he remarks.
Such occasional flashes of humor lighten the tone of a generally somber narrative, which darkens definitively when, after eight years in the wilderness, Mustafa stumbles across five Spanish horsemen. They take him and his fellow survivors to colonial officials in Mexico, where the Spanish are firmly in control, and still intent on subjugating the rest of the continent's Indians.
In no time, his fellow survivors are rewriting their recent past to eliminate native spouses and unseemly dependence on savages. They try to justify their friendly interactions by assuring Spanish authorities that "peaceful conquest was possible."
"Azemmur had already witnessed a bloodless conquest," Mustafa notes bitterly, remembering the Portuguese takeover of his native city when he was a boy, "and the outcome had been just as bleak as if cannons had been fired." But no one cares what he thinks anymore; the comradeship born of shared suffering dissolves in the acid of Castilian social distinctions, and he is once again just a slave.
Perhaps he is paying for the sins of his own warrior ancestors: "They carried the disease of empire to Spain, the Spaniards had brought it to the new continent, and someday the people of the new continent would plant it elsewhere."
Against this pessimistic vision, Lalami pits the power of storytelling. A bold fiction may save Mustafa and his beloved wife, though we know it can't avert the grim future that awaits the Americas' indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, Mustafa's tender closing recollections of how his mother's tales nourished him in exile — "I had used them to find my way whenever I was lost. I had told them when I needed comfort or when I wanted to give it to others." — hold out hope that, by clinging to our stories, we can ensure that the conquerors' versions are not the only ones passed down to history.
Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar and the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."
The Moor's Account
Pantheon: 336 pp., $26.95