Friday, December 5, 2014

The Moor's Account

"Nothing new has ever happened to a son of Adam. Everything has already been lived and everything has already been told. If only we listened to the stories..."
–Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account 
Every year NPR creates a "Book Concierge" wherein they post their favorite books of the year. You can find this year's here. It looks like this:

Scrolling through this year's, it hit me, harder than it had in a while. I want my job to be making these lists someday. But if I want to get paid for writing about books, I'd better, you know, practice writing about books. To be perfectly honest, I don't think I'm often very good at it—but I suppose there's only one way to get better. And so, without further ado: 

The premise of The Moor's Account alone should make you sit up and take notice. It is the story of the first African explorer to set foot on American soil: a Moroccan slave by the name of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori who traveled to La Florida in 1528 with an ill-fated Spanish expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez. When author Laila Lalami first learned about him, she found there wasn’t all that much to learn. A fellow traveler's version of events contains only one sentence about him: "The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor." In The Moor's Account, Lalami fills in the blank, telling us Mustafa’s version of events in his own words.

From early on, it’s apparent that Lalami understands the significance of her project. She is giving voice to someone who has been silenced for nearly five hundred years. After the expedition's disastrous failure, Mustafa's three surviving companions were called upon to testify before the Spanish Viceroy; Mustafa was not. Both Lalami and her narrator understand the great power of such testimony. In an early scene, the expedition has just landed in Florida; a notary steps forward and begins to speak. "[W]e ask and require that you acknowledge the Church as the ruler of this world, and the priest whom we call Pope, and the King and Queen, as lords of this territory..." Mustafa is surprised to realize, halfway through this speech, that its intended audience is the native Indians—none of whom are anywhere in sight. "How strange, I remember thinking, how utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians—just by saying that something was so, they believed that it was. I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it."

Mustafa respects thus creative power, and takes pains to use it responsibly. He's honest about his complicity in the atrocities he not only witnesses but sometimes actively perpetuates. While a conquistador smashes an Indian captive’s fingers with a hammer, one by one, trying to learn the location of the city of Apalache, rumored to be overflowing with gold, Mustafa looks on and says nothing. One can't fault him for this—speaking up would mean his fingers under the hammer, or worse—but one also understands his guilt. Guilt for the things he has not done—intervening as the Indian's fingers are being smashed and, later, the women of Apalache are raped—and for the things he has: finding the first nugget of gold that stoked the flame of Narváez's greed; stealing food from Indian villages; and, years ago, when he was a free man, selling three men into slavery. This isn't a confessional account, just an honest one, and Mustafa's commitment to the truth, even at the expense of his own image, gives this story weight.

So, too, does the unadorned quality of Lalami's prose. James Wood, in his New Yorker review of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, writes that "Much contemporary writing fetishizes style, and the priority is felt as a constant anxiety. Prose has to sign itself, establish its showy authority in silvery cutlass swipes through the air: clever insights, brilliant metaphors, unusual words, sharp observation, perpetually buoyant dialogue." For those who deplore this tendency, Lalami's prose will be as a balm. Her style is anything but showy: it soothes, not grabbing your attention but pulling you in steadily and inexorably. This is a world in which rape, torture, slaughter, starvation, and disease abound, where death is "at once spectacular in its violence and common in its frequency." Mustafa's calm, measured narrative voice actually emphasizes, rather than downplays, the horrors he describes, conveying the mental and physical exhaustion of being lost and enslaved on a strange continent more effectively than verbal showmanship ever could. And, every so often, light sparks from a strange, vivid jewel of detail: the noses, ears, and fingers of slain Indians dangling from a tree beneath which lies a post-battle pile of bodies, like "some creature of the underworld, lying in wait for whoever might cross its path"; the rattling bag of five hundred dried deer's hearts, given to Dorantes as a gift, a prisoner's eyes "like dark pools, filled to the brim with attention."


Near the end of his account, when Mustafa, on the brink of despair, thinks he's lost everything. "But a voice inside me said no—not everything."

I still had one thing. My story. I had journeyed through the Land of the Indians and had witnessed many things that my companions had preferred to revise, embellish, or silence. What had been changed, perverted, or left our was the heart of our history, the part that could not be explained, but could only be told. I could tell it. I could right what had been made wrong. ... For every lie I had heard about the imperial expedition that had brought me to the edge of the world, I would tell the truth.
The truth, perhaps, but not the only one. Though Mustafa casts doubt on his companions' accounts, he does not hold his own up as definitive. Rather, he ends by celebrating truth's multifarious, many-faced nature. Mustafa's exposure to both Christianity and the Indians' faiths has led him to wonder whether "the diversity in our beliefs, not their unity, is the lesson God wanted to impart? ... The idea that there was only one set of stories for all of mankind seemed strange to me." After all, what, for young Mustafa, is the "Story of My Birth," is for his father the "Story of How He Lost His Arm"; there are as many versions of events as there are witnesses. Throughout history, however, too few of those witnesses have been called upon to testify. Mustafa ultimately concludes that "there is no true story" but that "maybe if our experiences, in all of their glorious, magnificent colors, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth." Lalami's story not only calls to Mustafa to the stand—it reminds us how many witnesses to history are still waiting silently for their chance to speak.

Stray Observations (an idea stolen whole cloth from Zack Handlen's A.V. Club Star Trek reviews, which may be my favorite things ever written about television/on the internet ever):

  • Another quietly strange detail that didn't make it into the main post: when Mustafa and his wife Oyomasot are talking outside their house in Tenochtitlán, "A candle was lit at the kitchen window, as if the house had opened one eye and was watching us." Very Susanna Clarke.
  • Pleasantly surprised by the appearance of the Yguace healer Chaubekwan, "a man who dressed as a woman, did a woman's chores, and took another man to his bed, but was in all other respects an ordinary member of the tribe." Lalami doesn't elaborate on the Yguace's concept of gender, but it clearly a fluid one, one that has room for the kind of "crossing over" at the root of our word "trans."
  • On a related note, I love this Kotaku piece on Dragon Age Inquisition's trans male character, Krem, and how EA/BioWare writer Patrick Weekes went about writing him—specifically, by running early drafts by Weekes' genderqueer friends and revising based on their feedback.

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