I was a bit slow with this novel. I knew that it was about a sixteenth century Spanish expedition to the Americas, it did take me quite a long time before I realised that it was based on an actual historical event.
The Narváez expedition to Florida really does deserve fictional treatment, if only because there’s something so pleasing to modern sensibilities to learn of an exploitative colonial expedition failing spectacularly. About 600 Europeans set out, and roughly half this number took part in a gold-hunt on land once they arrived at America. One year after leaving Spain, 80 of the ground crew were still alive. Without wishing to give spoilers, it would be nearly a decade before the ‘civilised’ world learned what happened to these men. As for final survival numbers, you’d do better as a character in a serial killer slasher movie.
The premise for the novel is that one of these survivors was a ‘Moor’, an enslaved ‘Arab Negro from Azamor.’ For economic and racial reasons, it is easy to see how Esteban was ignored by contemporary chronicles. For historical and artistic reasons it is wonderful that Lalami has ressurected his voice as the narrator of this story. Esteban’s name, we’re told, is really Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori. As a slave he was, of course, Christened and re-named, a forceful piece of foreshadowing given the approach of his Spanish masters to their new discoveries across the ocean.
Mustafa is not just a victim however. His sympathy for fellow slaves and for the indigenous peoples he meets is the result of experience. In more fortunate times, he had been a trader himself, and had seen no problem with human merchandice. While his life, from the story of his birth, is imbued with the rhetoric of independence and rebellion, he sets foot on America as a member of a brutal colonising force. Distinction between the powerful and the powerless are not as simple as they first seem.
I had meant to read this book last year, when it was long-listed for the Booker. I suppose I can see why it didn’t make it to the shortlist, but I equally understand how it was a finalist for that year’s Pulizer Prize. This is, after all, a great American novel dealing with colonisation, immigration, race, money and brotherhood. It’s also a good book to read if you’ve recently seen the Oscartastic ‘The Revenant.’ I certainly had certain key scenes in mind as I read of ‘Indian’ attacks and colonisers’ cupidity. A highly recommended read, and one that I’m proud to include in this year’s BAEM A-Z.