I’d been really looking forward to this one. This, I thought, was right up my street – a doorstep of a novel, promising a historical ‘explorer’ story, with praise from Salman Rushdie on the cover.
In brief, this is the story of a Moroccan slave (Mustafa, christened Estebanico by the Castilians), who accompanies a (real historical) Castilian expedition to settle ‘La Florida’, only a handful of years after Cortez. The expedition is a disaster, and Mustafa/Estebanico is one of only four survivors. The other three, Castilians all, were asked for their versions of the story, records of which survive. Mustafa/Estebanico was never asked, and it is his story that Lalami seeks to create. ‘I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it,’ says Mustafa/Estebanico early on in his narrative.
Lalami is bound, in some ways, by her story, having chosen a real expedition to the New World. Reading the Salman Rushdie quote again, what he actually says is that the story ‘feels very like the truth’. I agree with that completely – it’s all utterly believable and seems incredibly well-researched. But – well – not to put too fine a point on it, the truth can be pretty boring. And judging this as fiction – well then, in places I was pretty bored.
I know. I wish I’d loved it. I really wanted to love it. For the first couple of chapters, I thought I would; I raced through the ‘flashbacks’, explaining how Mustafa/Estebanico had ended up where he was; and without giving anything away, I thought the ending was perfect. (That’s high praise. Endings are hard. I’m not sure I’ve read more than fifteen or twenty truly good ones, and that’s a pretty low percentage given how much I read.) In fact, almost any chapters dealing with time that the main characters spend in ‘civilisation’ – Morocco, Castile, Mexico – are great.
The expedition itself, though…not so much. That would have been fine, if it had been one or two chapters – but it’s not. It’s half – maybe more than half – the book, and reads like a catalogue of
things-not-to-do-in-the-wilderness. (Step 1 – don’t antagonise the natives, for example. You’d think it would be obvious, although history of course tells us that it isn’t.) At times the whole forward motion of the narrative consists of a weary inevitability, waiting to see what disaster the dwindling number of would-be conquistadores are going to stumble into next. That does, indeed, ‘feel very like the truth’. But it doesn’t necessarily make for great fiction.
I’m glad I persevered with it, because it gets better again towards the end. And there are redeeming features galore – Lalami has important things to say about slavery, colonialism, and the tremendous speed with which socially acceptable behaviour disappears when society does. This can be a good thing (Dorantes calling Mustafa/Estebanico ‘one of us’, something which would never happen in Castile), or a dreadful one (the ‘cannibal’ moment is particularly memorable). Reading back through this review, it sounds more negative than I meant it to – this is, I was going to say, a solid three star read. Maybe a more accurate description of it would be, a four-star read and a two-star read wrapped up together.