Story and storytelling is at the heart of Laila Lalami's beautiful third novel The Moor's Account. The ability to tell a good story, she urges, is a life-saving skill.
The novel reimagines the first encounters between the Spanish Conquistadores and the Americas, and tells the story from the perspective of a Moroccan slave. It is a work of remarkable seductive persuasion. Lalami presents us with one of the most compellingly wonderful characters of this year's Booker longlist, the vibrant, flawed, brave and resourceful: Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, sold into slavery and renamed as Estebanico. His account is satisfying on so many levels: it is lively and direct, in the way of folk wisdom. It takes its rhythms from The Arabian Nights; it is laced with insight and compassion. His account is deeply concerned with morality. A slave to greed before he is made a slave, Mustafa's personal story includes him selling slaves for profit before in an act of humility and self sacrifice he sells himself so that his family might have the means of survival.
In Spain he is stripped of his identity and his dignity: 'the first of many erasures' but his ability with language makes him indispensible to Castilian explorers who depend on his skills to negotiate with the various tribes they encounter. Greed and betrayal underpin much of the narrative action, but Lalami suggests that storytelling is itself a moral act, indeed, it surpasses that: it is act of faith. And as an act of faith it leads us to the truth, and to a life lived under the eye of God. The novel closes with the following:
"Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague reflections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought. Maybe if our experiences, in all their glorious, magnificent colours, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth. To God belong the east and the west: whichever way you turn, there is the face of God. God is great." Without the saving grace of story we are deeply imperilled and spiritually lost.
This is a novel which rings with all the pleasures of the profoundly familiar and the brilliantly imagined. To read it is to rediscover who we are, what shames us, and what redeems us.
The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele