Assured, lyrical imagining of the life of one of the first African slaves in the New World—a native, like Lalami (Secret Son, 2009, etc.), of Morocco and, like her, a gifted storyteller.
The Spanish called him Estebanico, a name bestowed on him after he was purchased from Portuguese traders. That datum comes several pages after he proudly announces his true name, “Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori,” and after he allows that some of the stories he is about to tell may or may not be quite true owing to the vagaries of memory and—well, the unlikelihood of the events he describes. The overarching event of this kind is, of course, the shipwreck that leaves him, with a body of Spanish explorers whose number will eventually be whittled down to three, to walk across much of what is now the American Southwest. Led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, “my rival storyteller,” the quartet encounters wondrous things and people: cities of mud brick, maidens draped with turquoise, abundant “skins, amulets, feathers, copper bells,” and always the promise of gold just beyond the horizon. They provide wonders in return: Estebanico is a source of exotic entertainment (“It was harmless fun to them, but to me it quickly grew tiresome”), while his fellow traveler Andrés Dorantes de Carranza sets broken bones and heals the sick. Lalami extends the stories delivered by Cabeza de Vaca himself in his Naufragios, which has been rendered in several English-language editions (e.g., We Came Naked and Barefoot; Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America; Castaways), but hers is certainly the most extensive telling of the tale from “the Moor’s” point of view. As elusive as gold, she tells us, is the promise of freedom for Estebanico, who provides the very definition of long-suffering. She has great fun, too, with the possibilities of a great historical mystery—namely, whatever became of him?
Adding a new spin to a familiar story, Lalami offers an utterly believable, entertainingly told alternative to the historical record. A delight.