- - Friday, October 24, 2014


By Laila Lalami
Pantheon Books, $26.95, 323 pages

One of the easiest ways to rewrite history is to resort to fiction. Thousands of readers who couldn’t be bothered with musty maps, journals and memoirs are always on the lookout for a good historical novel. Though primarily attracted by bodice-ripping and battle scenes, they usually pick up a few scraps of history — often more factoid than factual, and always viewed through the prism of the author’s pet peeves and enthusiasms.

Every once in a while, however, something more significant happens: A truly talented novelist with a passion for history brings lost worlds and long-dead characters to brilliant life again, often with a fresh perspective.

A notable example was poet, scholar and novelist Robert Graves (1895-1985), best remembered today as the author of “I, Claudius,” the 1934 historical novel that inspired the groundbreaking British television dramatization of the same name, starring Derek Jacobi. Unfortunately, as a mutual friend in London (the late author-editor Alan Hodge) informed me, by the time the series had become a trans-Atlantic hit in the late 1970s, Graves, while still alive, was too gaga to fully grasp his late-life triumph. Before his dotage he had followed up on “I, Claudius” with several other excellent historical novels, all structured around a central character telling his story in the form of a supposedly lost or secret memoir.

In his 1940 “Sergeant Lamb’s America,” for example, he used a real figure, Sgt. Roger Lamb of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who had actually written about his experiences fighting for the crown in the American Revolution. In the novel, Graves has Lamb explain that his official account, which had been sponsored by influential British patrons, was sugar-coated at best. The fictional Sgt. Lamb then proceeds to give us the “real” story in first-person narrative form.

In “The Moor’s Account,” Moroccan-born novelist Laila Lalami uses much the same device to give us an imaginary “inside” account of an earlier European invasion of the Americas, the disastrous 1527 Spanish expedition to the Florida mainland led by conquistador Panfilo de Narvez. Thanks to disease, hostile Indians and, above all, incompetent leadership, only four of the several hundred invaders survived: three officers and a Christianized Moorish slave named Estebanico. In real life, one of the officers, Cabeza de Vaca, wrote a celebrated account of their struggle for survival in the wilderness.

In Ms. Lalami’s novel, however, everything is deliberately turned upside down. Estebanico the Moor, probably illiterate in real life, turns out to be the key player, and the author of a “true” account debunking Cabeza de Vaca’s. In it, native cannibalism, documented in many parts of the Americas, is ignored while Spaniards are depicted engaging in (undocumented) cannibalism among themselves. Commerce is always equated with greed and evil, virtue with primitive communal societies. The result is a book that tries — and to a surprising extent, succeeds — in being several things at once: a gripping adventure yarn, a taut psychological drama, an interesting examination of the complex relationship between slaves and their masters and an occasionally labored polemic against greedy Western culture and its negative impact on both American Indians and North African Muslims.

Even novelist Jeffery Renard Allen’s otherwise glowing review of “The Moor’s Account” in The New York Times decried Ms. Lalami’s tendency to be “simplistic,” noting that “the villain always has white skin. Europeans conquer, enslave and erase and are beyond redemption, while the Moors and Native Americans are a people apart.”

Anachronisms are another hazard when writing historical novels. Though Ms. Lalami has a generally deft touch in depicting the early-16th century setting, a jarringly modern note sometimes breaks the mood. Thus Oyomasot, the fictitious Indian wife she creates for Estebanico during his wilderness wanderings, comes across more like a liberated upper middle-class woman of the author’s generation than as anything one would be likely to encounter in a mud hut on the edge of an American forest primeval 500 years ago. The author also indulges in a trick ending. The documented fact that Estebanico was slain by Indians in what is now New Mexico while scouting for yet another bungled Spanish treasure hunt is ignored in favor of a latter-day legend with no factual basis that he outsmarted his Spanish masters by faking his death and going over to the Indians.

None of which should detract from the overall achievement of this intelligent, entertaining and often moving book — a reminder that even bad history can sometimes produce a good novel.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.



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