Laila Lalami makes history come to life for us in this utterly compelling insider’s account of a 1527 conquistador expedition. The official account of this historical expedition is chronicled by the three surviving Spanish noblemen, who barely mention the fourth surviver, the Berber slave Estebanico. This novel imagines the expedition from his point of view.
Lalami richly paints Estebanico as the ideal observator he is for her story: insider to the conquistadores’ tactical decisions, yet outsider to their culture and to their aspirations for the mission. She creates him as Mustafa ibn Muhammad, son to a poor but well-appreciated notary, who grows to be a clever merchant. Mustafa thus comes into contact with diversity: with Muslims, Jews and Christians; with Berbers, Portuguese and Salamancans. When fortunes turn, Mustafa ends up a slave to the distinguished Sevillan nobleman Señor Dorantes de Carranza – who is party to the Narváez expedition to La Florida.
Mustafa, now baptised Estebanico, observes the greed and brutality of his Castillan masters. They seek personal fame and wealth – while he just seeks personal freedom. They feel superior to the natives – while he has a much better understanding of cultural diversity.
He witnesses how class differences and personal pride trump wisdom and caution in the face of a vast unknown terrain. The expedition fails to encounter the same rich peoples and golden lands as Cortés had before them, and is instead disappointed by some puny native villages. The group quickly falls apart. After crossing a few swamps, mountains and rivers the expeditionaries are totally lost, famished, and at the mercy of the elements.
Those who survive split up further settle alongside native tribes, get killed in conflicts, travel on, encounter other tribes, become enslaved themselves, acquire native customs, escape again, and so on. Estebanico’s three remaining companions, after many years of travel, gradually become his equals, as well as simply fellow humans to all the natives they encounter.
They finally wander all the way to New Mexico, to the Aztec city Tenochtitlán. Back in contact with Spanish civilisation, their old Spanish customs quickly gain the upper hand again. Estebanico, who had held on to hopes of being freed by his master and travelling to his birth land, decides to fade into oblivion…