This story takes an unusual premise, adds some excellent research, and results in a very readable and sympathetic novel which convincingly describes one of the mosy bizarre episodes in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The long walk undertaken by the Spanish adventurer Cabeza de Vaca is already chronicled (and a contemporary description forms a chapter in volume 2 of Hugh Thomas’s recent history of the ‘golden period’ of the Spanish monarchy). And it is known that he was accompanied by a ‘Moorish’ slave, renamed by the Spanish as ‘Estebanico’. What isn’t known is how Estebanico experienced the journey, and Lalami’s idea is to create, in fiction, the account he might have written, including a back story explaining what led him to become a slave.
Her research is exhaustive, and this combined with evident writing skills enables her to produce a very convincing account of a perilous journey which lasted for many years and which only a handful of adventurers survived. The most interesting part is her capturing of the various transitions which the men underwent. They moved from hostility and extreme cruelty towards the Indians to acceptance, friendship and – to a remarkable degree – integration into Indian societies. They adapted to their environment, so that by the end they had developed the necessary survival skills which they lacked at the beginning and whose absence (in part) led to the many deaths of their compatriots. Above all, they became equal partners in struggle, with Estebanico losing his slave status and, like the others, marrying into one of the Indian tribes.
Lalami has overcome formidable obstacles – the passage of 500 years, the very limited evidence about Estebanico himself, the difficulty of imagining the confrontations between peoples who were meeting each other for the first time in history, the possible temptation to be patronising or (on the other hand) to exaggerate the violence that was deployed. She overcomes all of these superbly, to the point where the reader not only enjoys Estebanico’s gripping tale but is left almost convinced that he must have written it himself.