A tale of imperial hubris gone awry, as it inevitably will. Reminds me in many ways of Dan Simmons’s The Terror, if that book had been written without the supernatural elements.
Both books take for their inspiration ill-fated colonial expeditions, led by John Franklin and Pánfilo de Narváez respectively. Both trips start off full of righteous arrogance, and are brought low by failures to adapt, exacerbated by said arrogance. Both stories are told from the perspective of a character not fully immersed in/tainted by that arrogance by virtue of their outsider status (Crozier in The Terror is Irish, Mustafa/Estabanico here is an North African slave),
There is, of course, a significant degree of difference between being a white Irishman in the company of Englishmen in the mid-19th century, and being a black slave owned by Spanish conquistadores in the early 1500’s. And it is this difference which means the neat comparison I’ve been setting up between these two books quickly becomes to signify little more than the fact I’ve read both of them. There is, I think, however, an interesting line of discussion about how Simmons felt the need to go down the route of providing some sort of supernatural reason for the total failure of the Franklin Expedition, whereas Lalami offers us nothing more than the familiar human failings of ignorance and hubris. Interesting but also fraught: from this point it’s just a hop and a step to talking about how the authors position themselves regarding the othering of their characters and settings, and then we’re in to the whole Song of Kali business and I’m talking more about that than the book actually under discussion.
Not to dismiss the value of that, of course, but the point I’m trying to work my way towards is that The Moor’s Account is a more honest, stronger book for its shunning of the fantastic. I tend to avoid blurbs and reviews of books I know I’m interested in reading, so when in the prologue Mustafa tells us, “I have described these events as I have witnessed them, including those that, by virtue of their rarity, may seem to the reader to be untrue,” I was half expecting a bit of magical realism, at the least. Throughout the book there is a very deft positioning of both the reader and the narrator: those ‘untruths’ I was expecting would, it turns out, only appear untrue to the 16th century Europeans to whom Mustafa’s addressing his account; equally, the book effectively engages the Noble Savage question by virtue of the fact that, to his putative audience, the narrator is not so far removed from the indigenous Americans his group encounters. Issues of complicity—both the narrator’s and the reader’s—are smartly addressed throughout, both directly and implicitly. An intelligent story well told; I can see why this attracted so much praise.