Brian Moore, Black Robe. Paladin paperback, 1987; first published in Great Britain 1985
In this visceral quest narrative, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels meet Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s whisky priest/Catholic crisis stories.
At the age of twenty Daniel Davost, a French orphan, has arrived at Sieur Samuel de Champlain’s early seventeenth-century French settlement that will become Québec city in New France, Canada. He asks to accompany the Jesuit priest, Father Paul Laforgue, on a dangerous river expedition by canoe, with Algonkin ‘Savages’ (as the French settlers in the region hypocritically call them) as guides – they are on their way to their winter hunting grounds, and are given gifts as inducement . Word has reached Champlain that the two priests at a Jesuit mission deep in the ‘country of the Hurons’, have succumbed to sickness, or may have been murdered. A replacement is needed.
Daniel harbours a secret: he is not motivated by missionary zeal, as he leads his countrymen to believe; he has fallen passionately in love with Annuka, a young Algonkin woman, who is to accompany the group with her family. Daniel is aware he is in mortal sin for this deception.
The group undergoes numerous tribulations on the way,
culminating in their capture by the fierce enemies of the Algonkin – the Iroquois; not all of them survive. They call the cruel torture to which they subject their victims, with typically fierce ‘Savage’ irony, ‘caressing’ them.
After a not entirely convincing escape scene, Daniel, Laforgue, Annuka and her father resume their quest. Laforgue goes on to the mission village alone; there he finds old Father Jerome dying, having suffered two strokes. His assistant had been murdered. The villagers are dying of fever, presumably smallpox, and their sorcerers accuse the ‘Blackrobes’, as they call the Jesuit priests, of bringing the illness among them:
…the Blackrobes did not speak of curing rituals to combat sickness, but of death and another life to which they wished to lead the people. The Blackrobes spoke this way because they were the sorcerers of death…[they] were devils of great power.
But the Algonkin sorcerers are forced to concede, and agree to let the village be baptised – they have no choice, for their people have no resistance to the disease which the Europeans tend to survive; this is seen as evidence of the superior power of the Jesuits’ god.
There is more than a culture clash here; the rival belief systems are mutually incompatible. As Aenons, a local sorcerer says to Laforgue:
You and your god do not suit our people. Your ways are not our ways. If we adopt them we will be neither Norman [the Savages’ name for the French] nor Huron. And soon our enemies will know our weakness and wipe us from the earth.
It’s hard not to feel saddened when they agree to give up their animistic beliefs, that there is a life-force or spirit in all living things – trees, animals – which the Savages respect and embrace joyfully. They despise the French desire for material possessions and lack of sympathy for the spirit of the country. One of the strengths of this novel, however, is that Moore avoids sentimentalising either side; he portrays the barbarity of much of the Savages’ society – its casual cruelty, polygamy, sexual licence and misogyny, foul-mouthed ‘filthy banter’ in their talk (there are almost as many profanities in their speech as in Trainspotting), and the ambiguity of the Jesuits’ faith and mission. Was the coming of the Europeans a deliverance for benighted heathens into the enlightenment of Civilisation, or was it a tragedy for a noble, ecologically balanced world? Moore is able to keep most of these questions open without attempting to provide pat answers. But the sorcerer was right: some ten years after the Algonkin agreed to submit to baptism, they had been wiped out by the Iroquois.
Central to the dramatic success of the novel is the conflicted character of Laforgue. His apparently indomitable Christian faith weakens and almost breaks by the end of the novel. From the start he longs to be called to undertake the mission, but lacks complete conviction in his fitness to fulfil it; as early as p. 41 he muses on the ‘Jesuit house in Dieppe’ he had left behind, its priests reading their breviaries in their cloisters:
He had been one of them. But from now on he would read his office in some clearing in a strange forest, or behind the wooden palisades of a distant mission house. He looked again at the rabble of Savage women, emaciated, burdened by years of toil, limbs gnarled, faces worn by sun and wind; at the brown laughing girls; at the children, wild as the forest which was their home. With these people he would live for years, perhaps for the rest of his life. A sudden sadness came upon him.
He dreads failure, or going native, as most of the depraved, greedy, fur-trapping French settlers have; their descent into the sexual depravity (as they see it) of the Savages disgusts him. Even Champlain wears a beaver-fur robe, like an Algonkin chief.
By the end, he clashes with the fanatical Fr Jerome; as he reasons, the villagers at the mission only ask for baptism because they fear death:
‘Or because they fear God,’ the sick priest said. ‘Alas, most Christians do not perform their duties because they love God, but because they fear Him. This fever is God’s hand.’
The priest’s paralysis and declining health – he almost seems to be putrefying while still alive – highlights the tensions between his zeal for converts, for saving souls, as he sees it, with the fever God’s missionary tool, and what Laforgue sees as the ‘sophism’ of baptising the heathens uninstructed, under spiritual and mortal duress. ‘The end is good!’ insists Jerome.
The style throughout is lucid, and the prose is spare, as the quotations above demonstrate. The pace of the plot is cracking; in fact there’s almost too much dramatic action. But this slight weakness is countered by the powerful, sympathetic portrayal of this clash of belief systems. Moore never slips into hagiographical representation of either side; neither does he demonise them. When the village sorcerer at the novel’s end asks Jerome if those who are not baptised will die of the fever, Jerome replies, ‘That is for God, not me, to decide.’ ‘That is not an answer’, snaps the sorcerer; he demands one. Jerome repeats he doesn’t know, then says:
‘But let me ask you. If you were our God, who would you spare? Your friend or your enemy?’
‘That is an answer’ [says the sorcerer].
Laforgue looks on, more and more disenchanted. Daniel has become a Savage, he reflects:
And I, what am I? Do I still have the right to challenge Jerome, who is strong in his faith, I who am an empty shell?’
Later he thinks:
What are these baptisms but a mockery of all the days of my belief, of all the teachings of the Church, of all the saintly stories we have read of saving barbarians for Christ? Why did Chomina [Annuka’s father] and go to outer darkness when this priest, fanatic for a harvest of souls, will pass through the portals of heaven, a saint and a martyr?…The hosts in the tabernacle were bread, dubbed the body of Christ in a ritual strange as any performed by these Savages. God, whose wishes he had dedicated his life to fulfil, was, in this land of darkness, as distant as the pomp and magnificence of the Church in Rome. Here in this humble foolish chapel, rude as a child’s drawing, a wooden box and a painted statuette could not restore his faith. Yet somehow he must try.
Whether he manages to find his faith again is left unclear; what he does find is a redemption that I found more satisfying; he finds that he has come to love these ‘Savages’ in their ‘vast, empty land’. As he pours baptismal water on a sick brow, a ‘true prayer’ comes to him at last.
All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.