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This review is from: Black Robe (Paladin Books) (Paperback)
The action of "Black Robe" takes place in the year 1635 in what is today the Canadian province of Quebec, but which at that period formed part of the French colony of New France. It follows the journey of Father Paul Laforgue, a French Jesuit priest, who travels to an isolated mission station among the Huron Indians. Accompanying him are his young lay assistant, Daniel Davost, whose main reason for undertaking the journey is that he has fallen in love with an Indian girl, and a group of
Algonkin Indians who act as their guides.
The novel is on one level a historical adventure story, but it can also be seen as a study of cultural differences. The French see the Indians as cruel and barbaric and generally refer to them as the Savages. (This is Brian Moore's rendition of the French term "les Sauvages", although he does not point out that this might also be translated as "the wild ones"; the French word "sauvage", unlike the English "savage", does not necessarily carry any implication of ferocity or viciousness). The Indians see the French as greedy and selfish because of their love of possessions and their reluctance to share what they have with others. The greatest cultural differences, however, lie in the area of religion. To the predominantly Catholic French, the spiritual beliefs of the native peoples are no more than primitive superstitions inspired by Satan. The Indians, however, see the French as stupid and ignorant because of their lack of understanding of a key element of the Indian belief system, namely that animals, plants and even inanimate objects such as rocks and rivers all have spirits of their own. They are particularly suspicious of Catholic priests (or "Black Robes") whom they see as sorcerers.
Moore is sometimes bracketed together with Graham Greene as a "Catholic novelist", but there was an important difference between them. Greene was brought up as an Anglican but converted to Catholicism as a young man. Moore, who was born in Belfast but spent most of his life in Canada or the United States, was a "cradle Catholic" who lost his faith but who nevertheless continued to deal with Catholic themes in his writing. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Laforgue also finds himself undergoing a loss of faith during his journey. He sets out full of zeal, willing to brave hardship and even the possibility of martyrdom, but later starts to doubt the Divine providence in which he had initially placed his trust.
There is a similarity between this book and Shusaku Endo's "Silence", another work by a "Catholic novelist" about the attempts of 17th century European missionaries to bring salvation to the "heathen" inhabitants of a distant part of the globe. Like Endo's hero Sebastian Rodrigues, Laforgue finds his faith challenged not only by physical suffering but by the spiritual and cultural "otherness" of the people among whom he is living. The question constantly in his mind is "could Christ really have died for such people?" For Daniel, the Indians are more Christ-like than the Europeans, and they do indeed have some positive qualities, such as their generosity and their powers of forgiveness. In other respects, however, they strike Laforgue as utterly alien and barbaric. Forgiveness can only be extended to members of one's own tribe; enemy tribes are treated with utter ruthlessness. The book's most harrowing scenes come when Laforgue and his party are captured by the Iroquois, the deadly enemies of the Algonkins, and subjected to horrifying tortures. Even those Indians who have converted to Christianity have not done so out of deep conviction or understanding of their new faith, but because they believe the "Black Robes" to be more powerful sorcerers than their own medicine men.
Some have criticised the book for the amount of foul language contained in it, although it is clear from Moore's "author's note" that this was done quite deliberately in order to give an idea of the Indians' way of speaking and to emphasise the cultural differences between the two sides. It would appear that in the Algonkin language it was commonplace to use sexual or scatological terms as expletives, something which the missionaries found deeply shocking. Something similar, of course, also happens in many European languages, but with the important difference that the Indians did not regard such usages as being vulgar, offensive or taboo in the way that we do.
The themes of cultural and religious differences are well handled, at least from the European perspective. None of the Indian characters are as powerfully drawn as Laforgue, even though Moore tries to relate part of the narrative from their point of view. This is, perhaps, only to have been expected from a European writer; it was doubtless much easier for him to think his way into the mind of a Jesuit priest than into the mind of a Native American. Moore may have rejected the Catholic faith of his youth, but would nevertheless have been very familiar with the Catholic mindset. (Endo perhaps handled his theme with greater balance; being Japanese by nationality and Catholic by religion he had, so to speak, a foot in both camps).
This was only the second of Moore's books which I have read, and I must say that I enjoyed it a lot more than the first, "The Colour of Blood", a dull and politically obtuse thriller set in the Eastern Europe of the 1980s. The book's main weakness was that it stuck too closely to the adventure-story format, culminating in a denouement which I found an implausible deus ex machina. (This particular plot device, moreover, is a very hackneyed one; it was used by Mark Twain in "A Connecticut Yankee" and by Rider Haggard in "King Solomon's Mines"). Nevertheless, Moore's handling of his central theme makes this a novel worth reading.