Graham Greene once described Brian Moore as “my favourite living writer”. Moore’s death in 1999 means I can’t do the same but I can confirm that he is rapidly ascending the ranks of my all-time favourites. He must have something special for I kept reading even though Black Robe is a tale of full of atrocity and foul language. Not my usual fare at all.
But it’s impossible to stop reading a novel that encompasses all of Moore’s compulsive themes: sex, the clash of ideologies, loneliness, betrayal and religion. That’s a heady mix. But then Black Robe is a heady novel.
Set in the mid-17th century, it describes Father Paul Laforgue’s journey into the heart of darkness of Northern Canada. He is sent to relieve a dying priest of his post in a country inhabited by hostile, violent tribes. While he is prepared for martyrdom, his young novice, Daniel, is more ambivalent and succumbs to infatuation and the temptations of the flesh offered him by Annuka, a young Algonkin squaw. And so begin the religious complexities. Not only does Laforgue attempt to save the soul of his fallen Christian brother, he must also attempt the conversion of the pagan and, it must be said, savage natives. These are not the natives, cowed, domesticated and addicted to alcohol that we meet in Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, set 200 years after the events of Black Robe. The tribes of Black Robe are savages. To illustrate: at one point Laforgue, Daniel and his lover’s family are taken captive by the hostile Iroquois.
“May we caress the captives?” asked one of the women.
“Caress them” said Kiotsaeton, “but carefully, We must make them last.”
The women, gleeful, at once thrust their burning brands against the genitals of Chomina and Laforgue, causng them to double up in pain. They then burned Annuka’s shoulder and thrust a flaming stick into Daniel’s armpit …
and this is just the start of a torture session that ends in the parboiling and cannibalism of a young Algonkin child.
Moore makes it clear that the savagery is a result of the native religious system, which, with its belief in the world of night and the power of dreams, is so far removed from Christianity that the idea of conversion is inconceivable. Daniel and Annuka’s relationship, at face value demonstrating that reconciliation is possible, becomes the catalyst for the destruction of her family. Laforgue’s problems reconciling his experiences with his own beliefs precipitates a personal crisis of faith.
What’s amazing is Moore’s evenhandedness in showing both sides of the religious divide. Raised an Irish Catholic, Moore famously renounced his faith on the boat leaving Ireland. He waited that long, he said, so as not to hurt his mother. Yet, he remained cognisant of religious faith that could inspire men to behaviour beyond what is normal. So, while Black Robe shows the extremities of Indian belief, it does not condemn. It explains. So too Moore’s treatment of Jesuit faith and the behaviour of the missionaries.
The events are shocking and the outcomes bleak. Yet Moore is depicting real history – his source the voluminous letters that the Jesuits sent back to their superiors in France. He doesn’t sanitise the facts and as a result, demonstrates the bravery, the arrogance and the shortsightedness of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Blackrobes.
Presented with Moore’s trademarks, spare unadorned prose, strong visual elements, controlled pace and a tight plotline, this was quite simply unputdownable.
I won’t be rushing to rent the film. The pictures in my head are graphic enough!