Brian Moore's "Black Robe" - a review & sundry 'tots'

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Frank Lekens

20 aug. 2000 03:00:0020-08-2000
A couple of weeks ago I read Brian Moore's Lies of Silence. I had read
some dithyrambic praise for that novel by several Dutch critics, so my
expectations were high. But the novel left me underwhelmed. If Greene
had once called him his "favourite living writer", I thought, that was
probably just a typical sly Greenian move: designate a crown prince
that's not by far as good as yourself, so as to make your own
achievement seem all the bigger.

Lies of Silence was a taut and thrilling read, an exciting tale about
terrorism in today's Northern Ireland. Moore does a good job of playing
out various moral perspectives against each other, without himself
making an overt stance - unless it be against the stupidity of violence.

But what were its merits *as literature*, I wondered? After finishing
the book, I thought it might just as well have been a film I'd been
watching. Moore's skills seemed to lie in telling a story in such a way
that you forget you are even reading a book. No stylistic frills, no
memorable turns of phrase, no unexpected images (in fact, no imagery at
all that I can recall). Recommendable holiday reading but no literary
canon fodder - or so I thought then.

Then when a last weeks I took out an earlier novel, "Black Robe", I
suddenly realized that the moral dilemmas of the characters in Lies of
Silence had stayed with me more than I would have expected. Maybe, I
thought, I've underestimated the force of Moore's skill in succinctly
telling a tale that keeps you thinking about it for quite a while after
you've finished the book. Maybe his tales aren't exactly fraught with
Jamesian significance and semiotic ambiguity - but his juggling of moral
perspectives isn't any the less valuable for that. Or, as Francine Prose
phrased it in her review of Lies of Silence in the NYT:

[she admires] the nervy way in which Mr. Moore takes textbook-
case ethical quandaries (the good of one versus the good of many,
the right to a private life versus social responsibility) and
uses the techniques of fiction to give them an agonizing,
provocative spin.

So I set out on Black Robe - an account of a 17th century French
Jesuit's journey to a missionary outpost in the wilds of Canada. Again a
fairly short novel (it's almost as though Moore sets himself the task of
keeping his books within the 250 page limit). Once more a spare style,
with no striking imagery or elegant turns of phrase to speak of.
Utilitarian seems the best way to describe his approach to style.

But that's not to say that there is no variation. Whereas Lies of
Silence was written strictly from the perspective of its one main
character, in Black Robe the perspective is very fluid and may change
from one paragraph to the next. One minute we see the tale unfold
through the eyes of the military commander sending the Jesuit on his
journey, and the next we are inside the Jesuit's head. And one page
further on we see things through the eyes of one or more of the Indians
accompanying him on his journey. Or those of the oversexed French
adolescent who travels with the Jesuit. (What does perspective have to
do with style? Well, apart from switching perspective, Moore also
switches style correspondingly. He makes liberal uses of free indirect
speech - or for those averse to technical terms: the vocabulary and
stylistic peculiarities of the characters seep into the narrative text
whenever the story is told from their point of view.)

So if Moore is a no frills author as far as style is concerned, he is
also very flexible in his style. That was one (positive) conclusion I
drew from reading these two novels.

More striking, however, was the *use* he set his stylistic flexibility
to in Black Robe. I mentioned the Indians, but they're not called
Indians in this novel. They're called Savages - because that was the
terminology used at the time.

Of course historical correctness isn't Moore's only reason for
this choice of words. The use of the word "Savages" (capitalized
throughout) is meant to underline the central theme of the novel: the
culture clash between the whites and the Indians. And the fact that the
whites tended to think of this clash in terms of civilization versus
untamed nature/savagery - whereas it was of course just a matter of one
set of beliefs pitted against another. To quote Moore from his own
preface to the novel:

I was made doubly aware of the strange and gripping tragedy that
occurred when the Indian belief in a world of night and in the
power of dreams clashed with the Jesuits' preachments of
Christianity and a paradise after death. This novel is an attempt
to show that each of these beliefs inspired in the other fear,
hostility, and despair, which later would result in the
destruction and abandonment of the Jesuit missions, and the
conquest of the Huron people by the Iroquois, their deadly enemy.

Yet all this makes it sound a lot more solemn than the novel really is.
For first of all, I though this novel was enormous fun to read. A major
reason for that was Moore's depiction of the "Savages". Apparently,
their entire language was punctuated with obscene curses. So Moore makes
his Indians talk like this:

'If the dream tells you that,' Ougebemat said, 'then it must be
obeyed. For it is not dreamed by some useless prick, but by a

That, and the barrage of "shits" and "fucks", gives a delightful twist
to the cliché image of the noble savage that is somehow present in most
any film representation of Indians that I know - from the most hostile
and racist depiction of old westerns to the sentimental trash of Dances
With Wolves. Totally opposite to anything I'm used to from fiction or
film, Moore's Indians sound like dockworkers. That's very refreshing.

Now my knowledge of American Indians is not just limited - it's
practically non-existent. So I can't judge how historically adequate
Moore's depiction of the Indian's outlook and cultural behaviour is. But
the picture he paints - apart from being a healthy antidote to Indians'
traditional depiction in most films - certainly comes across as pretty

This is probably because fairness is what characterizes Moore's approach
most. Fairness both towards the Indians' outlook on life, with its
strengths and weaknesses - as well as fairness towards the Jesuit's
Christian outlook (with which it is as hard for most of us to identify
as with the Indians' outlook).

The Jesuit in the story, not surprisingly, has a hard time of it. He is
led into temptation by the young French boy's erotic goings on (very
explicitly described) with one of the Indian girls. And the loneliness
and harshness of the landscape as well as the capacity for cruelty of
the Indians shake his faith to the roots.

Moore also has a nice way of implicitly hinting at the similarity of the
Indians' animistic beliefs and the 17th century's Christians' near-
superstitious susceptibility to omens - as when he has the Jesuit
interpret the sight of a soaring eagle as a sign that God has forgiven
him his trespasses and urges him to continue his journey.

Furthermore, Moore maintains a nice balance between seeing the Indians'
culture as totally alien to ours, and taking a more universalistic view
of *all* people, regardless of creed or culture, sharing certain basic
human feelings and values, such as love between individuals and the
equality of the sexes. Thus, although the sexual mores of the Indians
are extremely "liberated" (from a Western point of view), the
relationship between the young French boy and the Indian girl ends up as
being a pretty conventional love affair. And another instance: although
after marriage the Indians supposedly treat their women as slaves, the
leader of the Indian band accompanying the Jesuit has a habit of
consulting his wife in difficult situations, because she usually gives
sound advice (but he anxiously keeps this secret, as it's not acceptable

In these and other ways, Moore manages to convey a vivid and very
convincing picture of the Indians' lives - the historical accuracy of
which, as I said, I can't judge. This, together with his feeling
portrayal of the Jesuits' mission, the courage and the madness of it,
make Black Robe a fascinating book.

And lest people get too solemn an impression from my inadequate
description - it's simply a riveting read. Much of the attraction of
Moore's narratives resides in simple narrative tension - wanting to know
what happens next. He provides plenty of that in this novel.

And it's not only riveting - it's also a *fun* read. Plenty of swearing,
fucking and fighting - all crammed into less than 250 pages. What more
can you want?

(Maybe I should also warn that there are some decicedly unpleasant
torture scenes too. Although like most good novelists, Moore creates
horror more by suggesting what could possibly have been done than by his
descriptions of what is actually performed.)

Black Robe has also been made into a film. This makes me wonder what the
film makers have done with all the explicit sex, the gruesome violence
and the obscene language - the latter of course being most offensive of
all to American audiences. Has anyone seen the film? Do the Indians
swear a lot in it? Has the story been toned down to reach a wider
audience, or to comply with PC standards? And, quite simply, is it any
good? (I'm sure it must be better than the awful Dances With Wolves; but
how does it compare to Last of the Mohicans - which I haven't seen, but
which some in this group seem to champion?)

I read this novel to take a breather from the collected tales of Henry
James, of which I had just finished my first volume. I had started with
the second volume in the series: the tales from 1874 to 1884, most of
which deal with James' famous international theme.

Needless to say, nothing could be more different from James'
elaborations and diffident circumlocutions, his deference to amenities,
than Moore's harsh tale told in a bleak but effective style. Although
the romance between the boy and the girl in Moore's story could be seen
in the terms of intercultural marriage, I don't see much affinity with
James' English-American alliances. "Beating Around the Bush: On
Intercultural Relationships in Henry James' 'Lady Barberina' and Brian
Moore's 'Black Robe'" - that's about the last title one would expect to
crop up in a selection of undergraduate essays. And Jamesian - that's
about the last epithet I'd apply to Moore's novel. Which just goes to
show that it takes all kinds to make a literature.

(Final parenthesis: talking about epithets. For those who like Beowulf.
I've already said that the Indians constantly swear at each other and at
the white men. But when they do this in a serious discussion, it is
constantly remarked that "they laughed to show they weren't angry" -
presumably because when in such a context you call someone a prick and
you don't laugh, it's a real insult. The phrase "he laughed to show he
wasn't angry" is used so often and routinely, however, that it achieves
something of the force of an old fashioned "epitheton ornans" - a stock
phrase like you often find them in heroic poetry.)
Frank Lekens is where it's really @

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