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BLACK ROBE : by Brian Moore (Dutton: $15.95; 241 pp.)

April 07, 1985|RICHARD EDER

Brian Moore, who has written wonderfully well about the solitary urban present, has gone back 300 years to try his sensibility upon the painful encounter of two drastically different cultures. "Black Robe" is set in Canada, precariously held by the French, and tells of a Jesuit missionary who goes into the hinterlands to bring religion to the Indians.

Moore is trying for something very difficult; certainly for more than a stock historical novel. The ordeal of Father Laforgue's winter trek upriver with a party of Algonquin Indians is told with a horrifying vividness that quite disrupts any lingering school-book image of a bearded figure with cowl and crucifix being poled tranquilly upstream by buckskin-clad Indians. It is more like the Bataan death march with frostbite.

But Moore's purpose goes beyond this. He is trying to think his way, and ours, into the minds and emotions of 17th-Century Indians and Europeans and to convey the brutal shock of the encounter. The brutality is partly physical, but, principally, it is psychological. The real agony in "Black Robe" is not the scenes of torture and cannibalism that take place on the journey but the fear and pain produced by two worlds colliding.

Moore's principal effort goes to bringing to life the Indians who worked with the French in a mixture of fear, contempt and battlement. He writes of the harshness of their existence and their struggle to find enough to eat. Absolute good is survival and a deer slaughtered; absolute evil is death and an empty stomach. Religion is what they see and hear--forest, wind, sun--and the unseen spirits that bless them with food, curse them with hunger and finally take them away to die.

Nothing could be more alien than the European Christian missionary with his prohibition of pleasures that the Indians see as their sole redemption from the harshness of life: gluttony and untrammeled sex. To the degree that the Indians have any respect for the priest, it is in their hope that he can use his spiritual powers to avert disease or cure it, or to conjure up deer and turkeys. His message that happiness comes after death, not before it, makes him, fundamentally, their enemy. The spectacle of a priest baptizing the dying means to them a priest in league with death.

It is on this fundamental difference that the action in the book takes place. The Algonquins work for Father Laforgue at first but suspect him of casting spells against them and ultimately plan to abandon him. Each misfortune that occurs while he is with them makes him liable to be killed.

He is abandoned at one point; later, several of the Algonquins return to help him. They are captured by the Iroquois and tortured; an Algonquin child is boiled and eaten. The priest's French assistant falls in love with an Algonquin girl. Both are torn in their allegiances. At the end, Father Laforgue, battered and numbed by his experiences and beset by doubt after his vision of the Indians' lives, takes up his work in a settlement where one of the two other missionaries has just been killed.

Moore's imaginative effort is impressive, and sometimes it strikes sparks, but there is a sense of strain throughout and a measure of awkwardness and oddity. The effect is often that of a writer writing in a language he is still trying to learn.

His rendering of the Indians' speech is an example of a commendable purpose that does not quite work. Moore has discovered that they used a great deal of earthy language with particular reference to sexual apparatus and functions. But rendering this directly into English makes his Indians sound at times like a garageful of off-duty truck drivers.

There is a fearful intensity in parts of the book. The Iroquois practice of "caressing" their prisoners--burning the sensitive parts of the body with torches--makes a scene that is overpowering. One of the most moving passages is the stoic death of one of the Algonquins who has come back to help Father Laforgue.

Despite the oddity of tone in the Indian speech and some unconvincing bits of psychology, Moore generally succeeds in evoking the reality of Indian values along with their--to us--strangeness. What he fails to do is give equal reality to the other side of the encounter.

His Father Laforgue is a featureless figure; a sniveler for much of the time, a stoic for the rest. At the end, Moore transforms his catechetical pieties into a more complex self-doubt and endows his perseverance with a touch of heroism. But he remains thin and abstract. While treating his Indians with power and considerable perception, the author fails to find a human voice and visage for the figure who is supposed, painfully, to grow in understanding toward them. Secured only at one end, Moore's sail spills its wind.

DR, LEONARD BASKIN

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