BOOK REVIEW / A great Dane in a savage world: Brother Jacob Henrik Stangerup Tr. Anne Born Marion Boyars, pounds 15.95

THE PROTAGONIST of Henrik Stangerup's unusual historical novel is Jacob the Dane, younger brother of the 16th-century monarch Christian II, and a man of consummate virtue. Historical evidence for Jacob's life is scant, but Stangerup has been faithful to the details that are known. Jacob became a Franciscan friar at a time when the Lutheran Reformation was sweeping Europe. Denounced for political reasons by his brother the king, Jacob proceeds to chronicle the expulsion of his order from Denmark and the cultural devastation wrought there by the avenging Reformers, before fleeing first to a Spain rife with anti-Semitism, and then to the New World.

The last 24 years of the actual Jacob's life were spent in Mexico among the Tarask Indians, where in the course of his missionary work he built churches, hospitals and schools, defended his Indians against the secular and religious powers, and died in 1566 or 1567, venerated as a saint.

Stangerup has created a convincing portrait of the man in his time, a man battling with the theological discord that divided Western Christendom. As Jacob wanders across Europe, he attempts to lose his own identity in the anonymity of his mendicant order. The world he inhabits is truly Christian: the wisdom of men such as Erasmus and Thomas More belong to all its citizens as much as the lingua franca, Latin.

In Spain, however, the forces of counter-reformation and intolerance are gathering. 'Reason's all too sensible reasoning has no place with us,' Jacob is told by a Spanish monk, and within a short time the writings of Erasmus and his followers come to be seen as heresy.

The reward for Jacob's patient peregrinations is to found his own Utopia among the Tarask Indians in New Spain, or Mexico. As the Jesuits sought to do in South America, Brother Jacob and his Franciscans strive to create an earthly paradise, but it is not one that is approved of by their secular brethren, or their bishop. The ways of men are not the ways of God, and the Spaniards ignored Pope Paul III's edicts on the correct treatment of the inhabitants of 'the West Indies', being motivated not by Christ, but by gold (known as 'the Sun's excrement' to the Indians).

Their greed, as is well known, led to the destruction of the Aztec, Inca and other civilisations, and the virtual extermination of the Indians, whose pre-Conquest population in the Americas is now reckoned to have been close to 100 million.

Jacob works to unite Catholicism with Tarask tradition, and believes that the Indians should receive all seven sacraments, not merely Baptism. This is not the authorities' view, and for his refusal to obey, Jacob is condemned and sentenced to a diet of bread, water and silence, and is forbidden to express his views again. The Franciscans resist, with the result that Jacob, now nearly 80, is abducted under orders from his bishop, only to be rescued by his faithful Tarasks who, two years later at his death, bear away his body and bury it an unknown place. This is indeed a curious fate for a Dane of royal birth.

Brother Jacob is occasionally dense, and the careful philosophical reflection mean that this is not a historical novel in the accepted term. Stangerup's achievement is to have succeeded not only in sustaining our interest in the mind of a wholly good man - a 'holy glutton' who chooses 'the Cross not the Crown' - but also to have placed theological exegesis at the forefront of a novel that in structure and style is thoroughly modern.