THERE ARE no noble savages in Fathers and Crows. The second part of Seven Dreams, William Vollmann's 'symbolic history' of North America, may be set in an early 17th-century arcadia, but the Huron and Iroquois who live there are noted for cruelty rather than nobility. They take pleasure in subjecting their captured foes to prolonged and appalling torture before eating them.
However, these are not the demonised Indians of the 19th-century dime novels. Although it is little comfort to the victims, the cruelty and cannibalism has a religious motive. The Indians are warlike, it is true, but they are also doting parents who never strike their children. In other words, they are exactly the kind of characters Vollmann likes, at once victimisers and victims.
Fathers and Crows is the story of the Jesuit Black Gowns who come to save the souls of the Huron Indians. They bring with them epidemics and the destruction of the Huron at the hands of the Iroquois, the Huron's mortal enemies. It is a dark story, dealt with some years ago by Brian Moore in his lean, tense novel, Black Robe, which focused on the experiences of a single Jesuit.
Like Moore, Vollmann has done prodigious research in, among other sources, the 73 volumes of The Jesuit Relations, the collection of letters sent back by Jesuit missionaries from America to their superiors in France.
However, Vollmann has chosen to make his canvas much broader. He is, in essence, writing his own volume of the Jesuit Revelations, but in his own way. In a 900-page narrative, it is 470 pages before Father Jean de Brebeuf, ostensibly his main protagonist, makes an appearance.
Until de Brebeuf's appearance, the main character is Robert Champlain, map-maker and first Governor of Quebec. Champlain comes to Canada looking for a route to China and the gold and silver mines he expects to find there. He is the nearest thing to a heroic figure because, sneered at by his compatriots, he maintains through obstinacy and courage his position with the Indians, who both ridicule and admire him.
Bathetically, he has come in search of China and stays to establish a trade in beaver tails. The tails were used to make felt hats for European gentlemen. It was a trade of considerable importance to France until the middle of the 18th century, when felt hats were superseded by top hats made from Oriental silk.
By then, the Indians who had survived the coming of the Europeans were dependent on European goods for survival. Champlain traded iron hatchets and cooking pots with the - essentially Stone Age - Indians. By the 1820s, when James Fenimore Cooper was writing about the same tribes in The Last of The Mohicans, North American Indians were using scalping knives from Sheffield, blankets from the Cotswolds, calicoes from Marseilles, steel traps from Manchester, clay pipes from Hanover and muskets from London and Liege.
The uneasy co-existence of the French and Indian cultures in Vollmann's book is based on a fundamental and ultimately fatal misunderstanding. The Indians regard their French 'nephews' as guests they have invited to stay. The French think the Indians have accepted the rule of the crown.
Fathers and Crows is a brilliant work, but not at first an easy read. Vollmann writes as a chronicler, jokingly called William the Blind, and he is in no hurry. The book starts with a historical note which turns into an erotic enconium to the Iroquois saint, Catherine Tekakwitha (who inspired a similar panegyric from Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet and purveyor of musical gloom, in his novel Beautiful Losers).
Thereafter, Vollmann's narrative, written in very short sections, goes off at tangents and jumps backwards and forwards in time. The Spiritual Exercises of Loyola provide a perverse structure for the efforts of the French to explore the Saint Laurent waterway - which becomes, in a complex metaphor, the Stream of Time. He refers to the same Indian nations by many different names (the Iroquois have seven), justifying this in a droll footnote by saying that all the spellings are in the primary sources and he does not wish to be totalitarian.
Characters who seem central to the narrative often abruptly disappear. The fate of Champlain's adopted Indian daughters, left at the mercy of a lustful English captain when the British force the French to quit Quebec, is settled in a terse footnote.
Despite this playful post-modern disregard for narrative conventions, Fathers and Crows is gripping. In a note at the end, Vollmann explains: 'My aim in Seven Dreams has been to create a Symbolic History - that is to say an account of origins and metamorphoses which is often untrue, based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth.' His narrative occasionally invokes a magical realism, accepting the fantastical without explanation. By writing myth as history - and history as myth - he sidesteps the major problem of historical novels: establishing the consciousness of a period different to our own.
Vollmann encountered great difficulties on both sides of the Atlantic getting this book published, presumably because he is regarded as uncommercial and the book is inordinately long. All credit, then, to Andre Deutsch, for printing it without cuts. For it is an astonishing work - powerful, witty and imaginative. On its own it is impressive enough. As part of Seven Dreams, it raises hopes that Vollmann's ambitious enterprise will prove itself to be one of the major accomplishments of late 20th-century literature.
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