Monday, August 11, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Fathers and Crows": Book Review

This continues as the second of "Seven Dreams,"++ a septology projecting across North America the past millennium as envisioned by natives and settlers. Here, Vollmann begins to get the hang of his own attempt to present, through the Micmac woman Born Swimming's dream of a dream of a dream, the clash between those now called in Canada the First Nations, in Acadia and along the St. Lawrence, and the French who sailed up those shores eager for furs, riches, and souls. Vollmann in the first segment, "The Ice-Shirt" (1990), had labored, overall successfully, to integrate Norse sagas and modern reporting from Greenland, Baffin Island, and what was Vinland and is now Newfoundland, but certain tonal shifts and thematic leaps made that ambitious start rather uneven. All the same, it marked a talent to watch, and this series to date slowly continues.

"Fathers" triples the length of the first narrative; enriched by glossaries and endnotes, the result repeats Vollmann's prodigious labor. Regarding this novel's impact, earlier at PopMatters I noted how Vollmann analyzed his (partially) released FBI file. This parallels passages in "Imperial" which describe (partially) his detention in 2002 and 2005 while crossing from Mexicali to Calexico. Vollmann cites from these same files, which document a federal inquiry that numbers him among thousands suspected of being the Unabomber, about this novel: "UNABOMBER’s moniker FC may correlate with title of VOLLMANN’s largest work, novel Fathers and Crows. That novel reportedly best exemplifi es VOLLMANN’s anti-progress, anti-industrialist themes/beliefs/value systems and VOLLMANN, himself, has described it as his most difficult work." Vollmann  muses about "reportedly", given this nameless agent might not have finished it, like many readers.

This appeared two years after "Ice," and two years before part five (which appeared out of order in the series as it unfolds according to publication and not strict chronology), returning in "The Rifles" to Lord Franklin's doomed mid-Victorian voyage among the Inuit. These three books burrow into history and contemporary memories along America's northeastern frontiers. They match Vollmann's affection for frozen climates, and varied Canadian cultures and scenes, with his energy and erudition. With so little surviving of indigenous reactions to the contact, and with what we know filtered through the invaders much more than the natives, Vollmann must mix imagination with scholarship.

This novel builds upon that region's own vast origin myth, the Jesuit Relations, 73 volumes sent back starting in 1611 and continuing for two centuries, from New France to the Society of Jesus' French superiors. But whereas "Ice" hovered between recreating the Norse tone from hefty and resounding saga-lore and skipping into a modern vernacular from Vollmann's late-'80s journeys, "Fathers" opts for an omniscient voice. Although early on we aren't exactly sure where it emanates from ("Jean"? A venerable chair where a wise elder once sat?), this projection sustains a more consistent register. Yet blends a filtered antiquated sensibility, drifting in and through both Indian and European perceptions. Furthermore, Vollmann applies Ignatian Spiritual Exercises into a Stream of Time image adapted from his previous novel's icy dreamtime. Readers embark on a bracing, engaging, if daunting portage.

Very early in the 17th century, Champlain works his way up to preferment and command for the Roy. "He gathered the trees into orderly clumps as he mapped them, so that the rivers would be less encumbered." (103) Lusting for mineral riches, he explores those rivers to no avail as for gold or silver, but his navigational obsession earns him grudging acceptance by his social or military betters. His band of similarly restive adventurers hammers out habitations and fattens off the beaver-pelt trade in Montréal and Québec, about seven decades after Jacques Cartier had begun to map Canada. So, while we never figure out clearly at the start who's speaking what to whom, by now a pidgin exchange of French or even some Basque mingled with native languages may have become common.

Contemporaneous with Cartier's exploration, St. Ignatius of Loyola gathered the first companions for what would be known as the Jesuits, the same year of 1534. These Black Gowns or Crows make a neat play off of Black Hands, the dark lord of the native peoples in "Ice"; their coming for the French merchants and scoundrels signals unwelcome change, even if the Iron People trade for furs with a coveted metal for kettles, then arrowheads and weaponry. Poutrincourt, who soon will lose control of his fort to the inexorable priests, lashes out at the first clever missionary sent to block the master's diplomatic path. "Tell me, Père, are all of you Jesuits cunning in this way, to get first a toehold, then a foothold, and then to trample everything down? I ask you: who gave you the right to be here?" (190) 

For the traders, and the priests, this Canadian immensity can prove implacable. Its woods emanate darkness and their depths bewilder. Yet they can cheer. "Autumn fell, and the forest became a chasuble of red velvet with gold flowers down the side, its skinny leaf-arms outstretched in grasping prayer." (203) The observer of this scene is not specified, and in such moments, Vollmann conveys the sheer wonder of the place, filtered a bit through the perception of one raised in the old-new faith.

To win converts for Christ, this ambition impels the Jesuits, as Vollmann paraphrases them, to declare war on the world. A fifty-page immersion into Ignatius' dramatic decision, when wounded by a blunderbuss, to turn from a life of Spanish swashbuckling to one of soul-searching demonstrates the intensity of the Society's founder. Vollmann sums up Ignatius' military strategy, calculated through his Spiritual Exercises to teach his Companions the memory skills, the calm under pressure, and the intricate spiritual and practical classifications to call upon in their apostolate. It neatly nods to the Jesuit balance of action with contemplation. "Their plan was simple: to save every soul on earth. The means were complex, requiring the tense spontaneity of generals, the extravagance of jesters, the indifference to comfort of ascetics, the compromising of merchants, the intriguing of diplomats, the patience of craftsmen--all of which were so many pretty veils drawn over an iron purpose." (277) 

Iron speaks too to the natives' lust for it, for hunting and for killing. The French dispense weapons to Born Swimming's people soon after their first encounter, so as to weaken rivals. The titular protagonist of the fourth (2001) of the Seven Dreams, piratical Samuel Argall, kidnapper of Pocahontas, makes a cameo as he conquers the Jesuits' Acadian outpost. Such enmity between British and French heightens, as does tension for the Huron or Wendat, who will under Jesuit tutelage find themselves weakened in conflict with their southern foes, the Iroquois confederacy. The bulk of this narrative, starting a third of the way in, retells the Jesuit role in the fate of the Huron in the 1630s.

Four hundred pages on, Champlain treks into the Huron heartlands upriver. Captives get roasted alive and scalped. Birds keep singing. Brutality on both sides earns Vollmann's calm scrutiny, as does the fearsome vastness of the forests which dwarf native and settler in a continent of foliage, rivers, and ambush. The omniscient teller quietly hints halfway that he's sometimes Jean de Brébeuf, one of the Black Gowns who will in this leafy domain, in the middle of the 1600s, seek and earn martyrdom. 

One who will find this reward, Jean de Brébeuf, begins to shoulder aside Champlain as the central figure, as the Jesuits deflect the Huron from the traders. Vollmann inserts an aside to Robert de Nobili, a Jesuit who in India by going native balanced conversion with toleration of indigenous customs and beliefs. Returning to the Black Gowns, attempting to sway the Huron, we watch their missionary predicament deepen as epidemics decimate the natives, leaving the surviving priests open to charges of witchcraft by the suspicious Huron, egged on by their bitter shaman against the French. 

As at the end of "The Ice-Shirt," vignettes of those taken by the Europeans back to the Old World, here then brought back to New France, depict the complicity of natives caught between resistance and assimilation. "It was the vast crowds that chastened the boy" Amantacha "and fitted him for his purpose: seeing them, he understood that the Wendat could never begin to contest with these folk on equal terms." (503) Filtered through his eyes, we see the inflexible determination of the newcomers. "The Iron People slouched; they threw themselves down in chairs, as if the chairs would never break or be anything but chairs." (504) A separation of maker from creation contends with the native view.

Reliant on the reluctant interpretative skills of another young man taken to France who, returning to the Huron, renounces his Catholicism, a cold, lonely Jesuit reflects during an icy sojourn among them his own cognitive dissonance from those he despises but must preach to. "The bare trees reached up together like pillars; their branches upcurved together into an arched cathedral ceiling." (561) Among this frigid desolation, mortality increases among those whom he seeks to win over. "They pass their lives in smoke, thought Père Le Jeune sadly, and afterwards they fall into the fire." (562) If they, during the epidemic, die, they will be damned; their lives seem as grim as their smoke-choked tents. 

Recalling for me Brian Moore's 1985 novel through Bruce Beresford's adaptation of "Black Robe", Vollmann, publishing his novel the year after that movie, dramatizes this same Canadian conflict of wills. As Moore's screenplay sums up through the shaman Mestigoit: "There are no gifts given by the French that aren't paid for." Similarly, the sorcerer and (Born Swimming's daughter and later Amantacha's wife, conceived by that Micmac woman's rape by a French trader) Born Underwater, one gifted with "seeing-ahead", glimpse the outcome of the implacable struggle between determined invader and indigenous settler. Pitting shamen against priests, as epidemics weaken more natives beyond the Huron, the hidden powers called upon by both sides corner Catholic converts, who have gone over to the French.  Crows caw, cornfields wither, famine stalks. Those who have turned to Christ among the natives, in the steady judgment of the holdout Born Underwater, seem reduced to the status of children, by Black Gowns bent on baptizing the dying, swooping down upon stiff prey.  

Between 1634 and 1640, as Vollmann relates in his appended chronology, half the Huron died. The remnant, increasingly Christian, sought refuge from disease, famine, and the Iroquois. Those faithful to premonitions and paganism dwindled. "The dream-Captains sought to protest, but the Christians would not listen to them, and so they withdrew from Ossossané with sadness in their eyes, saying than nothing but selfishness and witchcraft held sway there any longer." (822) Vollmann presents both factions with sympathy but detachment, enabling us to witness the Huron struggle for survival. 

Parts around pages seven- or eight-hundred, admittedly, threaten to belabor the point. Vollmann refuses editorial cuts, so even if one may wonder the reason for so much depth, this deep dive into Catholic and native consciousness, four hundred years ago, triumphs from this sustained commitment. Meanwhile, seasons stretch on and dwindle, distant from the human frenzy for control. "The clouds were like lavender puzzle-pieces floating on milk." (808) Vollmann strives for a fresh presentation, and his language floats between 17th-century chronicler and 1989 visitor to Québec and Amerindian sites. He blends research deftly (sometimes by wry footnotes via academia) and his endnotes attest to the immersion by which he created this dense but absorbing book. Its heft, as with all Seven Dreams to date, may dissuade the faint-hearted, but as with many explorers, rogues, natives, and contemporaries in these thick pages, the adventure undertaken will reward the intrepid (Amazon US 12-29-13 without the FBI paragraph) 

++ "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. Here one walks the proverbial tightrope, on one side of which lies slavish literalism; on the other, self-indulgence." (939, Author's note)

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