In 1988 I came close to securing the Booker Prize for Brian Moore, the Northern Irish/Canadian Catholic novelist. For a moment, on the last day of discussion, there was a 3-2 majority for his novel The Colour of Blood. But PD James and Selina Hastings, the two judges in favour of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, were far more committed to their choice than my two supporters were to mine. Indeed, they were on the cool side of lukewarm, and I sensed that they didn’t want either of these novels to win. So I gave way, uncertain whether I was acting like a gentleman or being feeble.

Moon Tiger was a good novel, a deserving winner, but I still think The Colour of Blood more impressive. It is written with masterly economy, and is set in an unnamed Eastern European country, which every reader would surely identify as Poland. The subject was urgently contemporary then. It’s historical now, not only because the novel is 30 years old, but because it was set in the dying days of the Cold War.

The main character – the hero – is a cardinal who, while condemning the communist regime, nevertheless cooperates with it. This has aroused the anger of Catholic nationalist zealots. They kidnap him, hoping to provoke a crisis since it will be assumed that he has been arrested by the secret police. The novel rings politically true, the plot is credible, the evocation of the cynical and crumbling communist regime is convincing. Yet Moore surprised some by remarking that The Colour of Blood was “the novel I have always wanted to write about Ireland”.

How can this be? Well, in the last chapter, the cardinal, returned to freedom, tells his flock that we live under “the tyranny of an age when religious beliefs have become inextricably entwined with political hatreds … I have allowed my people to come to the brink of violence, to a confusion between the wrongs done to us and the wrongs that some among us now advocate we do in return. I beg you to think of the deaths of others. Remember, the tyrant and the terrorist have that in common. They do not think of those deaths.”

The colour of blood is the same everywhere, whoever sheds it. This is the observation – the judgment – of a Catholic humanist who would have people no longer die – no longer kill – for abstract nouns, whether in Ireland, Poland or Central America. Moore’s last novel before The Colour of Blood had been Black Robe, about Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Canada. They are seized, tortured and martyred by native Indian tribes; here too the drama arising from the clash of uncomprehending cultures has its relevance to Ulster’s Troubles. It’s an astonishing and alarming book.

Moore would write two other fine novels in his last years. (He died in 1999, aged 77.)

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