BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Bernard du Boucheron, translated from the French by Hester Velmans
2008, Overlook Duckworth
Filed Under: Literary, Historical.
For a debut novel by a 76 year-old man, this is a pretty ambitious book. It’s not long (a slim 120 or so pages), but it is fairly dense. The Voyage of the Short Serpent tells the tale of a medieval Scandinavian bishop sent to the Greenlandic colonies to restore order. The church believes the colonies have fallen into abject hedonism (accompanied by incest and cannibalism) and need salvation. That political mission becomes a lifelong adventure, however, as traversing the arctic in a tiny wooden boat is no simple task. A grueling adventure follows, and from it springs a story of surprising depth.
One of the book’s strengths is the narration. Different sections of the book are told by a few different players, and the styles du Boucheron employs vary greatly. Velmans deserves plenty of credit here as well: he utilizes all kinds of sesquipedalian choices that are especially impressive when used in a translation. Unfortunately for both of them, one of the most difficult to navigate segments of narration comprises the first quarter or so of the novel. It is a letter of assignment from a cardinal to a priest called Insulomontanus, naming him a bishop and sending him to Iceland to rein in the flock as it were. There is a lot of interesting doublespeak at work, but it gets buried in ecclesiastical jargon and archaic syntax. It does the author a disservice, as I imagine many readers will be turned off by the formal, old-fashioned language utilized to set up the rather great story to come.
Once the mission actually sets sail, and the bishop is established as the primary narrator, the book becomes infinitely more readable. The action ramps up almost immediately. Insulomontanus’s party is quickly trapped by sea ice. They pull the boat from the ice and flip it over into a shelter. Slowly the men freeze to death and are forced to cannibalize the dead for survival. The fact that they are forced to commit one of the very sins they are en route to punish is not lost on them.
Eventually they make it to their destination, the colony New Thule. There they find things about as they expected. Gory violence, incest, feral wolves, and suspected witchcraft fill the bishop’s report. They eventually oust the governor as they were sent to do and Insulomontanus assumes control.
He gets creative in his punishments and means of restoring order, and it quickly becomes clear that the bishop is a liar and a psychopath. He doesn’t take long to become fully corrupted. It all calls into question just whose adventure this is. As the plot unravels, the book reveals itself to be a morality tale of sorts. It is also darkly funny, namely due to the bishop’s hypocrisy, as well as a few instances of the over-the-top gore.
Short Serpent has a high barrier to entry, but any reader willing to break through that will not only feel smart for being able to do so, but discover a satisfying tale inside the shell as well.
Similar Reads: Heart of Darkness (Conrad), Oronoko (Behn), The Voyage of the Narwhal (Barrett), The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Wilder)