The Voyage of the Short Serpent caught my eye at the local library as I was purusing the new arrivals section. It had an interesting cover; it was a short work which, as readers know, I appreciate; and the central concept intrigued me:
Years ago, a group left Europe to start a colony in Iceland, “the northernmost part of the world,” as they called it–a frozen, desolate place where it is difficult to survive. They called the place New Thule. But as the years wear on, communication between New Thule and the people back home has become less and less frequent, until finally it stops altogether. They fear that the people of New Thule have gone native–or, worse yet, gone pagan. A cardinal orders an evangelical mission in order to see what has become of the people, and to revive their faith.
The ship, built especially for this journey, is called The Short Serpent, and at its helm is an abbot named Montanus. Across an ocean of hard and motionless ice under an indifferent sky, The Short Serpent carries its crew toward a horror that no one could conceive. The children of New Thule have taken on a truly primitive life, wandering on the ice in the search of seal meat, of mounds of peat, and of other warm bodies with which to copulate. Slowly, the crew of The Short Serpent begin to succumb to the filth and depraved excesses of New Thule.
Told in an elegant, compulsive, and increasingly unhinged style, Bernard du Boucheron’s The Voyage of the Short Serpent is a masterpiece about mutable human morality in inhuman conditions–a story about truth, obsession, and the myth of utopia
I must confess that after having read it, however, I was left wondering what anyone saw in such a book. The book – in its original French – had won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’AcadÃ©mie FranÃ§aise and a number of the reviews were quite positive. Here is a sampling.
Can a novel that features cannibalism, amputations, burning at the stake and the devouring of children by wolves be a comedy? Tackling the gruesome and the grotesque with gleeful abandon, â€œThe Voyage of the Short Serpentâ€ is an eccentric, slightly maddened and often brutally funny tale of a colony of Roman Catholics marooned in medieval Greenland by the encroachment of a new ice age.
[. . .]
Throughout, du Boucheron steers clear of overpsychologizing, staying true to the medieval worldview even as he slyly creates a modern morality tale. The result is a portrait of a society destroyed by its inflexibility, by its obstinate faith in its superiority.
“The Voyage of the Short Serpent” is more than a story of survival in the frozen north; it’s a parable on the perils of excessive morality, colonization and religious tyranny.
Yet du Boucheron’s hopes as a novelist are surely buoyed. Remarkably, he had spent his entire life as an administrator in the aeronautics industry and turned to fiction only upon his retirement â€” The Voyage of the Short Serpent is his first book. Winner of the Grand Prix du Roman de l’AcadÃ©mie FranÃ§aise, it is a well-crafted and compelling tale.
To all of the above I say: What? To me the book was simply a dark, violent, vulgar, and hopelss story. I failed to find any parable or morality tale or anything else.
To be fair, there were at times elements of dark comedy and farce involved but they were drowned out by the relentless plodding ugliness that made up the book. I kept waiting for some payoff, some sense of what all this death and destruction meant, but it never came.
The folks at The Complete Review capture the missed oppertunity:
There’s some vivid description here, but it’s to surprisingly little end. For all the descriptions of the cold and pain and suffering, most of it comes across just as a list of complaints, rather than letting the reader really feel what the characters are feeling. Much is presented through I.Montanus’ obviously limited perspective, but even that is often far from compelling. He comes across as a right religious freak, and is convincing enough in his single-mindedness, but the way he’s presented he isn’t a very interesting character.
Religious absolutism confronts physical necessity here, but du Boucheron doesn’t do nearly enough with the clash. Even I.Montanus seems often just to be following some official rulebook rather than being moved by honest conviction. It’s not that one expects soul-searching from him, but with such rich material du Boucheron should, one way or another, have been able to make more of barbarism clashing with this Christian sort of civilisation I.Montanus wants to (re)impose on them.
As they so often do, Publishers Weekly expresses my feelings in one sentence:
Despite a competent translation, the cardinal and bishop’s grave dictums are stilted, and the blood and gore titillate less than they bore.
If there is a silver lining it is that The Voyage of the Short Serpent was short and thuse didn’t cost me a great deal of time or energy.