Review Index


By BERNARD DU BOUCHERON (Overlook; 2004/08)

A short novel that received quite a bit of attention in its native France, winning a prestigious literary award and all sorts of critical adulation. I think all the praise is overblown, given that this novel, in translated English form, is frankly pretty minor. It is, however, an absorbing and engagingly nasty account that won’t take you more than a few hours to read.

     The author, a 76 year old engineer making his literary debut, appears to have been attempting a satire of dark-hued sea voyage narratives ranging from HEART OF DARKNESS to Dan Simmons’ THE TERROR (meaning the blurb promising “you have never read anything like THE VOYAGE OF THE SHORT SERPENT” is a bit misleading, as you probably have read something very much like it). The subject matter is based on the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Norse colonists in Greenland, which occurred sometime in the 15th Century.

     A Catholic Bishop is ordered by his superiors to commandeer a sea mission on the titular Short Serpent to find out what happened to the colonists. The proceeding narrative is told largely in the form of letters the Bishop writes back to his superiors, in which he constantly attempts to justify and excuse his actions in Biblical terms. Italicized third person interludes occasionally follow the Bishop’s recollections, showing that his account is only partially credible.

     The voyage quickly turns disastrous, with the Short Serpent trapped by icebergs and its seaman falling prey to starvation and cannibalism. Matters don’t improve much once the ship reaches land, with a populace whose activities (according to the Bishop’s not-entirely-reliable narration) include auto asphyxiation and staged animal fights. To keep the people in line the Bishop imposes a number of extremely stern measures--example: to discourage people from abandoning their newborn children he sends the parents away to die of exposure--which of course only further inflames the situation.

     The story takes an unexpected turn in the final pages, when the Bishop forced to take care of a child whose mother, a young maid, claims the Bishop is the father. He vociferously denies impregnating the woman in his letters, although given the bishop’s less-than-trustworthy bent I think it’s safe to assume her allegations are truthful (it’s never conclusively explained, in any event).

     The overall narrative, I believe, would have benefited from a more varied focus. As it is, the only point of view we get is that of the comically pious Bishop, despite the fact that he’s surrounded by several interesting characters, including the young maid and a shady magician who may or may not be responsible for the mass disappearance that sets things in motion. A little more local color would also have been welcome, as grit and atmosphere are two things this novel, despite its abnormally high quotient of blood and guts, lacks.