Monday, January 21, 2008

The Voyage of the Short Serpent by Bernard du Bucheron


Abstract from review by Robert Zaretsky of the Houston Chronicle:

"...The time is the Middle Ages, the place Greenland. In prose as spare as the frozen landscape, we learn that I. Montanus, "inquisitor ordinary and extraordinary" based in Nidaros (the present-day Norwegian city of Trondheim), has been assigned to reclaim the lost colony of New Thule for the Catholic faith.

Perched on the top of the world, New Thule has strayed from the straight and narrow. Sodomy and bigamy, Montanus learns, are widespread. But so are they at any Club Med. More problematic, for modern readers, is the practice of incest and cannibalism.

Montanus seems equal to this monumental task. A learned theologian, he has already shown his mettle in Spain by battling the Moors and hounding the Marranos. At the same time, he is a soft touch for the widows and orphans of those he has condemned to die, enfolding them in the faith rejected by their husbands and fathers. And there is one last flourish to his résumé: He knows the French language and manners. As his archbishop archly notes, Montanus has "learned to enjoy fare other than the barley soup and salted herring so dear to our flock." As he soon discovers, however, even salted herring is a delicacy in New Thule.

The novel opens with a letter from Montanus' superior listing the challenges that await him and his handpicked crew. Ice floes and icebergs, frozen and endless arctic nights, long and pestiferous summer days are the least of it. The spiritual wastes are even greater. As a result, Montanus' mission, should he decide to accept it, is to be "as pitiless in castigating sin as you are generous in recognizing virtue."

Montanus is thus authorized to employ the gamut of inquisitorial punishments, ranging from the stake and head vise to boiling oil and stoning. He is, however, discouraged from using the "beer funnel": This medieval form of waterboarding is "a waste of a scarce commodity and abases the executioner to the vile office of a common inn keeper."

Setting sail for Greenland, Montanus' ship is quickly beset by ice storms that batter and ensnare it. With the onset of frostbite, the crew's arms and legs become as immobilized as the ship. But there is an upside: For the starving men, their numbed appendages are transformed into frozen dinners. As one of Montanus' men argues, "the season was not Lent, and proceeded to devour his own toes."

Yet Montanus' unwavering faith and the ship captain's equally impressive competence allow the crew to make landfall at Greenland. The welcome is scarcely encouraging: Inside the lone and mean dwelling they first discover, the voyagers find several corpses. Were it not for the freshly slit throats of the men, women and children, one might have surmised from their emaciated frames and suppurating lesions that they had been overcome by disease. Completing the nightmarish tableau is the mangled corpse of a monkey — an astonishing find, as Montanus dryly notes, "for I knew that its species did not belong in these arctic climes."

No more so than Homo sapiens, it would seem. In the end, the monkey's presence in Greenland is less puzzling than man's. Why would human beings cling to life in such a dismal and godforsaken icescape? What, indeed, are they doing there in the first place? Of course, if I had a good answer to this question, I wouldn't be writing book reviews for a living. But if, on the other hand, I were writing a book, such a situation would serve a practical purpose. It offers a thought experiment, one that allows us to observe our fellow human beings stripped of every social and moral convention we take for granted. The results are not pretty.

Once Montanus reaches New Thule and its wretched residents, we find that nature's harshness is dwarfed by man's own mercilessness. The novel reads as if Cormac McCarthy had channeled Jack London — or, better yet, Dostoevsky. The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, or Machiavelli for that matter, could take a refresher course from Montanus.

Thus, shortly after arriving in New Thule, he condemns two locals to the stake. He does so less for their sins, he writes to his superior, than to assert his authority "in being seen to use immediate severity, thereby saving the need for still greater severity later on." Montanus' political calculus is too optimistic, though, for he launches into a series of ever more gruesome executions and punishments.

By the end of his stay, Montanus has reclaimed New Thule for the church, but at a staggering cost to himself and others. He solves the mystery of the monkey and its slaughtered household, but the answer provides more darkness than light. This holds true for the entirety of this taut and powerful book. It destroys one illusion after another: By the novel's end, even our hope that Montanus' self-discipline is matched by self-understanding has been dashed..."

Post a Comment