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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Voyage of the Short Serpent

Bernard du Boucheron

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To purchase The Voyage of the Short Serpent

Title: The Voyage of the Short Serpent
Author: Bernard du Boucheron
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 206 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Voyage of the Short Serpent - US
The Voyage of the Short Serpent - UK
The Voyage of the Short Serpent - Canada
Court serpent - Canada
Court serpent - France
  • French title: Court serpent
  • Translated by Hester Velmans

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Our Assessment:

C : founders in its own excess

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 30/12/2007 Susan Salter Reynolds
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/2/2008 Ligaya Mishan

  From the Reviews:
  • "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." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A)n 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." - Ligaya Mishan, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Voyage of the Short Serpent the church has become worried about one of its northernmost outposts. There's been no word from New Thule for a while, because several years of great cold have made it impossible to travel there, and the religious authorities are worried that without a proper bishop and priests the locals have turned to a more sensible heathen way of life. So they decide to send Insulomontanus to check up on things; as an "Inquisitor Ordinary and Extraordinary" (having gotten a lot of practice while stationed in Spain and Portugal, where the Inquisition has been raging) and with his "diploma in Exorcism from the University of Uppsala" he seems just the guy to whip this community back into (Christian) shape.
       The book begins with the letter from the local Cardinal-Archbishop outlining the circumstances and what is expected of I.Montanus, and then continues with the cleric's own account of the voyage, from the preparations to their return several years later. In addition, there are some chapters giving the omniscient-narrator point of view of some of the events -- meant, especially in the concluding one, also to show that the church-representative's account isn't entirely objective (as if readers couldn't have guessed that for themselves).
       Even organising the expedition has to also take into account Christian principles -- so, for example, he can't hire any German shipbuilders, because if the ship sinks because of any Germans' shoddy workmanship they would not: "have authority to hang him since we have no jurisdiction over the Hanse" -- so it takes a while before they can get going.
       They know they're going into an inhospitable area, past Iceland (New Thule is presumably on what is now known as Greenland), and that conditions will be terrible, and here du Boucheron is finally in his element. Even before they get there the suffering is pretty bad: the oarsmen sit: "in their own excrement for lack of strength to relieve themselves over the side", and everyone is soon so worn out that even the Captain and I.Montanus themsleves must take up rowing-duty to keep going.
       And it only gets worse.
       Food is hard to find, and even when they reach their destination they find there is almost nothing there. Their first encounter with those they've come to save finds a scene of mass-slaughter, and then when they get to New Thule proper they find it completely run-down. Of course I.Montanus is more interested in the locals' spiritual rather than physical well-being, and he immediately sets about 'fixing' things. Given the lack of food and resources, however, it's hard to get much done; mere physical survival is already a daily battle. And the lack of resources leads to other difficulties as well: when he wants to set an example and burn some folk at the stake he's hard-pressed to find enough fuel to get a good fire going .....
       Du Boucheron positively revels in describing the hardships that are faced by the inhabitants, as well as by the expeditionary force. From those reduced to eating spiced-up cow shit to the amputations made necessary by gangrene and frostbite, life is miserable here. People even pray to be sent to hell, because at least there the fires must be better than the cold .....
       I.Montanus recounts this unpleasantness, and he suffers too, but it's still surprisingly hard to get a real feel for the place. If it's really that cold, if there's really that little food, how do these people survive ? It never really comes across in the book, and that failure undermines the whole work. What's left seems largely a list of grisly suffering and abominations.
       I.Montanus does seem to get some things organised, trying to improve the local farming and whatnot, but, of course, he's blinded by his faith, which often confuses his priorities. Still, he isn't completely heartless: he realises that if he's going to punish folk he can't be chopping off hands or feet, since every spare hand is needed for labour -- so he's satisfied with plopping out an eye .....
       He denies it, but I.Montanus also winds up embracing more heathen ways too, and even takes up with a woman. But that only lasts until they're ready to go home again, when he shows once again that he doesn't care much for the local community but rather is concerned only with his 'mission'.
       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.
       The best moment in the book comes when on the voyage to New Thule they encounter people for the first time:

we caught sight of two gnomes clad in oilskins which seemed somehow to attach them to small skiffs, which they maneuvered with paddles through the labyrinths of ice. These were clearly not our Christians, and we killed them with a couple of well-aimed arrows.
       Here the lack of any sort of curiosity, the callous disregard of human (but not Christian) life, and the sheer wastefulness (as these Eskimos surely might have had food, or been able to help them obtain some) is presented perfectly in a one short and very revealing scene. Elsewhere du Boucheron is much more muddled in his presentation.
       It's unclear what The Voyage of the Short Serpent is meant to be -- beyond a wallow in suffering and gore -- and du Boucheron seems to have missed the mark widely here.

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The Voyage of the Short Serpent: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature
  • See Index of Travel-related books

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About the Author:

       French author Bernard du Boucheron was born in 1928.

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© 2008 the complete review

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