Friday, November 25, 2016
Bernard du Boucheron's "The Voyage of the Short Serpent"
Yes, that title is symbolic. This short novel can be read in a sitting. It takes a mock-medieval style to report, from alternating and eventually contrasting narrative voices, what happened on an episcopal mission commanded by the Pope to reclaim the Norse lapsed into heathenry in faraway Greenland.
It's more of a conceit than a full-fledged work. Hester Velmans' translation may capture the starched, satirical, and savage qualities of the original French, but the effort feels fussy and overly stylized in English. So does the effort to which the author strains to capture the tone of a chronicle or correspondence, given the friction of the attempt to counter the wiles of the Inuit, here titled "publicans," who lure the dwindling Norse into their seal-hunting, sexually suspect and sinful mores.
A few good lines show the potential. Early on, frostbite claims victims on the bishop's ship. Having been forbidden to eat their own rotting flesh to survive, one shipmate rebels. "One of them replied that the season was not Lent, and proceeded to devour his own toes." I admit I liked some of the dour and deadpan recitals of increasing woe, as the rescue attempt to scare and shame the Norse back to Christian fidelity, compared to the odd temptations of dissolute abandon among the natives, lure the Catholic contingent into their compromises, to survive in New Thule increasingly hostile threats. (Amazon US 11/25/16)