The Voyage of the Short Serpent: Bernard du Boucheron

★★½

Literary prizes are strange things. This novel won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 2004, which led me to expect something rather brilliant, but it fell gloomily short of expectations. Austere, cold and brutal, it tells the story of the medieval Catholic priest Insulomontanus, who is dispatched to New Thule (Greenland) to minister to the faithful. The New York Times regarded the book (translated by Hester Velmans) as a tour-de-force of black humour, but I found it an increasing slog of horrific cruelty and almost unbearable suffering. Framed as Insulomontanus’s grovelling report back to his master, it plays deftly with notions of the unreliable narrator – but that in itself isn’t enough to transform this monotonously miserable story into an engaging read.

From his comfortable seat in Norway, Cardinal-Archbishop Einar sends Insulomontanus a list of shocking rumours about their brothers and sisters in Christ in Greenland. Isolated from the rest of Christendom due to the impassable ice, the faithful are said to have lapsed into depravity, apostasy and even cannibalism. Insulomontanus and his crew are sent to bring the comfort of Christ back to these neglected people. Setting out in a ship built along the lines of ancient Norse seafaring vessels, and named the Short Serpent, he makes for Greenland. Any hopes he has of an easy crossing are dashed. Harsh weather drives the Short Serpent off course; running out of food and plagued by vicious cold, the sailors are driven to eating their own amputated limbs (in defiance of Insulomontanus’s pious protests) even before they land on Greenland’s shores.

And what do they find there? Chaos, starvation, deprivation and murder. Their first encounter with the Christians of Greenland is in a farmhouse that has recently been sacked and all the inhabitants brutally murdered. Staggering on to their destination of Gardar, Insulomontanus finds a society whose fragile cohesion is threatened by the stark winters and a lack of food. His reports to the Cardinal-Archbishop list his efforts to save the faithful by encouraging agriculture, introducing the Church’s justice and taking steps to curtail the spread of sexual licence. He stops the practice of pagan rituals in the church; he founds a hospital to treat those suffering from the pestilence; and he finds homes for orphaned children. So far so good. A model churchman, you might say.

But it gradually becomes clear – and you don’t even really have to read between the lines – that Insulomonatus is painting his actions in a very flattering light. The pagan dances at the back of the church might, to modern eyes, represent an example of traditional faith being reconfigured to fit with the spread of Christianity. The orphaned children rehoused by Insulomonatus have been orphaned by his hand, as he cheerfully brings back the inquisitor’s tradition of death at the stake for crimes against Christianity. His first act on arriving in Gardar, indeed, is to burn the community priest who has clearly been bewitched by the mixed-race woman he has taken as his lover. Both of them are swiftly dispatched as an example to Insulomontanus’s new flock (though he shows pity: death by burning is substituted for the traditional punishment of tying the criminal to two bowed trees and having them ripped apart when the trees are cut free – of course, as he points out to the Cardinal-Archbishop, his pity is helped by the fact there are no trees). Further examples of his justice give a good flavour of the book:

I had one of [the criminals] whipped, and she died, although that had not been my intention. Sadly, I was unable to prevent her corpse from being thrown to the dogs. However, this unhappy incident did, fortunately, manifest my judicial evenhandedness toward Christian and publican alike … My impartiality was evident from the blood that was spilled equally by both camps.

A shining exemplar of justice (and irony). Insulomonatus also takes up a crusade against the indigenous Greenlanders (‘the gnomes they called skraelingar‘) and the mixed-race children born from unions between them and the immigrant Norsemen. His passion for wiping out concubinage is, however, stymied when a young woman turns up claiming that he has impregnated her – something he is swift to deny to the Cardinal-Archbishop, in a classic her-word-or-mine manoeuvre. The more we see of this priest’s work, the less it looks like charity and more like a self-centred, blinkered, obstinate effort to create his own little kingdom among these desperately impoverished people. If there is black humour, it’s in his self-important swaggering while his new flock waste away around him. More than once, you wonder whether the Cardinal-Archbishop really sent him there as a reward for his abilities – or to get him out of the way.

I have no doubt that life in medieval Greenland was pretty grim. The descriptions here of frostbite and starvation are horrendous. But du Boucheron transforms it into a series of unyielding hammer blows – we only see things through Insulomontanus’s eyes, with the exception of three short and yet detached third-person chapters, which go some way to hinting at alternative interpretations of events. Books don’t have to be happy. They don’t have to be full of butterflies and kittens for me to enjoy them. I like grimdark, for heaven’s sake. But this is a one-note symphony of clerical exploitation and suffering, and although it might be technically admirable, it is completely devoid of heart. Like the land on which it focuses, it’s bleak, stiff and rather cruel.

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