Thanks to Exclusive Books' amazing R50/kilo warehouse book sale, I found this hidden gem. The Voyage of Short Serpent by Bernard du Boucheron is probably the most morbid novel I've read since Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. But what a read! Morbidly funny, I don't know whether to laugh or shudder with horror half the time.
In this novel, du Boucheron definately pays homage to the tradition of the gothic novel. The main part of the text is written as a letter or report, quite common for the gothic novel. Similar to the classic Frankenstein, we follow our narrator to an arctic location shrouded in mystery and uncertainties. In gothic fiction, the arctic is often a romanticised setting, with dark secrets as exotic as the Africa of H. Rider Haggard.
We find ourselves in the Middle Ages, where Bishop Montanus embarks on a mission to look after the Christian flock in New Thule, Greenland. Instructed by the Cardinal-Archbishop of Nidaros (!) to sort out these rumours of sodomy, incest, canibalism and massacres, Montanus is allowed to execute the worst sinners. "For every offence you will determine the proper manner of death: the stake, the wheel, the head vise, drawing and quartering, the slow hanging, suspension from the feet or carnal parts (only for men, since the female constitution does not lend itself to it), immersion in oil, or stoning" (p. 27) - yes, you get the drift..!
The journey there turns out to be a lot more hazzardous than expected, and we quickly start suspecting that our narrator is not entirely reliable. The style of writing is highly gothic, with exaggerations and unlikely scenes, as well as obvious twisting of the truth to make us doubt our narrator. Before arriving in their intended location, they come across a house where a massacre recently has taken place. Ten dead bodies are found murdered, including a monkey. Our narrator precedes to tell us that the entrails are still warm, and the fire still aglow.
Upon arrival, Montanus meets the chief of Einarsfjord, Einar Sokkason, who introduces him to the only surviving priest: "crawling with lice, his mouth oozing with a foamy pleghm which gave off a rank smell, and holding by the hand a scarce-pubescent female publican, he spewed a hundred blasphemies" (p. 77). For their obvious sins, Montanus decides they must both be put to death.
Taking stock of the situation at New Thule, Montanus observes that the poverty and hunger is so bad, that Christian women become the prostitutes of the "publicans" (which seems to refer to the natives, or "pagans" of New Thule) who are better equipped at hunting and fishing. The Christian "masters" are so sick and empowerished that their publican slaves lord it over them. There is no treasure whatsoever, nothing worth trading with, and there is a pestilence which Montanus traces back to the monkey.
Quickly the situation becomes so desperate that Montanus' company themselves resort to cannibalism. On a hunting outing, the Captain even calculates the amount of meat needed to keep them alive: "there was enough here, based on one pound per person per day, to hold out for over two weeks, deducting leftovers of one-fifth which hunger, if prolonged beyond two weeks, would eventually force them to eat" (p. 116). *shudder* The cold and the hunger has mercilessly forced the men to cross a border of humanity.
In the mean time, Montanus is trying to set right the lives of his flock. One of his main problems, is that children are often sacrificed in favour of the parents. He bans this practice, and takes it one step further: "I even went so far as to permit, nay, what am I saying, to sanction children, driven to the very brink, to send parents or grandparents whom age has rendered utterly useless into a final exile" (p. 136). He admits that in this he was inspired by the pagans where this practice is common: "So it was that a distinclty pagan custom became my Christian flock's saving grace" (p. 137). The irony here is not lost on us, as Montanus is condoning more and more of the behaviour he was sent to put a stop to.
Montanus' fall comes in the form of a young publican woman. She confesses to him that she is pregnant, and when Montanus asks who the father is, she professes that he is. The whole scene is reported in denial, and after going on about her confession, and his questions to her about sodomy and sex, he writes: "Your Grace will gauge if such wintry weather encouraged lechery, in asking for a little warmth in the rubbing and the rocking" (p. 182). Ironically, the Cardinal-Archbishop did indeed say, when addressing husbands staying "within the bounds of acceptable debauchery", that "virtue is a matter of season" (p. 26).
After the birth of the child, Montanus concludes that there is nothing more he can do for his flock at this point, and prepares the Short Serpent for departure. He forces his flock, who are increasingly unhappy with him, to provide enough supplies for the journey, while still claiming that his departure is not cowardice, despite the fact that he describes the possibility of staying as a "daily increase of suffering leading inexorably to death" (p. 192).
At the disgraceful departure, it is clear that Montanus has utterly failed in his mission, and that he and his men have become victims of the same vices they came to purge. The omniscient narrator who has been silent since the first lines of the story, makes a comeback in the final chapter. He makes it clear for anyone who hasn't caught on to it yet that Montanus indeed is unreliable in his account of events. Now whereas I really enjoyed the hypocrisy throughout, the story did have a tragic ending for one of the characters, who unfortunately became a victim to Montanus' selfishness.
There are so many other quotes and ironies in this novel that I would love to point out, but to be frank, these are more enjoyable in the context of the text. If you are faint hearted, I would probably not read this book, but to anyone else, this is a funny, intelligent, macabre, entertaining and thought-provoking novel. If you love the style of the gothic, read it. If you love shock and horror, read it. If you love good literature, read it.