I was 13 years old, romping around in the ruins of Machu Picchu, treating the terraces and temples as my personal playground, when I discovered a small hole beneath the Temple of the Condor. Groping with my hands, I went down a short tunnel into a lightless and cold chamber. When I crawled back out, one of our porters angrily warned me that I shouldn’t have gone down there. The cave was, according to him, used by the Incas to starve criminals to death. For the rest of the afternoon, I was subdued, with a deep unease concerning the people who had once lived in the city and my own dubious right to be here, at the ends of the earth, a privileged child trespassing in a hostile land.
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Bernard du Boucheron
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The Lost City, a debut novel by the young British travel writer and poet Henry Shukman, seems to be written in a precave spirit, full of the curiosity and romance of the explorer, whereas The Voyage of the Short Serpent, a debut novel by the 80-year-old Frenchman Bernard du Boucheron, is born from the darkest reaches of the postcave mind. Both novels are concerned with journeys to the farthest reaches of the earth, the fringes of civilization and beyond, places where rules break down, and nature begins to reclaim her own. In Voyage, a medieval Norwegian bishop named Insulomontanus goes on a mission to a colony in Greenland that has lost all communication with the Catholic Church. He hopes to restore the word of God — and to collect a heavy tithing. In Shukman’s Lost City, a British soldier travels into the “cloud forest” of the Peruvian Andes to find an ancient ruin described to him by a now-deceased comrade-in-arms. Both are seductive and stimulating reads, full of the wonders and horrors of distant lands, but the souls of these novels could hardly be more different: While Shukman’s hero finds easy romance, Indiana Jones adventure and neohippie wisdom, Boucheron’s bishop staggers through a sickening nightmare, a frozen Hieronymus Bosch landscape of cannibalism, starvation, torture and hypocrisy.
Shukman’s novel, which opens promisingly with a lone figure walking through a desert, turns out to be something of a trifle. The book’s best qualities are those of travel writing: local color, evocative descriptions (“Against the white sky, vultures turned like tea leaves in a just-stirred cup”) and a sense of mystery and movement. The novel’s protagonist, Jackson Small, a troubled young man fed up with military life and the dreariness of England, embarks on the journey made by so many young people — a search for “real life” and “authenticity” in a foreign land, all of which he finds with relative ease. He adopts, or is adopted by, an Indian boy named Ignacio who tags along with the silent obedience of a clever dog — in fact, “Jackson was reminded of a dog they’d had when he was a boy ... [the boy] stirred the same tender feeling he used to have then.” He falls in love with a honey-haired American woman named Sarah. The two visit Sarah’s uncle Alfredo, who lives on a mountain farm with his two wives and preaches to them about the simple life and the problems of the white man. Finally, Jackson ventures out into the lawless jungle, where he discovers his magnificent ruins, only to get lost and then captured by the philosophical drug lord Carreras, who lectures on the ethics of the war on drugs until Jackson has a chance to escape.
It’s all pleasant enough, but the flatness of the characters — a sinister goon is actually described as “a picture-book Latino villain” — reeks of the lazy neocolonialism of the tourist, and like so many travelers in exotic lands, Shukman can’t seem to see the people for the trees. In a telling scene, when Jackson steps into an ancient citadel overlooking a secret lake, he “felt like he had stumbled on a treasure trove, a private garden ... like stumbling on some beautiful ornamental lake in Europe, even England.” Though Jackson (like Shukman, presumably) fancies himself a liberal-minded wanderer, the novel shows his true hand: Distant lands are a “private garden” designed to remind you of what you already know, and to reinforce the sanctity of your pre-existing values.
The bishop Insulomontanus not only has deeply entrenched values, but he intends to protect and enforce them at any cost, employing as methods of persuasion “the stake, the wheel, the head vise, drawing and quartering, the slow hanging, suspension from the feet or carnal parts. ...” His resolve is sorely tested when his mission of mercy (and profit) to the colony of New Thule becomes a gauntlet of abasement and misery. A few pages into the journey, his ship becomes encased in ice, the crew begins to starve, “the oarsmen’s teeth started falling out; their skin peeled off in long strips ... one of the men cut off his own hand, to eat it.” As the journey continues, the litany of abominations grows: A plague strikes, livestock is eaten alive by maggots, a man builds an igloo to protect himself from the cold and is frozen inside it, and indigenous people are murdered without a passing thought. When Insulomontanus finally arrives at the destitute colony, he establishes a holy law that makes the ice and plague seem charitable. Adulterers are burned in seal oil. Women wearing their hair long are whipped for vanity. Children who play a game of self-strangulation have an eye put out. In one criminal interrogation, Insulomontanus explains that after a man’s ears and eyes are torn out, “my prisoner was in such a state that in cross-examining him I had no recourse but to provide the answers to the questions myself.”
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The pitch-black comedy of this novel lies in the bishop’s constant attempts to rationalize his actions, in terms of either faith or practicality. He feels compelled not to blame the swarms of mosquitoes for the plague “without due process of law.” He decides that families’ sending grandparents into the snow to die is acceptable because it emulates “the sacrifice which Our Supreme Father made for His children.” Bizarrely, Insulomontanus’ monstrous logic is almost sympathetic: Against the backdrop of the merciless cold, and the barbaric practices of the native people, the bishop’s perverse dictates at least resemble order — dictators and zealots have always provided a semblance of protection from chaos. By novel’s end, however, the bishop is shown to be an utter hypocrite, as unprincipled and lustful as the rabble he seeks to reform in his image.
Clearly, Bernard du Boucheron is a cynic of the highest order. Nothing escapes his droll contempt. Nature is a horror. The native people are grotesque. And civilization is merely a will to power. Rousseau and Hobbes would both recoil in disgust at Boucheron’s worldview. By constantly showing the schism between idealism, action and actuality, Boucheron provides a brutal testament to how humans function: Hypocrisy, in this novel, is not a specific action or a character blemish; rather, it is a fundamental part of the human constitution. Doublethink is the essence of human behavior. On both a political and a personal level, we pledge allegiance to lofty ideals, while our actions sink us into depravity. Though contemporary politics are never mentioned, Boucheron’s book calls to mind the debacle of Iraq: talk of freedom and democracy, followed by the murder and torture of innocents. Where Shukman travels to the ends of the earth to find peace and vindication, Boucheron goes there to shatter the myths of culture and progress, and to expose the lurking madness beneath. Both perspectives are simplistic in their way, but Shukman’s simplicity arises from naiveté, whereas Boucheron’s hellish vision is based on a kind of bleak wisdom. The former feels trite. The latter stinks of truth — but we must pray that it is not the whole truth, or the only truth.
THE LOST CITY | By HENRY SHUKMAN | Knopf | 336 pages | $25 hardcover
THE VOYAGE OF THE SHORT SERPENT | By BERNARD DU BOUCHERON | Overlook | 206 pages | $25 hardcover