After a portentous detour into preachy saga-dom (the stolid Peaceable Kingdom, the disastrous Lamb's War), de Hartog returns...

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THE TRAIL OF THE SERPENT

After a portentous detour into preachy saga-dom (the stolid Peaceable Kingdom, the disastrous Lamb's War), de Hartog returns to his brisk, pre-1970 adventure style--but without giving up his theological impulse. And the result is the best sort of religious fiction: taut, complex, funny, and fable-like. It's early 1942 in the Dutch East Indies, where everyone's caught by surprise when the Japanese really do seem to be invading. So the paths of three very different refugees are going to cross in the panicky exodus. The commercial coaster Henny is headed for a sneaky escape, away from Borneo, under the leadership of the legendary Captain Krasser, a sardonic dwarf and aggressive atheist who travels with a two-native-girl harem, a dog, a mynah bird, and a Chinese protÉgÉ whom he no longer trusts; after camouflaging his ship as an island (with trees and vines), Krasser makes his way down the coast, refusing to pick up refugees unless they take a blasphemous (""God does not exist"") oath. Among those who swear the oath to get aboard: a pastor, his flock, and, further down the coast, Herman Winsum--young arts editor of the Borneo Times, and the sole survivor of a 48-man trek through the jungle to the coast. (All the others were killed by the Japanese, in an attack for which Herman feels guiltily responsible.) But even Krasser's hard-heartedness crumbles when the next batch of would-be refugees appears along the shore--because among them is Sister Ursula, an elderly nun who wouldn't abandon the retarded native-children at her Mission, was repeatedly raped in a subsequent attack, and is now paralyzed, near death. Sister Ursula refuses to take the oath; Krasser lets her aboard anyway. Then, however, after struggling with her faith's priorities, the dying nun offers to repudiate God--if Krasser will promise to rescue those retarded children if he goes back to Borneo (a ""one in a million"" chance, he assures her). The oaths are taken, Krasser is triumphant, if a bit ashamed, over his anti-religion triumph: ""He would have preferred to have been standing with one foot on the chest of a slain cardinal. . . . But you couldn't have everything."" But after Sister Ursula dies, it seems as if religion may have the last, dark laugh: the ship survives its perilous voyage through one lucky happenstance after another, the passengers come to believe that Sister Ursula's spirit is protecting the ship (so it can return for her children). . . and when Krasser reaches Australia, he is indeed asked by Dutch Intelligence to turn around and go back to Borneo. A sentimental, miracle-play scenario? Perhaps. But, except for some labored verbalization of Herman's survivor-guilt (he yearns to go back to Borneo for expiation), de Hartog treats everything here with exactly the right touch--wry, suspenseful, earthy. And, with an appropriately maybe/maybe-not fadeout, this is a small gem from an old master: a disturbing moral/theological parable--delivered as a short, dramatic novel of war, escape, and ironic character-conflict.

Pub Date: May 11, 1983

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1983