A spare, cunningly ironic novel set in the wilds of medieval Iceland.
While Iceland has been nominally Christianized, hibernal adversity and distance from the mainland have conspired to turn the native population toward a more primitive, primeval (read “debauched, pagan”) existence. The novel begins with an archbishop’s official directive to Bishop Insulomontanus in which he lays out what the bishop must do: to “investigate the Christian folk…and to offer them the comfort of the Word, while not neglecting to castigate sin, if need be, by sword or by fire.” The bishop takes this advice literally, and much of the rest of the novel consists of his report back to the archbishop about what he has done to reassert Christian order and hegemony. After an arduous journey through ice and snow, the bishop arrives at Gardar in New Thule to discover ten recently slaughtered corpses. The local chieftain, Einar Sokkason, is of no help, nor is the one remaining priest, a “porcine monster” living openly with a “scarce-pubescent female.” The bishop wastes no time with his first decision: to have the priest burned at the stake for “heresy, apostasy, sacrilege and sodomy.” In his continual struggle against heresy amongst these primordial people, the bishop resorts to increasingly desperate and even sadistic strategies to maintain his ecclesiastical authority, including having ears torn off and eyes gouged out as punishment for apostates. (He also resorts to beheading, which, considering the alternatives, is something of a blessing.) Eventually the bishop develops a sexual relationship with a local woman, Avarana, although he disingenuously hints in his report to the archbishop that she is a liar and thus not to be trusted. The occasional intervention of a third-person narrative puts the bishop’s growing derangement and hypocrisy into perspective.
Sparse, rawboned and fascinating.