Andrzej Sapkowski, Víbora (Viper)
May 16, 2014 § 2 Comments
Andrzej Sapkowski’s 2009 novel, Viper, differs significantly from his earlier works in several key ways. Set in 1980s Afghanistan, it is his only novel-length fiction set in the “modern” world. With this setting comes a shift in “magical” elements away from medievalesque sorcerers and swordsmen toward something that is more overtly allegorical and more horrific than anything else the author has written before. It is a bold move for an established writer to take, but one that largely works for Sapkowski.
Viper is set near the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the action is centered around a member of the Soviet special forces, Pavel Levart, as he becomes embroiled within a millennia-long story of a hidden treasure and a monstrous golden viper whose very presence signals the impending death of whoever encounters it. As Levart and his comrades push further into the Hindu Kush, where the viper is based, echoes of previous expeditions, ranging from Alexander the Great’s soldiers to 19th century British soldiers, begin to ring, both metaphorically and in a very “real” sense, all around them.
Viper possesses more of a horror feel than a military fantasy, as the ominous viper appears several times fleetingly before disappearing for a while, leaving in its wake some disturbing revelations. Sapkowski, however, avoids making this sense of impending doom monotonous, as he often uses snippets of poetry, especially Keats’ in untranslated English, to break the mood. These poetic snippets, however, serve another purpose, as they contain certain thematic references that foreshadow certain developments. As Levart and his comrades advance into the mountains, the tension slowly but steadily rises, as more about the legend of the golden viper and the treasure it guards is revealed.
The action is more internal than eternal and those expecting violent action may find themselves disappointed. Sapkowski furthers the narrative more through dialogue than through external action, although this is less pronounced than in his earlier series. The problem with this particular novel, however, is that the dialogue is not as memorable as those conversations from both the Witcher and Hussite Trilogy series. There were times that the dialogue actually seemed to get in the way of the narrative, as Levart and his fellow soldiers prove to be less than exciting characters and their conversations feel devoid of the vitality that marks most of Sapkowski’s earlier writing.
Yet despite this, Viper does contain enough narrative tension over its 183 pages to make it a worthwhile read, albeit one that is one of Sapkowski’s weaker efforts. The Spanish translation by José María Faraldo felt “natural” to me, as though the story was originally written in Spanish rather than in Polish. Even though I had some problems with the dialogues and the characterizations, I do not believe it is the translator’s fault, but instead that of Sapkowski himself. Yet despite these issues, on the whole Viper was a good, intriguing tale with a good conclusion. It may not be Sapkowski’s best work, but even a lesser work of his is better than the vast majority of the speculative fiction writers that I have read in recent years.