My rating: 3 stars
Some books are more meaningful for readers from the same countries as their authors than for those from other places. I feel that The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk is one of such books, mainly because of the various references to what I believe is Estonian lore. This is an allegorical fantasy novel, set in the Middle Ages, about a changing world. The action is based on the contrasts between the ancient traditions that lingered in forests and the modernity of daily life in villages, where the influence of other countries and the Catholic Church was intense.
Leemet, the narrator of the novel, still lives in the same forest where he settled in with his mother when he was only 1 year old. There seems to be no other human beings left there, although he has a “companion”. He is the last remaining speaker of Snakish, a language used to command animals. But, unfortunately, not many of them obey anymore. He starts recollecting various events from his past and elucidating the reader about why the forest became devoid of people.
Before he was born, his parents had moved to a village almost like everyone else. His father enjoyed the way of life there, whereas his mother didn’t. They didn’t stay there for long, though, since his father died following an altercation with a bear who his mother was having an affair with. Yes, bestiality is a reality in this story and is present throughout. Bears are tremendously attracted to women, which I found bizarre and not that funny. Also, I’m not a huge fan of talking animals and there are plenty of them.
As Leemet was really young when his mother decided to move back to the forest, he didn’t remember what life was like in the village. He just knew what he had been told. So, when he was a child, he used to say that he wanted to go live there for the only reason that it was a different place. Out of curiosity, he once went to the closest village with his friend Pärtel. He was astonished at the people there. They were Christians and had a vast number of gadgets to help them with their daily activities. Some of them even knew how to speak German.
When he returned to the forest, his uncle Vootele explained to him that the single reason why they needed all those devices was that they had forgotten how to speak Snakish and decided, then and there, to teach him the language. Vootele showed great wisdom. He loved the forest and was a Snakish enthusiast, but he was not a fundamentalist. He knew that a day might come when Leemet ought to leave the forest, because it would be really hard for him to live there all by himself.
Unfortunately, not all of the characters feel so real and fleshed out as uncle Vootele. Others, like Leemet’s mother and sister, are closer to be caricatures. It also doesn’t help that some of the characters’ actions, including those of Leemet in certain occasions, are quite nonsensical and cringeworthy. Our narrator was an impressionable person. Some of his actions when he was older were a result of him trying to be more like someone else.
On a more positive note, interesting observations are made about how people change to adapt to new places. When Leemet’s friend moved with his parents to the nearby village, he promised to visit him often, but that didn’t happen. To make things worse, when Leemet went to the village afterwards, Pärtel treated him coldly. His friend wasn’t the same person anymore. This is only one example of the many changes occurring around Leemet and that took a toll on him, turning him into a harsher person.
“To put it in Snakish terms, I hadn’t yet moulted my skin, as I did several times later in life, changing into a harder covering, until my skin could withstand all but a few sensations. By now, probably nothing can penetrate it. I’m wearing a coat of stone.”
Regarding the antithesis between life in the forest and in the village, it feels like the readers are not supposed to pick a side. On the one hand it makes sense not to be stuck in the past and to accept progress, but on the other hand the strong religious facet of life in the village isn’t that appealing. In fact, when it comes to the evolution of the species, for example, Leemet’s understanding is closer to the truth. Moreover, in spite of all the innovations introduced by the fighting man and the monks, people from the village and the forest alike were quick to believe in fairy stories.
The pacing of the narration is really inconsistent. There is a constant focus on the same conflicting ideals throughout the novel, which felt repetitive, and there are many chapters where nothing that could make the story move forward really happens. In some instances, it looked like a compelling intrigue, which would call for a resolution, was finally going to be introduced, but then those occurrences were just other moments from Leemet’s life. Although they started to be a burden on him, they had a limited impact in time in terms of the action. It’s somewhat suddenly that many events start taking place. Additionally, the tone of the story is slightly all over the place, hurriedly changing from being light-hearted to dark and twisted.
While reading, I kept asking myself whether certain mythological references were going to be important later on. That was the case of the Frog of the North, a creature from the Estonian Golden Age that all peoples of the world were afraid of. Its relevance comes to light quite later on and in a way that I felt was particularly rushed.
I was expecting The Man Who Spoke Snakish to feature a compelling adventure meticulously structured. However, this is largely the story of Leemet’s life, which was heavily constrained by the changes taking place in the world around him. People familiar with Estonian myths may find this book more interesting than I did.