Thursday, July 21, 2022

Andrus Kivirähk, The Man Who Spoke Snakish (2007)

Well, I'm shortly going to be teaching in Estonia, so I read an Estonian novel.  There is no other explanation than that.

It takes place in medieval times, more or less.  It's not particularly exotic.  The narrator, and the titular Man, is Leemet, who lives in the forest with an ever-decreasing number of people who live in an older, traditional mode.  Snakish isn't just for snakes; it's a language that most animals speak, and humans who learn it can communicate with and control them.  Fewer and fewer people speak it, and most of the forest-dwellers have left to live in the village, in a new-fangled way of life.  I was reminded somewhat of post-apocalyptic novels like Riddley Walker and The Slynx, as people behave in invincibly ignorant, somewhat cartoonish ways, in spite of the generally serious cast of the story, and animals are kind of alien: the forest people keep wolves for milk, and bears are sort of casanovas who are always trying to woo human women (though if that sounds sort of gross, note that, in contrast to much else in the novel, it's described in a surprisingly wholesome way).  There's also a bit of John Crowley's Aegypt here, where things are one way until they start being another way and they also start always having been that way.  If you get the idea.

So anyway, Leemet is living his life, growing up, making friends, losing friends to this new mode of life, having fleeting contact with the village, and like that.  It's really imaginatively vivid, and the sort of thing where, page to page, you have no idea what's going to happen next--but in a good way.  But, uh, the book does it must be said go sort of crazy at the end: the last hundred pages are incredibly violent and gory, as Kivirähk kills off almost his entire cast.  There are a lot of what had seemed like opportunities for possible narrative growth that quickly and decisively disappear in all the blood.

Well, that is what it is, but the book's ideology is up for debate, in some kind of dubious ways.  So at the beginning, it seems like this may end up being like those stories about Native American children who have to choose between maintaining their own cultural heritage and being assimilated into [white] society.  But this is extremely not that: it doesn't take long for the reader to realize that that there is not much ambiguity here: it's true that the forest people are subject to a certain amount of superstition (like their idea that bread, the primary food of the villagers, is some sort of horrible poison) and counterproductively reactionary attitudes, but there's just no comparison: the village society has no redeeming qualities: the people are cruel, bestially ignorant, and grotesquely delighted to be viciously exploited by higher-ups in the social hierarchy (in this world, it is extremely not-fun to stay at the YMCA).  The forest people can be violent too--in the end, Lemeet goes on what I can only call a murder-rampage, giving as good as he's ever gotten--but the way the book is written really leaves no doubt as to who we're supposed to sympathize with, just because the entire narrative is set up to make the villagers seem so contemptible, regardless of what actually happens.

If you want to give the novel more credit than I think it earns, you could, viewing it through a post-colonial lens, say, well, it's not that what Lemeet ends up doing is good, but it is inevitable that people should shove back when they're being repressed, and then things just get into a vicious circle as the oppressors use the anti-colonial violence as justification for every-more draconian crackdowns.  I don't think that's what's happening, though.  The book seems to me ultimately to be either incredibly reactionary or hopelessly ideologically muddled (but very, very grim and pessimistic in either case), and then the glum ending (reminiscent of Borges' "Writing of the God") didn't inspire me much either.  There's a lot to like here, but also a lot to...not like.  In my opinion.


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