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Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Book review: The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirahk (2015)

This is a strange book, part comic masterpiece and part fantasy novel, that explores the roots of nationalistic exceptionalism and the forces that power it in society.

The book turns on the life of a forest-dweller named Leemet whose uncle Voortele teaches to speak the language of snakes, which is s skill passed on to most forest-dwellers. At the time the novel opens most of the people living in the forest have left to live as peasants in villages, but Leemet’s mother goes the other way, bringing her two small children back to the forest to live. Her husband is killed by an amorous bear and she raises Salme and Leemet by herself.

Because the history opens at a liminal moment in the proposed historical time, things are changing and Leemet’s life is filled with strange events associated with the exodus of the foresters of Estonia to the towns, where they adopt Christian names and learn how to grow crops to make the bread that they need to survive on. In the forest, on the other hand, the denizens use the Snakish language to immobilise animals that once made docile can then be killed for meat.

One of the forest people who leaves early on is Leemet’s friend Partel, who has already learned Snakish but who abandons all trappings of forest life once he has been welcomed into the village. Leemet will also end up involved with a villager, after Leemet’s wife Hiie is killed, but things never seem to turn out well for the hero of this tale. He is unfortunately haunted by the animist druid Ulgas, who had tried unsuccessfully to sacrifice Hiie to propitiate the forest sprites. Both in the village and in the forest, Leemet is bedevilled by religious types who want people around them to conform to strange rules and practices and to go against their own rational instincts. Leemet has a healthy scepticism for the likes of both Ulgas and the monks in the monastery he listens to while courting Magdaleena, the daughter of a village elder.

The age we inhabit in the book can credibly be approximated to that of the Middle Ages. The German knights have taken over secular government and the monks are in charge of the spiritual lives of the people. Against this backdrop, the few holdouts among the people of the forest enjoy their peaceful lives, untroubled by wars and sacraments, unaffected by taxation, and supplied plentifully with venison and goat. But the old ways have their illogical die-hards as well, and trouble dogs Leemet and his family despite their mastery of Snakish, which allows them to talk with animals.

The book provides a formally complete portrait of a fictional world, in which people occupy certain stations and carry out their tasks in cooperation or in opposition to others. The very nature of history is furthermore examined in the book, especially in the way certain rules – bears are a bit stupid, are amorous, and are greedy, for example – are deployed to further the plot and to furnish material for characterisation.

Leemet’s good relations with the adders of the forest, for example, is used to advance the story at different points, and also serves to underscore how mythology can serve to provide the materials out of which religion is made. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world, and eventually those stories start to guide our actions. In his book on democracy John Keane looks at the extensive tribe of ancient Mesopotamian gods and the way their interactions inspired the people there to concoct originary stories that could be used to explain their world. One thing that Kivirahk does well is to show how such stories are used by the ruling classes in the societies that use them to maintain the status quo, the power structures that favour them personally, rather than to actually provide useful information to the people. This is certainly the case for the village dwellers Leemet meets and we could find any number of such notions in our contemporary world to substantiate the author’s views in this regard.

Kivirahk’s artistic accomplishment is to show how mythology functions but is also itself part of an ongoing conversation that Estonians, you imagine, have about their own cultural roots. The unashamedly self-conscious nature of the narrative is a tonic against the effects of the broader institutions it critiques.

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