The Man Who Spoke Snakish

It really is ridiculous how persistently everything in my life has gone awry. It reminds me of a bird that builds itself a nest high in a tree, but at the same time as it sits down to hatch, the tree falls down. The bird flies to another tree, tries again, lays new eggs, broods on them, but the same day that the chicks hatch, a storm comes up and that tree, too, is cloven in two.

The end is at hand, and there’s no point in holding back on the good stuff. So what are you going to offer your guests?

Where to begin? Leemet, the narrator and protagonist is the last man who knows snakish, an ancient language that marks an ancient bond between humans and snakes and gives people control over most animals. Deer offer themselves to be eaten and wolves are tamed for milk and as steeds in time of war. Bears are more of a problem, though usually more because they are the lotharios of the forest more so than for their furiosity. The speakers of snakish live in the forest, in harmony with nature.

In previous generations they lost a war against the iron men who came from over the sea. Now the old ways are dying. People give up the forest to live in the village, show their butts to the sun while harvesting grain, and eat bread, which causes their tongues to become too clumsy to speak snakish. Leemet himself was born in town before his parents moved back to the forest before returning to claim his family inheritance. They are the exception and only a few traditionalists, including the last remaining Primates, remain. Among those are Tambet and his family. Tambet never forgave Leemet for having gone to the village and clings with ever greater desperation to what he sees as the old ways, but his daughter Hiie becomes one of Leemet’s playmates whenever she can escape her father’s wrath. Life in the forest is good for Leemet, but the days when speakers of snakish had venomous fangs, let alone the ability to summon the Frog of the North to repulse the iron men, are gone.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish spins the story of this vanishing world from after an inflection point has been passed. Leemet grows up in a world that is effectively dead. The result is a narrative that is at once a delightful coming of age story and a poignant examination of the nostalgia for lost tradition. The latter particularly emerges through through a number of characters who organize their lives around increasingly bizarre traditions. They claim that these traditions are ancient, whether brought from a far off land or simply how people used to live in Estonia, but what they are doing now is utterly unrecognizable from and usually unrelated to whatever seed they might have sprung from—something Leemet learns when he finally meets his grandfather…who lost his legs after a battle with the iron men and is now collecting bones from men he kills in order to construct a pair of wings.

I came to The Man Who Spoke Snakish purely because I wanted to read a book from a language I hadn’t before. I had never heard of Andrus Kivirähk, let alone read anything by him when I purchased this and a Slovenian novel after doing a bit of online research into “best novel” lists on the internet. I was not disappointed.

In a word, this book is spectacular. Much like a Miyazaki film, its whimsical prose belies that Kivirähk also captures something fundamental about the invention and destruction of tradition. The fact that the story is told as a folktale among a lower strata of society that is straining beneath the rule of the church and the knights is handled so deftly that it is almost invisible. Frequently these choices muted the impact of individual deaths, as though to show that it wasn’t the loss of the individual, but of the collective that is the real tragedy. The Man Who Spoke Snakish has its flaws, including that most of the characters are fun, but flat, but I found myself spirited away and loving every page.

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I recently finished Lorrie Moore’s collection Bark, which was well-crafted, but left me once again trying to figure out what it is about short stories that usually make them fall flat for me. I’m now reading Dessa’s fabulous new book My Own Devices.