Often implicit within the knotty, fabulist fare of myth and parable is a kind of unavoidable cultural conservatism: “Live this way—or else.” It is an emphatically prescriptive literary knowledge encoded within the fable, something approaching reactionary fantasy, one in which wayward animals and naive youth are led astray by the seductive promise of the new. This cautionary moralism is in a way understandable, if not laudable; after all, this is culture not as a conveyance for interior enrichment but rather as a survival strategy: a form at war with the unfamiliar. If stories, even at their most avant-garde, both project and protect a certain way of life, how can literature help us reconcile what is worth preserving with what we must abandon in the face of encroaching futurity?
Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish interrogates not only the literary logic of the allegorical mode but also the relationship we have—as individuals and as readers—to the dueling lures of tradition and change. In a nameless forest within a fantastically rendered medieval Estonia, Leemet is one of the last humans to speak Snakish, a language which grants its practitioners the ability to control animals: deer offer themselves up willingly as food, wolves suffer riding and milking, animals can be frozen or made to attack with a single hissing imperative. But this language, like forest life itself, is threatened by the enticements of modernization. Leemet’s fellow forest folk are fleeing in droves to villages where an agrarian life—and a German language—are embraced as marks of sophistication. “All Estonians have to come out of the dark forest, into the sun and the open wind, because those winds carry the wisdom of distant lands to us,” says one of the village elders. But Leemet’s Uncle Vootele sees nothing but weakness in this new way of life: “Unfortunately people and tribes degenerate. They lose their teeth, forget their language, until they’re bending meekly on the fields and cutting straw with a scythe.”
This, then, is the story of Leemet’s passage through both the tumult of cultural change as well as the no less profound transition from youth to adulthood. The book is perhaps most successful when it embodies a kind of bucolic Bildungsroman, as the forest teems with a colorful cast of humans and animals more than happy to play the roles of teacher and tempter. To name but a few: Ancient and intelligent primates who cling to the past even more fervently than Leemet’s family and breed sociable lice the size of German Shepherds; the enigmatic Meeme, a drunk whose nihilistic lethargy hides a complicated secret; bears who seduce the ever-willing forest women; and a legless and savage Grandfather who hunts the newfangled Germans from the sky with wings made of human bone. In these and countless other figures, Kivirähk provides a compelling and creaturely backdrop for the warring facets of Leemet’s coming-of-age, characters who embody aspects of the distant past, the painful present, and the dangerous future. The aforementioned Grandfather makes chalices from the skulls of his victims, of which Leemet observes: “Now a use had been found for useless objects.” But is Leemet himself becoming just such a useless object, left behind by time and technology? That anxiety ripples beneath much of the novel’s action.
And, indeed, action it has aplenty. This is an epic fantasy that does not shy away from blood and gristle, the boiling of bones and the lopping off of heads: “‘A man doesn’t run away!’ [Grandfather] said sternly. ‘I would have attacked those shitty wolves and crushed them to death like rats. I’d have yanked the guts out of the sage with my teeth, and Tambet I’d have taken by the dick and ripped it out with his innards up to the chin.’” So goes a fairly mild passage in Snakish. As Leemet ages and becomes accustomed to his inherited toolkit of martial prowess and fearless bellicosity—supplemented by the despair born of tragedies I won’t spoil—he becomes enamored of his Grandfather’s methods, the elder man’s vigor “just like some plant that simply blossoms even though winter has arrived.” Personal and cultural rejuvenation through violence is a theme that occupies and underpins much of the latter text, both its revivifying immediacies and self-destructive limits.
A different kind of violence, that which religion visits upon the souls of the characters, is another favorite target of Kivirähk’s, as the blind certainty of forest sages and Christian elders alike engenders a series of unthinkable losses for Leemet. “We lived in two different worlds,” he says of Johannes the village elder, “like two snails who cannot get to look into each other’s shells. I could claim to him that Snakish and the Frog of the North are in my shell, and he wouldn’t believe it anyway, because in his shell he saw God and the Pope of Rome.” The story’s greatest tragedies are always attended by a religious misunderstanding, an act of persecution, a dangerous confidence in an unmediated Truth. Only in Uncle Vootele does Leemet find a difficult but level-headed maxim: “One person believes in sprites and visits the sacred grove, and another believes in Jesus and goes to the church. It’s just a matter of fashion. There’s no use in getting involved with just one god; they’re more like brooches or pearls, just for decoration.”
At over four hundred pages, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a large and sometimes erratically paced novel; indeed, if I had one complaint to level at Kivirähk’s work it would be that it could stand a good trimming. Certain subplots peter out weakly and there are moments of exhaustion when we discover we must bear witness to yet another forest jaunt or fortress raid. And yet I felt compelled to continue reading in the certain knowledge that I’d soon stumble upon a scene of great power and beauty or an elegantly aphoristic turn of phrase. Though presumably set hundreds of years before our own time, Leemet’s struggle remains something of a microcosm of our own: What should we hold on to? And what are we able to part with? While Kivirähk does not offer easy answers—one suspects there are no such things—he does seem to call for both a practical malleability and a necessary resignation, both profoundly useful tools for whatever future may approach us. After a lengthy journey together, we come to inhabit Leemet’s stoic wisdom: “The world changes, some things fall into oblivion, some rise to the surface.”