Hello. I hope you’re all healthy and safe, and that you’re able to find ways to enjoy the last few warm days of the season. Here’s an amazing book that you will probably want to enjoy at some point, too.
I’d basically consider it a modern classic (it was published in 2008 but it was translated into English in 2015):
The Man Who Spoke Snakish, by Andrus Kivirähk
“This knowledge drove me to despair. I wanted to live in the forest, I wanted to be with Magdaleena, I wanted other people around me, I wanted them not to be fools, I wanted them to know Snakish, I wanted some meaning in my life, I didn’t want to decay. But all these wishes were incompatible and in opposition, and I knew that most of them weren’t destined to be fulfilled.”
The Man Who Spoke Snakish starts out funnily enough. It’s set in medieval Estonia, and is about a boy named Leemet who learns from his uncle how to talk to snakes and other animals (“Snakish”). He’s part of a tribe of forest-dwelling people, and all of them can speak Snakish. It’s super-cool.
Then the Germans come and conquer them. More and more members of the tribe leave the forest and go to live in a village, where they become Christianized and forget how to speak Snakish. Meanwhile, Leemet grows up and seeks to make the most of forest-life in this changing world.
The story is hilarious throughout, but then you realize that it’s actually a very, very, very, very, very sad book.
There’s something about its end that is especially sad. It doesn’t answer questions but it leaves you wondering about things that are very sad to wonder about. Like how much of someone’s identity is tied to other people, and what is left when those people are all gone? What’s left when all that love and hope and sorrow and rage someone once felt is gone, too? Is that person moral? Does it even matter in the end? The answer that the author seems to give to all of this is that he doesn’t know.
So you’re left with his confusion on top of your own sober confusion, and it’s an awful lot of confusion about a very sad topic and a very sad question. But it feels like a necessary confusion.
I kept expecting the author to leave us with a certain kind of ending where the protagonist would miraculously figure it all out, but it turned out that by refusing to settle for that type of ending, the book became even more powerful. I got more out of being confronted by the void than I would have gotten had the author taken the easy route and tacked on a neat and cheesy ending. It made the story feel realer and deeper. It was as if, throughout the whole story, I was being led through some kind of tunnel and then the ending of the book was the tunnel opening up into a vista and showing me how things really stood, and that since I knew how things really stood, I fully understood why the author didn’t really know where to go from here. It was a very profound experience, actually.
This book reminded me a lot of Ali and Nino, in the way one culture was being impacted by another. This book felt more realistic though, even though it had really cool fantasy in it (giant talking fish, giant winged snakes, people who could capture wind in a bag, etc.). It wasn’t even any type of vivid description or character-depth that made this book more realistic. It was just very emotionally realistic.
If I had to say exactly why, I would say that this book’s emotional realism actually came from its plot and narration. The story’s events and the way they were described let you examine stuff that the characters felt and thought and did without forcing you to take sides. Meanwhile, the story still gave you room to question all of it and come up with interesting connections and insights, and those intellectual revelations led to you getting new insights into how the characters felt.
Also, it’s the type of book that leaves you thinking about it for a long time after it’s over.
So, if you like your modern classics hilarious and sad and profound, you’ll really like this one.