The Man Who Spoke Snakish – Andrus Kivirahk

This fantasy fiction novel is an enchanting piece of work written by an Estonian author, translated by Christopher Moseley. I haven’t checked it out, but a board game is also available based on the book 🙂

The tale is set in a fantastical version of medieval Estonia. The story is of a boy named Leemet, who can speak “Snakish”. “Snakish” (which auto correct does not recognise as a legitimate word) is the language taught by snakes to the humans, to converse, command and interact with animals. Leemet finds this language quite hard to learn from his uncle, and manages to be last man who spoke Snakish. It is the time of transition in Estonia – when pagans and forest dwellers are moving to villages and discovering farming and bread. As more and more people move away, they forget the language of the forest and start living by strange rules of foreigners and Christianity. Leemet, along with his family, is a few who resist the allure of village and try to uphold the old ways as best as they can. There comes a time of conflict between villagers and forest dwellers – when their individual beliefs are in conflict – as per villagers, snakes personify devil, whereas, Leemet knows that snakes are the friends.

As Leemet realises that the world around him is changing and never to go back, it also makes the reader think about how evolution over the centuries must have taken place. “where there was once dry land, the sea now splashed, and i had not had time to grow gills” perfectly describes who hold out against the change and are swept away by the sheer force of it. Its interesting to read, how the change is sometimes based on blind faith into the unknown and fascination towards what is new – not necessarily good or bad. The people who moved from forest to villages simply did that because they were fascinated by the various tools used in farming, new type of food and later from sheer need to be in a society and not left alone. Leemet, at the end is left alone ” was used to the knowledge that i was the last. Everywhere and always.”

The ending is a bit disappointing. The book starts with the legend of “Frog of the North” who is asleep and can be waken up in times of need, if lots of people call out to him in Snakish. In the end we see that Leemet has found the “Frog of the north” and spends the remaining life taking care of him.

It is a very interesting read, philosophical in way, if you dwell deeper into the story. There is a lot more in the book – friends who change once they move to a different way of life, bears who salivate after young women and seduce them, snakes who invite humans to hibernate with them in winters, Primates who think people of the forests are modern – thus depicting a transition between three stages, grandfather who can fly with the help of wings made from human bones and wind bag and wolves that are milked and ridden. The reader will find humour in the beginning, however, darker side is revealed as the story progresses.

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