[The deer] was an old bull, quite old. He must have been; otherwise he would not have remembered how a deer should behave when called by a human. He would have struggled and grappled, tried to get to the treetops, perhaps using his teeth, even as the ancient force of the words drew him to me; he would have come to me like a fool, whereas now he came to me like a king. No matter that he was coming to be slaughtered. Even that is a skill to be learned. Is there anything humiliating about submitting yourself to age-old laws and customs? Not in my opinion.
This is the voice of Leemet, the hero of Andrus Kivirähk’s 2007 satirical tragedy The Man Who Spoke Snakish. He has just used the language of snakes to entice a deer to come to his hand; the animals of the forest obey the Snakish language meekly, and Leemet grew up in a world where humans ride wolves and drink their milk. But he is the last, and the world he knew has vanished, leaving him as its lone survivor.
Kivirähk is well-known in his native Estonia. Snakish is his crossover novel, winning the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, lending its name to a board game, and, in 2015, becoming the first of his books to be translated into English. It’s a wild ride, full of twists and violent incident. The mordant fairytale tone will please fans of Angela Carter. Snakish is a novel about decline and fall, the passing of a way of life—or rather, it’s a novel about several conflicting narratives of decline.
For Leemet is already too late. He is the last boy born in the forest, as opposed to the village, where all the former forest folk have moved. He and his mother and older sister Salme still guard the old ways, along with his Uncle Vootele, Ulgas the Sage and his family, and the local drunk Meeme, but even they are degenerate moderns compared with the men of legend. Leemet grows up hearing tales of the Frog of the North, the great winged snake who once protected the forest people of Estonia from the invading German Christians, but the days of the Frog of the North are long gone. Leemet’s grandfather had fangs like a snake, but for some reason this trait was not passed on, and his children and grandchildren must make do with boring old human teeth.
The layers of belatedness pile up: Ulgas the Sage wants to revive pagan rites to pacify the forest sprites, but his bloody plans only harm others without turning up evidence of a single sprite. So Leemet’s family are simultaneously skeptics and traditionalists—and they’re outflanked by the arch-traditionalists, the Primates, two fur-covered naked humanoids who claim that only they have preserved a truly ancient way of life.
Snakish is a potent blend of absurd embellishment (the bears who seduce human women, the gigantic trained louse who nuzzles his favorite forest child like an overgrown cat) and utter bereavement. Leemet’s life is a spiral of loss. The spine of his story is his quest for the Frog of the North; the outcome of that quest adds an autumnal melancholy after several especially brutal and bloody defeats.
Snakish captures the paradoxical appeal of the vanishing world and the lost cause. It exposes the absurdity of our nostalgia—everybody has his own past, his own preferred marker of decline and form of theatrical revival—while letting readers share Leemet’s conviction that the past he never knew was better than his present life.
Kivirähk imagines a wild array of weird creatures and events, a kaleidoscope of clashing cultures. But the human motivations are much less diverse: normalcy and victory, comfort and power. It’s strange that a novel about loss would have no place for honoring suffering. That haunting passage with the death of the bull deer is the only place in the novel where we get a portrayal of honored powerlessness and submission.
There were times when I grew tired and frustrated with Snakish. This is largely due to its one-note portrayal of everybody who believes differently from Leemet and his family. Ulgas the Sage is a pure villain, a charlatan and abuser, and his pagan religion never holds any appeal for Leemet, nor will it appeal to readers. The same is true in spades for the trendy, superstitious Christianity of the village folk. Their actions have exactly one motivation: to be cool. They want to be forward-thinking, modern, like the Germans. Every single villager is status-obsessed and shallow. Even the actions they take which might otherwise seem like forms of asceticism or humility turn out to be motivated by trendiness. The scenes with Christians rapidly become excuses for Leemet to prove that he’s right.
The scenes with the Christians, and to a lesser extent the pagans, seem less like satire and more like insult. In these long, repetitive passages an otherwise piercing novel seems to blunt its fangs.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.