Of all that is lost, the most remarkable are the great monstrous creatures of ancient times who Leemet observes passing into myth. One is the great winged snake called the Frog of the North, who could once be commanded to destroy invading armies by thousands of massed Snakish speakers but now only sleeps. Leemet is the last person to know that the Frog of the North is real.
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Before diving for the last time, the fish tells them:. You know who Ahteneumion is and what he is doing.
a topsy-turvy life of quietude
You are now the wisest people on earth. The last ones to see me.
To Ahteneumion, history centres on himself, and effectively ends with his abdication of it—a charmingly simple egoism that Leemet aspires to but can never attain, even when he becomes the last speaker of Snakish left alive. It has the feel of a told tale, full of digressions, commentary, and opinions.
It is also that fundamentally modern thing: memoir.
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He is narrating it, creating it, trying to make it make sense, to give it a shape, making selfhoods and shedding them. His life is resistance to modernity, but his narration of his life is the degree of his assimilation to it. Snakish gives Leemet a consistent, wry, casual tone, unselfconscious and unaffected. Even more tiresomely, a female adder is more of a character than any of the human women, and even she literally takes maternity leave from the plot halfway through. A recurring motif throughout the story is the stench of death, which is a memory from a traumatic experience in his childhood the death of his uncle Vootele that Leemet associates with loneliness, abandonment, and alienation, and which eventually becomes the manifestation of his anxiety around modernity.
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He smells decay even while the villagers openly admire his command of Snakish, because he still believes that Snakish is a learnable language, the common heritage of all humans and not a special power that he alone now possesses. It is cruel, ridiculous, and unnecessary, and therefore quite authentic.
On a more individual scale, though, the story does suffer from the sheer cavalcade of tragedies. One way in which this is not a Tolkienesque melancholy narrative of a golden age resisting modernity, to which it might bear a superficial resemblance: the pasts in Snakish are multiple, contingent, self-serving. There is no actual golden age: each character invents their own past and implied future, or vice versa, and their competing visions are destabilizing, alienating.
Ahteneumion sees the end of history right then and there as he goes to sleep. Johannes sees history as an upward curve of development and progress, much as it is fantasized in history textbooks today. As Johannes the determinedly modern villager says to Leemet: I was taken to Rome and led in front of the Pope, and the glory and splendor I saw there took my breath away.
In Snakish , Leemet is constantly encountering new pasts: Hiie had another problem too, apart from having to feed wolves all day long and chop up hares with a big ax. Fwiw, they have a healthier relationship than Leemet ever manages with anybody.
I was lured in by the promise of a story about a boy who lives in the forest and is the last speaker of an ancient language that enables him to communicate with animals. An unknown Estonian author who apparently shared the genius of authors who came up with Cloud Atlas and The Whispering Muse?
Man Who Spoke Snakish: Andrus Kivirahk: Trade Paperback: Powell's Books
Count me in! When I finished reading, I realized I found one of my favorite books of all time. Let me tell you why. And by high I mean right up there with Hogwarts. You will hate the characters that dismiss the old way of living with the natural world, until you realize that you are those characters. It asks questions relating to the death of cultures and how to adapt in a rapidly changing world. Packaged in a savage fairy tale, the story discusses contemporary issues from a refreshing approach. But the most important reason why I love this book is the characters. What happens a lot with fables is that the characters in it become only empty shells representing a fixed idea.
When the novel opens Estonians are abandoning their lives foraging in the forest in droves for an agrarian life in villages where they learn to grown grain and eat bread. Pushback to this foreign intrusion comes from a young man named Leemet who, as the narrative progresses, become the last man to speak Snakish, the hissing-like language of adders that permits humans to converse with — and control — animals, a phenomenon that allows forest people to live in harmony with nature.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish
Ditto for deer, hares, etc. At its essence, this book is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age saga about a young man reconciling with a world experiencing seismic change. So is this novel a grand allegory about social change? Yes, but also perhaps an ode to national self-determination. A strange, wondrous book.