Speaking with Snakes. A Metaphor for Estonian Language and Culture – Eduardo (Mexico)
This blog entry started as review of the novel The Man Who Spoke Snakish but ended up being something more of a brief essay on the idiosyncrasies of Estonian culture, an honest attempt to uncover what makes Estonians so Estonian.
Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu, in its original language, is a 2007 novel by Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk, nowadays held as a contemporary Estonian masterpiece. Kivirähk, formally trained as a journalist, not a writer, is himself considered an Estonian literary master, renowned for his rich and popular works for stage, loved by his witty children stories, and perfectly recognisable by his fearless and penetrating use of irony and profane humour.
I must admit that The Man Who Spoke Snakish was not initially my first option as the topic of this entry. At the beginning I thought about writing on Jaan Kross’ “The Czar’s Madman” –a moving historical novel that I first read seven years ago-, but when I started reading Kivirähk’s novel I knew I had to write about it. It is a wonderful novel, a captivating and delightful reading experience. On my first impression I thought it was a children’s book, but to my surprise, it is not. It is written, in a sense, with the same nonchalant sort of playful mood that one usually finds only in children’s literature: simple and evocative, never too serious or pretentious. It is precisely the way in which the novel does not take itself too seriously that makes the work feel fresh and authentic, youthful. Guided by the curious mind of its protagonist, Leemet, first introduced as a kid, the reader encounters a Bildungsroman in the full European tradition of Wilhelm Meister or the memorable short novels by Herman Hesse. Through the eyes of a young kid we discover a world that is at the same time strange and familiar. For me, one of the main achievements of this book is precisely the way in which, by setting the story in the past, Kivirähk displays a Medieval world that is altogether different: a pre-Christian land of wonder, where bears talk and fall in love with women, and snakes are the wisest creatures on Earth; it is not entirely a fantastic world, because the past might have been like that, it is just that it was such a long time ago, who knows how many things have changed since then? Who can be sure that such things were never there? In this and some other aspects, like the deep, unsettling undertones, or the, to say the least, sceptical approach to religion, there is a parallel with Philip Pullman’s wondrous masterwork, “His Dark Materials”: a world very much like our own, seen through the eyes of a child with awe and wonder, with a gaze of innocence that, just like the people of the forest in The Man… will eventually be lost and subsumed into a world of experience, a rational place that looks at life with doubt and no longer with amazement.
In this sense, the novel appeals to the universal themes of coming of age, maturity, the loss of innocence, family, tradition, membership, fanaticism, war and the eternal battle between the long gone past and the frightful future. It is, then, a work that appeals beyond its borders and that can be perfectly read by anyone without a clear idea of Estonian culture and history.
Nevertheless, to me, its greatest feature is how it manages to represent the self-contained micro-cosmos of Estonian life, and it does so in a completely radical manner, rude almost in tone and character, for at times it feels like self-mockery, but nonetheless truthful and authentic. When compared, for example, with the Estonian Bible, Truth and Justice, we might feel it misses the point by being overtly vulgar -honey flavoured willies come to mind right now-, but what it apparently misses in self-respect it gains in self-consciousness. The fears and hopes, the joys and sorrows of the Estonian people are voiced in the novel. From the innocence and guiltless mischief of Lemmet, to the enslaved but grateful hope of Hiie, that echoes a millennia-long history of forced labour; from the cunning intellect of Ints the snake, to the dangerously conservative mindset of Tambet –
almost like a prophesy of EKRE-; the Estonian atavistic atheism is also everywhere in the book but presented with the utmost sincerity: the people of the forest don’t believe in God yet they worship sprites in the trees with a superstitious religiosity that is as nonsensical and barbaric as Christianism itself; I will not say much about Meeme and his love for drinking, because the reference might be offensively evident; but there is also the rage and revenge thirst of Grandfather, growing Lemmet out of violence with a bloodlust constantly invigorated by tragedy -a thinly veiled resentment that resonates nowadays in the general feeling towards our neighbors in the East- ; there is the quiet disdain for the Primates that betrays Estonians’ self-conception of humbleness; and of course, the paradoxical relationship with the West: the ironmen, the churches, the villages: a corrupting distrust faced with a not-so-hidden desire to be part of.
Perhaps, still, the key of the novel might be its picture of language. The Man Who Spoke Snakish could be even regarded, more than anything, as a fable about the power of language. The people of the forest fall from grace once they start forgetting the words of snakes. There are of course, empathetic and noble attempts to preserve this precious heritage, this primordial tongue -the term ‘mother tongue’ (emakeel) acquires its full significance here- that ties and binds people to the land and to its inhabitants, yet at the end it is too late. Lost is all hope. The old words will be forgotten, and with them a whole perspective of the world. Leemet, rather pathetically, is destined to become the last man who spoke Snakish: in the manner of the classic tragedy, and in spite of all his struggle, Leemet will succumb to his fate. He will witness the end of his people and their way of life, the only one he ever fully understood.
The Estonian tongue is a little miracle, for it encodes Estonian culture like DNA
This whole work is and ode and a warning to the Estonian language. For what really means to be Estonian but to be able to speak Estonian? The Estonian tongue is a little miracle, for it encodes Estonian culture like DNA; it is the looking glass that shows the true face of this country; it is the bond that keeps its people together and sustains them through times of need. Old, hard and beautiful; hermetic, like all of Estonian culture, but truly whimsical, a quiet source of pride and joy, an invaluable shared secret.
Moreover, surprisingly for a non-Christian people, there is another relevant and quite common topic linked to this idea of language. It is the notion of a primordial union to nature, the memory of a primitive state of purity, like a Golden Age, or maybe, more appropriately, like a Green Age. The traces are there in the language like delicate whispers and sighs that invoke a paradise lost. Here the air is breathed as if filled with perpetual yearning, pierced by a silent nostalgia. One just needs to read the following verses of the poem I like it by Tõnis Vilu to grasp somehow the feeling of it:
makes me happy
humans are animals of images and when referring to and interpreting things that at times
do not exist at all they may feel that the part they have in common with the rest of nature
has been ruptured somewhere
and has remained severed
that there is a gulf between them and those who do not think in images
but even the tiniest of creatures has an inkling of where it feels good
in drizzling rain or in the sun [….]
[…] names like another language
although so soft on the palate
if you felt good I did so even more
a better image is hard to find (Ling, 2006, p. 44)
Thus, this is the longing, the homesickness, the sorrow. The constant sadness of the Estonian.
Nonetheless, Kivirähk ends his novel with a wise and hopeful note, a piece of advice from Leemet in the resigned spirit of his dear Uncle Vootele:
But the world changes, some things fall into oblivion, some rise to the surface. The time for Snakish has passed; one day this new world with its gods and iron men will be forgotten, and something new will be invented
(Kivirähk, 2015, p. 440).
For even when the words of snakes are gone, the Frog of the North will still be there.
I recommend all of you to read this wonderful book. Who knows, you might end up discovering something new about precious little Estonia.
Kivirähk, A. (2015). The Man Who Spoke Snakish. New York: Black Cat.
Ling, K. (Comp.) (2016). The Wild Word. Tallinn: Prima Vista.