This is a book unlike any other I have read. 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. ‘With lothario bears who wordlessly seduce women, a giant louse with a penchant for swimming, a legendary flying frog, and a young charismatic viper named Ints, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a totally inventive novel for readers of David Mitchell, Sjón, and Terry Pratchett.’ the back cover says. An unknown Estonian author who apparently shared the genius of authors who came up with Cloud Atlas and The Whispering Muse? Count me in!
When I finished reading, I realized I found one of my favorite books of all time. Let me tell you why.
First off, there’s the incredible imagery that makes the magical forest world of the book come alive in the reader’s mind. The descriptions of talking animals, mythical creatures and lush landscapes enchant and take you deep into the story’s world. In fact, the world the author builds in this novel is so utterly beautiful that, despite the tragedies in the story, it is high up my list of ‘fictitious worlds I’d want to live in’. And by high I mean right up there with Hogwarts.
However, the world summoned by Kivirahk’s words is only a portal to his subtle criticism on man’s disconnection with nature. You will hate the characters that dismiss the old way of living with the natural world, until you realize that you are those characters. What sets this book apart for me is the lack of sentimentality in tackling the subject of humans’ relation to the Mother Earth. While the story clearly evokes a past way of life where hunter-gatherers co-exist peacefully with flora and fauna, it doesn’t overly romanticize it. It’s a satire of more than one party, and a critique of people who have forgot how to think for themselves.
It’s a smart book that, like all good books, gives you more points of discussion than ready-made answers. 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. I can’t remember the last time I’ve cared so much for fictional characters. What happens a lot with fables is that the characters in it become only empty shells representing a fixed idea. The protagonist here is dynamic and grows throughout the story. The sadness that befalls him will be your sadness too.
This is a fairy tale as magical as any other, but also as brutal as the real world can be. The Man Who Spoke Snakish is heartbreaking in the way that only exquisitely beautiful things can be. Please read it.