Sometimes I wonder why there aren’t more novels where people drink from human skulls. Actually, I never wondered that, but if I did, The Man Who Spoke Snakish would’ve answered my prayers.
Set in medieval Estonia during the country’s Christianization, the book blends fantasy and historical fiction to spectacular effect. There are lascivious bears who ogle and court human women. There are snakes who pal up with humans and invite them to lick their magical sleeping stone and hibernate with them for the winter. There is an old man who builds a glider from the bones of his enemies as well as an affectionate mega-louse who enjoys being taken for walks. In this world, it is even possible for a woman to sleep with a knight and become pregnant with “a jesus.” Seriously, you can’t find this stuff anywhere else.
This book is thoroughly enjoyable when read on its surface–I can’t think of another book that manages to make bestiality hilarious–but its subtext is quite special, too. Religion is unflinchingly portrayed as a system of control inflicted upon the economically weak by wealthier and/or privileged classes, whether it’s the old paganism the protagonist and his family were born into or the new Christianity sweeping the land. This novel inspired me to do a little research on the Northern Crusades, and it seems like much of the village life described here is accurate. Whether there were ever humans who spoke a special language with the forest animals or a giant weaponized frog, on the other hand, are matters entirely up for debate.
In addition to its novelty and humor, this book has some fascinating characters. People who are stuck in between places, those who never truly belong in one place or another but instead live in a fraught liminal state, offer unparalleled views into the human condition. What would you do if the world you knew was disappearing, but you could not join the one taking its place?
The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated by Christopher Moseley (Grove Press, Black Cat | 9780802124128 | November 3, 2015)