I read this book as part of my continuing effort to read at least one book from every country to which I’ve traveled. Kivirähk’s book came highly recommended for Estonia on a list by diplomats who were asked to provide a book that offers insight into the country where they served. At first blush, this book seems like an odd selection for such a purpose because it’s a fantasy novel (rather than the character-centric literary fiction that typically offers deep insight about the culture from which the book’s characters reside.) However, I came away from this book feeling that I had learned something about the Estonian national character, if while immersed in a question which has much broader applicability.
The book revolves around the tension between the forest people and the those who’ve moved to the villages. The main character is among the last of the people who live in the forest. Among the traditional skills he learns is how to speak a language called “Snakish,” which is not only the language of snakes, but which also serves as a kind of lingua franca (common language) among many of the species of the forest. A central question of the book is whether this man will be the last to speak Snakish – representing mankind’s expulsion from the natural realm. He is a boy at the beginning of the book, and as he’s learning Snakish, the only other speakers are advanced in age. In essence, the book explores whether the old ways will survive, and – in particular – the ways of humans living in nature instead of thinking themselves above it.
The villagers are enamored with all things foreign. They are passionate converts to Christianity. They gaze admiringly upon knights and monks. They take up any new technology that is introduced. (Needless to say, the time of the story is ambiguously pre-Industrial revolution, when agriculture and feudalism prevailed.) While the villagers look upon the forest people as backwards, just as people today might assume the forest-dwellers to be more superstitious and simpler, what we read is a twist in which the forest people find the villagers to be superstitious and woefully out-of-touch with the ways of nature. The villagers live in fear of nature because they have separated themselves from it, and – following the newly introduced Christian beliefs – they believe they are above nature and that all other creatures are under their dominion to do as they see fit. Of course, nature doesn’t yield easily to the desires of man, and the villagers are forced into the contradiction of thinking themselves superior to nature while at the same time being terrified of the creatures who live in the forest and – for that matter – the forest itself. The simple dichotomy of good and evil that foreigners have introduced is also in contrast with the more nuanced and, arguably, more sophisticated views of the forest-dwellers.
What the reader sees in this story mirrors what we have seen in our world, which is that mankind’s culture continues to leave a progressively bigger mark on the natural world – but not without a cost. On the other side of the coin, aboriginal ways are dying out. In a way, it’s the story of human development shrunk down to the scale of a few characters.
This is an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it for all readers. The story is intense and keeps one reading, but it’s thought-provoking at the same time as it entertains.