BOOK REVIEW: The Autobiography of a Flea by Anonymous (Stanislas de Rhodes)

The Autobiography of a FleaThe Autobiography of a Flea by Stanislas de Rhodes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Autobiography of a Flea” is a historical work of erotica first published in the late 19th century anonymously, and later was attributed to Stanislas de Rhodes. Like the works of the Marquis de Sade, the book is simultaneously a socio-political commentary and philosophical novel. While the erotic elements tend to not be as extreme and perverse as Sade’s work, it shares in common a philosophy of society and a disdain for the clergy and the aristocracy / upper class (Sade’s work was earlier and straddled the French Revolution, and so things had changed on this front.) But, for example, in this book, two lascivious and hypocritical clergymen play key roles in the story that would not be unfamiliar to Sade’s readers.

The story starts with discussions (and wagers) regarding a competition that is coming up between women who work for the village’s main employer, a vintner. Whichever woman tramples the most grapes, wins a substantial prize. Our narrator is a libidinous, little flea who follows the sexual antics taking place in this French village. From the flea, we learn about the competition through discussion before, during, and after amore by two village couples. Two women who are likely to be front-runners make a salacious wager that involves the other’s husband. Each woman confesses the wager to her respective husband, but the husbands each have confidence in his wife to win, and so neither is concerned about the competition. Little do any of them know, the vintner has stacked the deck in favor of the fairest maiden in the village, who he intends to marry – despite the fact that he is old, feeble, and disgusting.

This fair (re: young and gorgeous) maiden has a suitor, and she is about to be intimate with him for the first time, when the village priest interrupts them. The priest then uses his knowledge to manipulate the young woman to his benefit. (Ultimately, he is joined by an English priest on sabbatical who involves himself with a couple village widows as well as in the priest’s nefarious plot.) The village priest simultaneously seeks to please the vintner (because the old man is the church’s leading patron), and at the same time he pursues his own pleasure. So, the young woman is forced into marriage, and into allowing consummation of said marriage — though the old vintner repeatedly shows himself not up to the task and is usually comically premature.

The author echoes a theme from Sade’s philosophy, which a society that is anarchic under its feeble institutions, i.e. in which the strong do whatever they please to the weak. The lead character, the maiden, is constantly humiliated and run roughshod over whenever she tries to move against the flow of this anarchy. Counting on the strong to behave virtuously only gets her punished and humiliated. It’s only when she starts moving with the flow so as to game the system by acknowledging and heeding this power disparity that she starts to see success in getting her way.

As with the Marquis de Sade’s work, this book could correctly be claimed to be excessively pessimistic and Hobbsean (philosopher and author of “The Leviathan” who believed people were brutish and self-interested.) I found it to be cleverer and less gratuitous than the works by Sade that I’ve read. Both the use of the narrating flea to give the reader a well-established point of view and the story — which exists (in contrast to many works in this genre, including Sade’s work “120 Days of Sodom.”) I’d recommend this book for readers of historical fiction and erotica (particularly if one enjoys — or can tolerate — the sado-masochistic dynamic.)

[Note: there are a couple versions of this book, but – as near as I can tell – the story is consistent between them. It’s the character names that vary. The book is set in France, and features one English clergyman (kindred spirit to the village priest.) However, the more common version of the book features more English-sounding names, but there is a version with more typically French names. e.g. the lead, Bella, is Laurette in the latter edition. I read the version with the more French sounding names, but read a plot summary of the other edition, and the story was the same in broad brush strokes at least.]

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManThe Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 18 science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury, featuring: space travel, androids, time travel, and alien invasions. However, many of the stories use science-fiction – space travel most extensively — to investigate down-to-earth subjects such as: religion, marital relationships, war, and race relations. The fact that the collection deals in everyday subject matter allows it to retain its relevancy. The sci-fi is definitely dated, from the fact that “Martian” is used as a synonym for alien to the Cold War themes, but the stories are still worth reading because they are well-crafted and continue to be thought-provoking.

The stories of this collection are integrated by the titular story. The Illustrated Man is a character who had his body covered in tattoos to continue his employment with the carnival, but the witch who tattooed him made shape-shifting images that told stories. The story of “The Illustrated Man” is the last in the collection, but there’s a prologue that sets it up. It’s not a novel-in-stories, however, as the stories aren’t connected — other than being collected into a universe of this character’s flesh. The end of several stories feature a quick reference to the Illustrated Man narrative arc, but generally there’s no other connective tissue to the stories.

Here is a brief overview of the stories:

“The Veldt”: spoiled kids are given access to a technology that goes one step beyond virtual reality to what might be called mentally constructed reality. They create an African savanna, and things go awry.

“Kaleidoscope”: An accident causes astronauts to be scattered into space, not dying immediately, but knowing the limited resources of their spacesuits will not last long. This is among the more popular stories in the collection.

“The Other Foot”: A white man is forced to take refuge on a planet that minorities had long-ago been relocated to, because now a war has made the Earth uninhabitable. The story deals with the tension between those who are willing to welcome him and those who think he should be treated as they once were.

“The Highway”: A man living and working near a desolate stretch of highway meets a rare visitor who tells him that war is upon them. One of the Cold War end-of-the-world scenario stories.

“The Man”: The Captain of a spaceship is disappointed to find that none of the locals come to see them when they land. Little does he know, they were just visited by a Messianic figure the day before. The tension is between the non-believing, skeptical Captain and one of his men who is a true believer. A commentary on faith and belief.

“The Long Rain”: Space explorers are demoralized by the unceasing rain on a planet they are exploring, a rain that threatens to send them into madness.

“The Rocket Man”: The son of a space traveler wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but doesn’t know how hazardous a life it is.

“The Last Night of the World”: This story asks one to contemplate what if one knew it was the last night before doomsday. Another Cold War-era sci-fi piece that hinges on atomic apocalypse.

“The Exiles”: A crew of space explorers is falling to inexplicable illness. This story has a great deal of literary allusion with Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens each playing a part. Like Bradbury’s most famous novel, the story considers the issue of censorship.

“No Particular Night or Morning”: This story considers the question of how one knows anything is true. It does so through the lens of a spaceship crewman afflicted with solipsistic delusions – or so his crew-mates assume.

“The Fox and the Forest”: In this time travel story, a couple has escaped a dystopian future into Mexico, circa 1938, but the authorities of their time don’t intend to let them get away.

“The Visitor”: The story of a man with powerful psychic abilities who is coveted by competing factions.

“The Concrete Mixer”: A Martian pacifist is forced to participate in an invasion of Earth, only to find that it is an ill-advised endeavor for reasons entirely different from he’d thought. The story revolves around the centrality of materialism and consumerism in American culture.

“Marionettes, Inc.”: One man gets a look-alike android to cope with a wife who hates him, and another gets one to contend with a wife who is smotheringly needy.

“The City”: Explorers find that the abandoned city they’ve been sent to explore isn’t as free of sentience as they’d thought.

“Zero Hour”: Alien invaders find an unexpected ally in the impressionable youth.

“The Rocket”: A man wants his family to see the stars, but lacks the resources to make the dream come true. So, he gets creative.

“The Illustrated Man”: As referenced above, this story tells the tale of carnival tattoo’d man whose body-art mysteriously tells stories through its images, with special focus on two special designs.

I’ve never found a Bradbury work I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. The writing is beautiful. The story-telling is skillful, and, even when the sci-fi details are dated, there are themes that remain relevant. I’d highly recommend this collection for readers of sci-fi, particularly those who like classic sci-fi.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

The Ministry of Utmost HappinessThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a well-crafted and engaging novel, but it’s not about the utmost of happiness. That may be apparent to most readers by the juxtaposition of bureaucracy and happiness, which seems to fit together like “the cross-fit box of pleasure” or “the playground of misery.” Perhaps, a line from one of the characters in the first one-third of the book offers insight into the book’s true perspective on happiness. That first bit of the book revolves around the life of a hijra (i.e. intersex and transgender people — in her case hermaphroditic.) At any rate, one of the other hijra tells the main character that the reason that god invented hijra is to see what happens with people who can only be miserable [I’m paraphrasing.] Ostensibly, this character means that people who have no choice but to live and create sub-communities at the periphery of society, and who never feel completely at home in their skins can’t be truly happy.

While the first one-third of the book features this hijra, Anjum, the latter two-thirds explores a quartet of characters who were friends in college. At the center of this group is Tilo, a female who is the object of the affection of the other three — all men. One of the others is a diplomat who becomes a raging alcoholic. The reader is led to believe the alcoholism is more because of the stress of what he’s exposed to on the job than because of an addictive personality. He is also Tilo’s landlord for a time. One is a well-known reporter and the son of a high-ranking diplomat. He will be married to Tilo for a time. The last, Musa, is an architect who ends up becoming an insurgent in Kashmir. While Tilo holds all three men in warm regard, it’s only the latter that she truly loves. Most of the story revolves around events that happen in Kashmir when Tilo goes to see Musa during a particularly heart-rending time in the modern history of that place.

The book brings these two character arcs, Anjum’s and Tilo’s, together as the result of an abandoned baby that Tilo snatches, presumably in an ill-considered attempt to right the worst of the wrongs she learned about in Kashmir. Anjum, whose desire to be a mother we see from an experience with a child she’d earlier come into the charge of, becomes a partner in Tilo’s venture.

The book is largely about how people go about living after being exposed to the worst life has to offer. Besides Tilo and Musa’s experience of tragedy in Kashmir, Anjum is caught up in riots in Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra train burning, and we learn that the abandon baby’s story is tied into the Maoist insurgency of the Northeastern states.

This book hooked me. I found it thought-provoking as well as gripping. I would highly recommend it for readers of fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes from UndergroundNotes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novella is divided into two uneven parts. The first part consists of eleven chapters of floating head philosophizing by an old man about all manner of topics loosely connected by a cynical outlook. The most prominent topic is consciousness and how it’s a curse upon mankind – for the more one has of it the more one is trapped in a dead-end life. (Presumably what Dostoevsky meant by “the underground.”) One really has to be interested in philosophy to get through the first part, which is about 1/3rd of the book, because there is no story and nothing in particular to make one interested in the monologuing old man’s life or thoughts. However, it’s considered the first existentialist novel, and is considered important on that grounds, and the philosophy is thought-provoking now and again.

It’s in the second part that the book gets interesting. In this part, we get a flashback to the narrator’s life as a young man and the events that presumably shaped the cynical philosophy that he’d rambled on about in the first part.

One can subdivide the second part into three subsections that each get more extensive and more interesting in turn. In the first section, the narrator tells about how he became irritated that there was an alpha male military officer who would walk boldly down the sidewalk and everyone would get out of his way. The narrator is ashamed that he consistently got out of the man’s way, himself. Since there was no rule that this man was owed the right-of-way, the narrator devises a plan to play chicken with the man. This may seem like a silly and sad little story, but it gives insight into the man’s state of mind. There are shades of “Fight Club” in this book, as the narrator feels emasculated by society and modernity. He’s a coward, but a proud coward who believes the world is ruled by fools, while men of intellect – such as himself – are trapped in the underground. He also has a masochistic ambivalence about pain and suffering.

The second and third sections flow together from a solitary event. The narrator runs into an old acquaintance from school, Zverkov, and invites himself to Zverkov’s going-away party dinner. However, neither Zverkov nor his chums particularly care for the narrator. There is a tension not only because they are of a higher status, but because the narrator has a chip on his shoulder about it. The narrator feels himself the superior man, and his self-invitation to the party is in a way another act of playing a game of chicken with those who are de facto superiors. His low-income post, combined with his feelings of superiority, compels him to assert himself to no good end.

When Zverkov and his pals slip away, in part to continue their festivities and in part to get away from the narrator, the narrator pursues them to the brothel they’ve taken their boy’s-night-out to. This is where the third part begins when the narrator ends up sleeping with Liza, a young prostitute. After the deed, the narrator rambles on about how she should get out while the getting is good, engaging in moralistic diatribe. Before leaving, he gives her his address card. Over the next several days, he swings between fears that she’ll actually show up to his shabby abode and fears that she won’t. His feelings for Liza bounce between whipping post and object of affection. And, being a classic unreliable narrator, the reader is left to guess as to the weight of those competing feelings.

Once one gets into the second part, this book becomes intriguing. The lead character would, at best, be classified and anti-hero. There’s nothing likable about him, but still one wonders how events will unfold. The first part offers the occasional bit of food-for-thought, but isn’t a compelling read for those who didn’t major in Philosophy. Even most Philosophy majors will find it needlessly cynical – if interesting. Still, it’s worth reading, and, hey, it’s really short.

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5 of my Favorite Banned / Challenged Classics

Banned Books Week runs from September 23 to 29 in 2018, offering a nice reminder about all of the books that are so awesome that some doofus doesn’t want you to read them.

Here are five of my favorites:

5.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey: Randle McMurphy conducts a con to convince authorities that he’s insane and belongs in an asylum rather than doing hard time in a prison. It’s a commentary on how free-spirits are viewed by society and the pressures put upon them to conform. It’s been challenged many times on the usual grounds of sex and language, as well as for the “glorification of criminal activity.”

4.) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: In a dystopian England, the head of a small band of thuggish teenagers is imprisoned and convinced to undergo operant conditioning that will make any future attempts to engage in violent behavior personally painful. The book is a critique on social engineering, though it should be pointed out that there are two different versions of the book in circulation, one with the final chapter written by the author and one without it, and the inclusion or deletion of that chapter has serious implications for the book’s message. Instances of sex and violence are the usual basis for challenges to this novel.

 

3.) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie: Two men fall from a plane and survive, one archangel and one demon. The title of the book, and much of its controversy, is owed to a plot point about the Islamic prophet Muhammad (Mahound, in the book) receiving both angelic and demonic guidance and prophecy. This is the most explicitly banned book on the list with at least a dozen countries explicitly banning it — most of them were Islamic countries offended by the portrayal of events when Islam was first coming into existence, but a few banned it out of public safety fears over extremist activity. The author is under Fatwa, religious approval of Rushie’s execution, by Iranian authorities.

2.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In this soft dystopia, people are kept in line by readily available drugs and promiscuous sex. Among the American Library Association (ALA) list of challenges to this book was one suggesting the book be banned because it: “makes [promiscuous] sex look like fun.” Which made me laugh a little.

1.) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: A family, bankrupted by the one-two punch of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, packs up and heads out to the promised land of California, only to discover that it wasn’t all that it promised. Objection to language is the most prevalent cause for challenges to this book.

BOOK REVIEW: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow WallpaperThe Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This short story, written in the last decade of the 19th century, tells the story of a sad woman’s descent into madness. The lead is an upper-class lady, wife of a doctor, and is staying in a rented mansion with her husband and her husband’s sister (who acts as their housekeeper) through the summer. The protagonist has been diagnosed with a depressive disorder with hysterical tendencies, and the story serves as an indictment of the way in which mental illness was treated.

It’s not clear what the true nature of the protagonist’s mental or emotional infirmity was at the beginning of her move to the summer-house, but it’s clear that the treatment makes her state of mind much worse. That treatment was a so-called “rest-cure,” and it prohibited her from working, writing (which is now known to be quite therapeutic), or doing much else, save for staring at the walls – hence the title. As happens when the mind is shut-off from external stimuli, it starts to form its own stories that become projected into the individual’s world in the form of hallucinations. In the protagonist’s case, these hallucinations play out in (and behind) the irregular wallpaper pattern.

The fact that the woman’s husband is a doctor, ironically, contributes to her worsening condition because she accepts his “treatment” as being formulated by a great authority. As much as it is an indictment of the specific treatment offered (i.e. “rest-cures”), it may be even more of an indictment of the belief that there exists an infallible authority on the mind. A humbler doctor might have listened to his patient, and adjusted course when it became clear the patient was getting worse under the existing treatment.

This is a very quick read. It may be slow in places, as one might expect of a story that involves a substantial amount of staring at, and contemplation of, wallpaper, but as her condition becomes more serious the story becomes gripping and the nature of reality more in question. The edition that I read contained drawings.

I found this story both intriguing and thought-provoking, and would recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A young couple falls in love in an undesignated Middle Eastern country, but when violence flares out of control they are forced to flee. The novel follows this couple as they cross through various “doorways,” moving from one country to the next, trying to find someplace where they can settle into a peaceful life.

What makes this love story so intriguing is its exploration of the varied ways in which individuals cope with the challenges of refugee life. The male lead, Saeed, is close to his parents, who are professionals, at the beginning of the story. He’s been raised in a middle-class devout but moderate Muslim household. Saeed seeks out his own people and takes solace not only in Islam, but in the culture of his countrymen more generally. His girlfriend, Nadia, is on the outs with her family because she moved out on her own and she was too modern and progressive for the tastes of her traditional family. She’s a non-believer, and the religion and culture with which she was raised are objects she is more than willing to put in her rearview mirror. (To make it interesting, Nadia wears the burka, not because she is devout, but because it’s somewhat successful at keeping the guys from pawing her. This makes her appear devout, when she is anything but.) Nadia tries to assimilate into whatever community she finds herself. What begins as a comfortable “opposites attract” set of differences becomes an ever-widening chasm as the two are exposed to the stresses of refugee life.

This book is written in a sparse style. It does a lot of telling versus showing. However, that seems to work because some of what it does show the reader is so visceral that some straight-forward exposition of the character’s feelings forms a palate cleanser. The story is specifically vague about how the characters move from place to place. This is clearly on purpose to capture the nature of refugee travel, which is so different from the looking out windows and snapping photos that ordinary travelers do. It also allows the author to portray the refugee routes as portals that open and close on different locales as authorities on either end shut them down. They aren’t the firmly established transportation corridors ordinary travelers move through, but rather ephemeral windows of opportunity.

There are little vignettes about individuals apparently unrelated to the story in each chapter. Through them, I think the author just wishes to convey the global nature of this phenomenon. I didn’t find these bits added much, but the also didn’t take up much space or time, and so didn’t detract from the story.

I enjoyed this story. It reads clearly and quickly, and has a nice tight theme and story arc. I’d recommend it for fiction reads, particularly those interested in a story about being a refugee in the modern world.

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BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Circe is a minor goddess / sea-nymph in Greek mythology. While her father is the powerful Titan sun-god, Helios, she is the runt of the litter. She has a weak voice by godly standards, has few and limited powers, and is sympathetic to the fates of humans in a way that is considered ungodly. (The latter was strengthened by her affinity for Prometheus, the god who introduced fire to humanity and was subsequently punished by having his liver eaten each day by an eagle.) Circe’s underdog status would only go so far in producing an interesting story, but things become more intriguing when she begins to develop her skill as a witch. This makes her more powerful, and the increasing power of a minor deity threatens greater gods. Some of her abilities as a witch may result from her divinity, but it’s made clear that even mortals can practice witchcraft. Her gift for witchcraft is especially prominent in her abilities of transformation.

Circe’s adverse reaction to the Cinderella treatment she gets at home in addition to the increasing and unexpected threat she presents as a witch – seen when she turns a mortal into a god and another nymph into a monster — gets her exiled to an island. While it would seem that her story would get uninteresting while she’s exiled to a remote island, she’s visited by a number of mythic figures – mortal and god alike – who keep her tale fascinating, these include: the master craftsman Daedalus, the messenger deity / trickster god Hermes, and – most crucially to her story – the heroic king of Ithaca, Odysseus. She also makes a couple of trips off the island, such as when her sister, Pasiphaë, gets a special dispensation to temporarily break the exile in order for Circe to attend to the birth of Pasiphaë’s child. (This might make it seem that the siblings were close, or at least liked each other, but that’s not the case at all. The only family member she has a decent relationship with is her younger brother, Aeëtes, but he is not so much warm to her as he is tolerating of her affections, and even that alliance of convenience is doomed.)

Miller presents readers with a Circe who is both sympathetic and intriguing because she’s no match for the forces arrayed against her and can only survive by her wits and self-knowledge. Circe’s diligence in practicing her craft and her knowledge of her strengths and limitations allows her to persevere in the face of great dangers. She faces hordes of horny sailors, familial dysfunction, and, most crucially, a dire threat to the child who results from her dalliances with one of her most prominent visitors. The story features the many twists, common in Greek Mythology, resulting from gods and men trying to outwit the Fates, but it’s also the straightforward story of a mother who’ll do anything to keep her child safe against a hostile world.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers of fiction, regardless of whether they have a specific interest in Greek Mythology. It’s a great story, well written, readable, and featuring characters who one can love and others who one can loathe.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk

The Man Who Spoke SnakishThe Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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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.

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