The Man Who Spoke Snakish

Author Andrus Kivirähk
Vote 7/10
Reviewed on 2019-03-02
Read in English

I saw this book in one of my favorite bookstores in Tallinn and became genuinely curious about it. It somehow reminded me of Harry Potter and the Parseltongue, but its subject is wildly different. I discovered more than a year later that its author is Estonian, and quite a celebrity in his country.

The book is about Leemet, an old man who is able to speak snakish, the language of snakes. Speaking in first person, he tells the story of his life and the Snakish-speaking people, from the time they used to live in the forest, until their decline. The forest people aren’t numerous but they face the threat of foreign invasions (both cultural and physical) by fighting fiercely and invoking in their help the Frog of the North, a huge dragon (or rather, a flying snake) who could only be summoned when all the forest people hiss together.

The decline of the forest civilization starts when the foreign customs start convincing people that living in villages rather than in forests was a sign of higher civilization, to the point where they start trading modernity for the use of snakish. The Frog of the North can only be invoked by the hiss of many people; and with most of them now living in villages and forgetting snakish, he no longer helps the Estonians, but lies dormant in a place unknown.

The story of Leemet starts when the forest inhabitants are only a few survivors, and the Frog of the North hasn’t been seen for many years.

Snakish represents a central theme in the book. It is used to communicate with the most intelligent animals and subjugate the more obtuse ones, until their extinction. Those that don’t understand snakish are considered stupid or useless, be they humans or animals.

A magical realism pervades the narration. It doesn’t reach the peaks of a García Márquez, but it provides an interpretation of it with a recognizable Estonian element. The book is a history of Estonia transfigured in a Nordic legend. It does lose some intensity halfway-through, but then it manages to regain altitude and end beautifully. Recommended.