Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Garden of Storytelling: Voices from the Snakish Past

           OK, let's admit straight off that "The Man Who Spoke Snakish" By Andrus Kivirahk offers readers one of the strangest premises they are ever likely to come across, yet this book is wholly accessible, easy to read, and often humorous. 
          It's the mental leaps that require some energy, perhaps the old-fashioned "willing suspension of disbelief." But even these are presented charmingly -- talking snakes: the fount of all true wisdom; a cosmically gigantic "frog" waiting to bring the end of the world or the birth of a new cycle -- delivered with a kind of infinite withholding of an anticipated punch line that makes it easy to give up expecting some sort of 'rational' explanation. 
          Once you get used to the wisdom of talking snakes, then you discover that the hero's mother was off having an affair with a bear... when, unhappily, they were discovered en flagrante by her husband who, unfortunately, startled the bear. Bears are really very gentle (so we are told) but get nervous when surprised, and on this occasion the bear reacted by biting the husband's head off. All a tragic misunderstanding.

          If you think cohabbing with bears -- and talking to snakes -- is passing weird, wait till you meet the "hominids"... who keep a written record of all the changes in their paleo-history in wall markings on an endless cavern.
          But none of these extra-species connections make life difficult for people who live in the woods; it makes it easy. When you live in the primal forest of Estonia, all you really need to survive is a good command of snakish. Most of the beasts bow before the ancient authority of this tongue. So if you're hungry, a deer or a goat will come along, get the word, and offer his neck for the sacrifice.
         Estonian author Kivirahk offers us a pre-lapsarian universe. Nobody 'works.' No sweat of the brow. However, changes have come in the form of outlanders who cut down trees, build villages, plant fields, and sweat over their labor to earn their daily bread -- which they eat instead of the freely offered meat of the wild forest. They're also Christians.
          Kivirahk's book offers a kind of transvaluation of all values. We see the world from the perspective of the dying wilderness-dwellers whose values, skills, and way of life are being pushed to extinction by the new.The news way aren't better; they're demonstrably worse. But they're 'novel.' And the new, this book suggests, inevitably wins.
          While it's still obvious to our snakish-speaking narrator that his world is far superior -- freer, safer, more independent, in tune to what it is rather than the 'faith' some alien divinity wishes to create. How much easier, for example and 'natural,' to crawl into a nest of vipers to spend a winter warm and protected than fight the elements in a village hut by burning an acre of trees.
           What happens when new meets old is both sad, and funny, continually entertaining, and hard to sum up. It's a mythic story, worth pondering, like an old legend handed down from a people who not only talked to animals but regarded those could not as pathetically dense... A people who also knew what it was like to live at the end of the world.