The Man Who Spoke Snakish and The Women Who Loved Bears

1st September 2016

What a book.  Think ‘Game of Thorns’, rather than ‘Thrones’, with talking animals, wars, battles, friendly vipers and people with names straight from an Ikea catalogue – what’s not to like?  A huge bestseller in its native Estonia, the evocatively titled The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, is an inventive, entertaining, moving and even – at times –  gently humorous tale, set in a mythical Medieval Estonian world of vast forests and sunlit clearings; of charmed wolves kept like cattle for their milk, and toiling Teutons, luring the forest people away from their traditional way of life with promises of bread, barley gruel and Jesus Christ.  Add in Trump – incidentally many of these Teutons all have mops of yellow hair – and you’ve got the Mid-West, so it seems strange that they were ever tempted to up sticks and get busy actually working for a living.  However, the shiny newly cultivated world of spinning wheels and scythes, of looms and cloth – the Medieval equivalent of MTV and iPads, had proven too difficult to resist for most of the forest dwellers which left just a few souls living as nature intended deep in the dark forests.  Our hero, Leemut, is one of them, and also one of the last people still able to speak the ancient language of Snakish and communicate with animals – or at least those animals that still know the old ways and understand him.

It’s a grown-up fairy tale, part fantasy, part allegory, part cautionary tale.  Here, bears are romantic, lustful creatures that women find irresistible – despite not being very bright – and many a cuckold husband returns home to find bear fur in their sheets, and even, in Leemut’s father’s case, the actual bear in flagrante with his wife.  The bear promptly bites his father’s head off.  Despite the ‘whose been sleeping in my bed’ trope, this is definitely not a Goldilocks story – the only people eating porridge are the village dwellers, which Leemut’s mother, says tastes like vomit.  She’d much rather have a haunch of venison.  It’s the Dukan diet with owl eggs for her.  She’s a woman who likes a raw steak and thinks bread – the Big Mac of the village is probably poisonous.

So successful has the novel been that there’s even an Estonian board game full of creatures and runes, and characters from the book.  We’re all longing to play it, but since it’s in Estonian with the pithy title of Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu, we – like the lost tongue of Snakish, cannot understand a word.

There’s a copy of the book for the first person to explain the rules to us.  Google translate only goes so far, and trying to decipher it has turned us all into blank-eyed, slack-jawed beasts who, in the book, would explode on hearing just a few hisses of Snakish.  That’s the internet for you, folks.

Read this excellent review here, no really, read it – you’ll be hungry to read more.