1918: The Man who Spoke Snakish

TallinnSunset1808A small country with centuries upon centuries of tradition easily falls sway to a new SnakishCoverpower sweeping in from the west; they seem so much bigger, better, shinier, more skilled and powerful, that it just seems to make sense to adapt their ways as fast as possible. Only a few remain in the countryside, preserving their old language and way of life. Out of sight is out of mind, at first, until a ‘clash of civilisations’ – and its outcome – seem inevitable. Estonia is celebrating the centenary of its first, brief, independence as a state this year. But the story is about a much earlier period, when Christian knights invaded the country. At that time, people lived in the forest, in close harmony with their animal neighbours, particularly the snakes, whose powerful language they can speak.


When the conquerors arrive, this harmony is shattered. The invaders’ story starts with Eden, where snakes became the enemy of humans, and they teach people to act accordingly:


The only thing to do is retreat into the forest, where it is safe. But as more and more people leave for the village, they increasingly see the forest folk as dangerous, more than half animal; perhaps they are even werewolves? The new faith they have embraced doesn’t seem that much more ‘enlightened’ than the ways they rejected.


Nevertheless, a line has been drawn. So there is nothing for the last remaining forest folk to do but make a last stand, gather their spent forces, and fight back.


When the storm is unleashed, there is no turning back.

I found this on a list of books recommended by ambassadors to various countries in which they served and read it while travelling through Estonia this summer. My friend in Tallinn told me she didn’t like it much, but her teenage son loved it. There’s no denying that The Man Who Spoke Snakish is very popular at home. If you want to get a taste of a tiny country, Andrus Kivirähk’s fable in Christopher Moseley’s enjoyable translation won’t give you facts and figures, but it will give you a feel for something that has resonated with a huge number of people in Estonia.


Translator, editor, writer, reader

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