I remember bringing home One Hundred Years of Solitude after reading it for my Realism in Literature class for university. I remember feeling fundamentally changed after journeying through Marquez’s fictional Columbia, enchanted by the words on the page, my heart pounding and my imagination running wild. And, as I often do in this case, I remember handing the book off to my mother for her enjoyment.
Her response was: “It’s too weird”.
And it happens sometimes that I fail to see the weirdness of some novels, that my obsession with fantastical fiction has blurred the line of what is acceptable and not, what is progressive and experimental, what is strange or bizzare or uncomfortable. There are a lot of topics in literature that no longer bother me – sex, violence, supernatural, you name it. Doesn’t bother me at all.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish is weird.
It really is fantastically weird, everything from bear fucking to giant insects to limbless grandfathers with razor-sharp teeth, The Man Who Spoke Snakish hits the ground running, weaving the story of Leemet, a boy raised in the forest of Estonia, who becomes the symbol and protector of The Old Ways. I say “The Old Ways” because we all know what that means – at some point in all cultures, modernity swoops in and begins to erase everything that was once held dear, everything that people know and cherish. Some embrace change, and in this case, move into a village and change their names to fit the new standards. However, some cling to The Old Ways, finding themselves keepers of tradition, and often, watching the world change around them with distaste and uncertainty. Lemeet is one such person, who is staunch in his fight against the oncoming wave of newness. He is proud of his heritage, proud of the simplicity of forest life, and especially proud of his ability to speak Snakish – a quickly dying language that allows him to communicate and have mastery over animals.
But among the weirdness and the violence of the story, there is a clear and culturally relevant narrative. The majority of the book deals with impending change and how we deal with inevitability. Do we give up The Old Ways, pack up, and move to the village? Do we change our names, and with that, change the people we are? Or do we hold tight to our principals, to the things we know, and cement our identity in them? There are consequences in either decision, and a struggle that results in a palpable cultural tension. The meat of this book is the discussion of old versus new, and the weight of being the last of your kind.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish reads like folklore, reads like a story that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is complex and epic, wonderful and yes, weird. But at the center of all that weirdness is a tale of morality, humanity, and our relationship with nature. And blood. Lots of blood.