So, the discussion about The Man Who Spoke Snakish (Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu
) got me curious enough about this book and its translation, that I decided not to read my other books first and just dive into this one. I have the book in Estonian and also got the English version on my kindle, so that I can see how it is translated (and so that I can search for certain parts).
linguoboy wrote:In any case, if you do get around to reading it, I'll be very interested to hear what your reaction is.
It seems like there are multiple worlds represented, each one on its own timeline:
1. Magdaleena's village, sometimes after the fourteenth century; it represents modern influences;
2. the forest world of Ülgas and Salme, of the late twelfth to early thirteenth century, representing tradition;
3. the primates' thicket, of a pre-stone-age, pre-Neanderthal time, probably representing origins;
4. Tolp's island, of the 12th century or earlier, seemingly representative of primal feelings like rage or revenge.
I'm just guestimating on the centuries, but basing it on the details mentioned: the German language, household tools and farming implements of the village, the "stone-throwing machine" that had attacked Tolp (stone-throwing machines are mentioned in Henricus de Lettis's chronical of the late 12th and early 13th centuries), Tolp's island world has parallels with August Mälk's fictionalized 1100s in his Läänemere isandad
, and so on. The Frog of the North (Põhja konn
) and the wolves that can be milked come from Estonian fairy tales, and the legless Tolp evokes the hero of the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg
, who suffered the same fate.
Leemet moves between these worlds, and so do the snakes. There is therefore no "one" timeline for the novel and the interactions between the worlds are, of course, entirely fiction, but I think it is rather clever to imagine what people (here including the personified primates and snakes) from these different timelines would have thought of each other if they could have met, and how they might have reacted and interacted. This is how I understood the book, and honestly, although I didn't like the amount of violence there was in the book, I thought the interactions of multiple timelines (to me, an allegory related to the influences of the past and the future on the present, and the nature of change) was rather clever.
Religion and folklore are obviously important themes, too. There are tons of twists on familiar folkloric themes: the Frog of the North is usually a feared dragon, who is killed with a magic ring; but in this book, he is an ally, who can be awoken by a ring (sort of; I don't want to give the details away here). The idea that the wolf-sized lice don't realize how big they are and try to scurry into small holes actually made me laugh aloud. Animal-sized insects are common in Estonian folklore; a common one involves horse-sized gadflies that can pull ploughs. But usually no explanation is really given for their existence. Kivirähk gave them both an origin (bred by the primates) and a personality (a bit like dim-witted but friendly dogs) which was kind of endearing.
As for the lexical anachronisms that Linguoboy cited, here goes:
linguoboy wrote: jarring anachronisms (like mediaeval forest dwellers referring to themselves as "Estonians"
Yes, this does seem to be an anachronism. The Estonian version of the book uses the terms eestlane
and eesti keel
, and those terms weren't used in Estonian itself until around the 1700s. Prior to that, others called them variations on the name "Estonian" and "Estonia" (Estia, Eistland, Estland, Esthonia), but in their own language Estonians themselves would have said maarahva
(people of the land), maakeel
(language of the land) and maavald
(realm/area/territory of the land).
linguoboy wrote: it's odd to say the least for a narrator whose people don't even smelt or sow to be throwing around words like "science"
In Estonian the word used is teadus
. In modern Estonian it means "science," but in older Estonian it meant "information" or "knowledge." The context of the book is this: "In this day and age it's silly to go on living in some dark thicket, doing without all the benefits of modern science." (Rumal on ju elada veel meie sajandil kusagil pimedas padrikus ja loobuda kõigist hüvedest, mida pakub tänapäeva teadus.
) A more literal translation would be: "It's silly to go on living in our century in some dark thicket and to forsake all the benefits that today's science/knowledge has to offer." Since he is referring here to the primates who live in damp caves and trees instead of the huts that the forest dwellers live in, it makes sense.
linguoboy wrote: "species"
Like the word teadus
, the word that was used here (sugu
) had a different meaning in the past. Today it means "gender" or "genus," but its earlier meaning was "kind" or "sort". So, "in the millions of years that their species has been running around, they have never learned Snakish" (ega ole kõige nende miljonite aastate jooksul, mil nende sugu ilmas ringi on jooksnud, suutnud ussisõnu selgeks õppida
) could also have been translated as "in all the millions of years that their kind has been running around, they haven't managed to really [clearly] learn Snakish." Of course, this begs the question of how they could have known that it had been millions of years, but basically, in the book the snakes are the one creature that has existed in every timeline, so they can know that kind of thing.
Primates are inimahvid
, as we already discussed (inim-
= people, ahv
= monkey/ape). Primate is the better translation because ahv is more general than "monkey" or "ape" in English (it can be either one). The general word we have in English for that ("a monkey or an ape") is
linguoboy wrote:chests of drawers in their homes?
There were no "chests of drawers" at all. What is said was "I started rummaging in chests and
drawers" (ma hakkasin kirstudes ning laegastes sorima
). "Drawers" is simply an inaccurate translation, but I can see why Moseley used it. Kirst
are different types of "chests" in Estonian, both of which were used for centuries. They have no drawers; they are wooden boxes shaped like a storage trunk or old clothing chest (well, that's actually exactly what they are). Laegas
is smaller. But since both of these are translated into English as "chest" it wouldn't have worked to say "I rummaged around in chests (kirstudes
) and in chests (laegastes
)" and to say "I rummaged around in chests" doesn't have the same feel as looking through several types of storage units, so I suppose this is why it was translated as "chests and drawers." "Chests and trunks" or "chests and coffers" maybe? "Chests and boxes"?
In any case, there are some anachronisms, but that seems inevitable in a book whose point is the intersection of several different time periods. I thought it was unique and creative and definitely allegorical. Because of the amount of graphic violence it has, I don't think I'd recommend it to many of my bookworm friends. But that's a pity because I otherwise thought the premise was good.