(Version 2: Version 1 was published in error)
Winner of the 2017 Savonia Literature Prize
Winner of the 2017 Kuvastaja Prize for Best Finnish Fantasy Novel
Translated from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
”And now, after months of patient and painstaking observation, we gradually creep closer and obtain close contact with this shy and hitherto unknown species”. No, it’s not David Attenborough narrating his most recent TV series, though at times I felt transplanted into one.
It’s 1819 and Iax Agolasky has accompanied notable French explorer, Jean Moltique, into the Russian wilderness. They discover some strange creatures living in a cave. These creatures appear to be human with varying animal-like mutations. They provide a challenge to Moltique. How is he to classify them? Develop a theory for submission to the scientific community and thus enhance his reputation? It’s 30 years before Darwin, and yet theories abound about the origins of man. Has this expedition unwittingly stumbled on the missing link?
Moltique’s expeditionary force is comprised of a motley crew: Agolasky and Moltique seem to be the only educated ones. As for the rest, they’re an unsavoury bunch of crooks, hunters and drunkards, many of who have good reason to make themselves scarce from home. As Agolasky notes “they are better off outside the reach of officialdom”.
As one young cave-dweller observes: “It’s dangerous to be different where everyone else is alike.” Motique’s crew are just the kind of folk who are threatened by differences in others, who would rather wipe these creatures off the face of the earth …. Moltique, himself, has a cruel streak, inflicting barbarous punishments on his men, including Agolasky, when his orders are not followed exactly.
Agolasky is perturbed. He is the first to accept that these creatures are in fact children rather than creatures, and he draws increasingly close to them. He keeps his feet in both camps for as long as possible, but, after two years, when Moltique is driven insane, trying to reconcile his findings with theory, and tensions in the camp threaten to explode, he has to make a move. Will it suffice to avert tragedy?
The story is told in the form of Agolasky’s incomplete field diary. There are gaps, with entries often months apart. There is a editor to fill these and advise of what was going on back in France. These gaps serve to accelerate the pace – as readers we don’t really want to experience events in real time. The change in tone of a diary entry also emphasises Agolasky’s state-of-mind moving through the spectrum from calm to anxious to terrified. His vocabulary also betrays his thinking on what is the main theme of the book: what, if anything, separates us from the beast? Our physical makeup, our thinking? When he calls Moltique’s crew as “an uneducated herd” (my italics), his conclusions can be inferred.