Werewolves, golems, angels and stamps – our last Man Booker International Prize contender certainly had a lot going for it. If you were expecting a change of pace today, though, after our epic Icelandic journey, you may be disappointed, with my latest read taking us on another voyage of discovery. This time we’re heading to Russia, where an early-nineteenth-century anthropological expedition stumbles across some unusual beings. Monsters? Of course, but this being literature, the question of who they are isn’t quite as clear-cut as you might expect…
Virve Sammalkorpi’s Children of the Cave (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, review copy courtesy of Peirene Press) follows Iax Agolasky, a young assistant to a famous French explorer, as he joins the search for a lost tribe in the north-west of Russia. The plan changes somewhat when the team discovers some creatures in the shadows, animals they can’t identify, and it’s only when one is hunted down that the explorers begin to realise what is out there:
But the facial features of the creature… At this point, I have to take a deep breath, realizing I still feel sick. In the skull, where you would expect to see a normal hare’s nose, eyes and large front teeth, I saw a human child’s blue eyes, snub nose and small toothless mouth.
pp.44/5 (Peirene Press, 2019)
Professor Jean Moltique, the leader of the expedition, is delighted by the find, suspecting a missing link in human development, and instructs his assistant to find out more about the small creatures who hover around the entrance to a large network of caves.
The more Iax learns, though, the less convinced he is of the professor’s theories, realising that what they’ve found is disturbingly human. Besides, he has other problems to deal with. Moltique may be keen to observe the creatures, but the men accompanying the researchers would rather just catch them, kill them and head off home. Inevitably, it falls to Iax to try to bridge the gap between the two groups – in vain…
Children of the Cave is a short, fascinating work written in a pseudo-documentary style. The author features here as a compiler of documents, organising the remaining fragments of Iax’s diaries and commenting (academically, of course) on events while drily speculating on missing entries. What comes together from these fragments is a record of an expedition that, having started optimistically, is to end very badly. In fact, there’s more than a suggestion (on several occasions) that the records may have been deliberately ‘mislaid’.
Despite the set-up, it’s clear early on that this is not a story about missing links but one concerned with more human matters. The shadowy figures roaming the forest turn out to be a group of children abandoned because of their abnormalities, or deformities, which show considerable variety. They’re led by Anna, a young woman acting as a mother figure to the group, and it’s her approaches that allow
Iax to get close enough to document the children’s physical features (and perhaps a little too close).
The journal style allows us to date the expedition between 1819-1823, and this is important as it places the action in a pre-Darwinian era, raising issues covered in another Finnish Peirene novel, Kristina Carlson’s Mr. Darwin’s Gardener. Part of the appeal of the work is the fascinating mix of scientific, religious and simply fantastical theories the main characters discuss, and this is particularly apparent in the development of the main figure. Iax is a modern man, but his scientific beliefs often clash with the remains of his religious upbringing:
Only when we parted did I get the opportunity to ask myself a question: did Moltique mean to say that the cave dwellers were animals in the process of evolving into human beings? (p.23)
What he sees requires him to adjust his beliefs to encompass the new situation, enough to engender a mini crisis of faith.
In truth, as intriguing as the story of the children is, Children of the Cave says far more about the people who find them. There’s certainly more than a nod to Heart of Darkness here, with the crazed researcher Moltique and his mutinous crew slowly falling apart in the Russian wilderness. Iax acts as our representative, aware of the dangers but unable to do much about it. As one of the children points out:
It’s dangerous to be different where everyone else is alike. Have you noticed? (p.94)
The irony is that this doesn’t just refer to the children. Surrounded as he is by a bunch of merciless scoundrels hundreds of miles from civilisation, Iax realises that he must be very careful not to get on the wrong side of his ‘helpers’.
Sammalkorpi’s novel makes for yet another intriguing addition to the Peirene collection, and the mother/daughter translation team of Emily and Fleur Jeremiah have done more good work on their fourth Peirene book. Besides the obvious echoes of Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, the format also reminded me of Richarda Huch’s The Last Summer, both for its diary form and for the uncertainty arising from only hearing part of the story. It’s all nicely done, and the writer has managed to show the changes in Iax’s mood as the expedition progresses, with his initial enthusiasm and fascination with the children gradually giving way to panic as he falls apart under the stress of the experience.
Whether Children of the Cave is quite up to MBIP standards is debatable, and some readers may consider it a little lightweight. Personally, I would have liked more on the children as the focus does switch very much to Iax and the other visitors early on. However, it’s definitely an interesting and enjoyable read, a book that explores what it means to be human and the ever-present temptation to lash out at those different from ourselves (a quick look at the news shows how some things never change). Above all, Sammalkorpi’s children serve to teach us to look beyond the differences and see the person underneath – a lesson, unfortunately, that some will never learn…