The Little Snake

A. L. Kennedy’s The Little Snake was first published in Germany two years ago as part of a series of books celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Little Prince, a story she has described as “quite jolly if you’re a kid but very sad if you are an adult.” With echoes of Saint-Exupery’s work, Kennedy has created her own fable of a friendship between a girl, Mary, and a snake who also happens to be Death. In stripped-down prose, she adopts a style which, she says, does not “allow you to indulge in the writerly nonsense you think you’ve got away from but actually, when you start doing this kind of thing which has to be very simple and very clear, you think, there’s still a lot of nonsense.”

The snake first appears around Mary’s ankle, mistaken for a bangle. With the childish innocence associated with fables, Mary is not afraid of the snake, and also quite prepared to refuse him when, for example, he asks of a mouse to eat. Perhaps this is the reason he befriends her, telling her he will visit her many times, and warning her:

“Little girl, little girl, the world is an odd place to explore, and you must promise me… that you will be extremely careful wherever you go.”

Of course, the logic of their friendship does not matter; it is the friendship itself which is important in a story which is, at heart, about caring for others. It is the characters who do not care for others who are punished by Lanmo the snake. This applies on a small-scale with the Very Attractive Girls who will not allow Mary to skip with them: the snake makes them skip until they are “hot and tired and worried” and no longer attractive:

“Not one of the Very Attractive Girls mentioned this but they knew it in their hearts, and when they looked at each other they were dismayed.”

The snake, however, also punishes those at the other end of the scale, beginning with Karl Otto Meininger, the third (or possibly fourth) richest man on earth, used to “being surrounded by respectful servants and sad, exhausted trees.” For children, Meininger’s repulsive selfishness is reason enough for the snake to kill him; for adults there is the joy of a justice which even the rich cannot escape: he tells the snake, “I’ll give you everything I have.”

“Other people had told him that too.”

Lanmo continues to aid Mary, particularly when she has to leave her home city. Kennedy highlights the inequalities of the city (which she has likened to London) in the book’s opening pages, and notes its deterioration when Lanmo returns to Mary two years later:

“…he noticed the city looked a good deal sadder than he remembered. There were angry words painted on some of the walls and the pavements were broken in places and not clean. There were fewer kites flying and the ones that did fly looked as if they had simply been forgotten…”

The kites, which people flew “in order to enjoy the sky”, are a visual display of joy, slowly disappearing from their lives. Eventually, Mary leaves her home, Lanmo finding only an empty house and a note. Mary is now travelling with Paul, who as a boy was able to see the snake on their teacher’s desk. Kennedy conveys the terrible choices of being a refugee when Mary must leave her parents behind.

The Little Snake, then, does not shy away from politics, albeit the politics of compassion which all politicians pay lip service to but few enact. In fact, Kennedy tackles this irony in her portrayal of The Great Man Who Loved the People who not only instructs his Commander-in-Chief to kill the elderly, women and children but goes on to demand:

“Once your men have carried out these necessary measures for the defence of my people, you must explain to them that because they had not already killed the traitors hidden in our glorious country… they are traitors. Therefore they must kill each other and then themselves.”

This would be clumsy if bolted on but the book’s message remains the same: for the world to be better, people must care for each other. Mary provides one example for us (the snake tells her, “You taste of the love of other people”), Lanmo another – able to be compassionate even as he kills – and their friendship most of all. It is the lack of love of others which creates the inequality which baffles the snake:

“I do not understand humans. Some of you will steal anything all the time and some of you will steal nothing all the time. Couldn’t all of you just steal something some of the time – if you need it?”

The Little Snake is both a timely and timeless fable which speaks straight to the heart but does not ignore the mind, its pessimistic portrait of humanity tempered with an optimistic outlook. Written with humour, imagination and compassion, it should find a place in everyone’s Christmas stocking.

Quotations by A L Kennedy from an interview with Janice Forsyth on Radio Scotland.

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4 Responses to “The Little Snake”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Ooooh, interesting! I find Kennedy always to be an entertaining commentator but I’ve never read any of her fiction. I think this might be a good place to start! 🙂

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    A little like Kaggsy, I’m more familiar with A. L. Kennedy as a cultural critic than as a writer (partly from her appearances on the old Newsnight Review show in the dim and distant past). As you say, the best fables often feel both timely and timeless – not always an easy thing to pull off successfully. I take it this is available in the UK now, following on from the original publication in Germany?

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I remember her on Newsnight Review! I don’t why it was only issued in Germany originally (she wrote it in English and then it was translated) but it’s finally appeared here.

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