Children of the Cave

Last year Peirene Press travelled to colder climates: Latvia, Lithuania, Siberia and Iceland all featuring in what were generally chilly tales of hardship and suffering, despite the cheerier finale of And the Wind Sees All. This year we begin in similar fashion with Finnish writer Virve Sammalkorpi’s Children of the Cave set in the unexplored wilderness of early nineteenth century north-west Russia. There is, however, an important difference: while Soviet Milk and Shadows on the Tundra were almost documentary in recounting the ordeal of Soviet rule, Children of the Cave, despite its outward mimicry of non-fiction forms, was selected as the best Finnish fantasy novel in 2017.

Children of the Cave presents itself as the diaries of Iax Agolasky, a Russian whose family immigrates to France in the early nineteenth century:

“At the age of twenty-two he was asked to act as an assistant and interpreter to one Professor Moltique on an expedition to north-west Russia.”

After this brief introduction, the story of the expedition is told through the surviving extracts from Agolasky’s diary, with the occasional authorial intrusion to inform us where pages are missing or the date is uncertain. The expedition begins with high hopes, Agolasky declaring he is “grateful to Moltique for selecting me from among the dozens of those who applied, all keen to go on this exciting journey.” It is almost a year later when we first hear about the cave:

“It appears that we have discovered the habitat of a new animal instead of a mysterious forest tribe. There are no signs of human settlement.”

Neither Agolasky nor Moltique can agree on what this ‘new animal’ is however:

“I know Moltique considers the creature we shot to be a monkey bearing unusual mutations. I myself cannot forget thinking I first saw a wild boar, then a human being.”

Moltique comes to believe that the children (as they have begun to call them) “represent an intermediate stage in human evolution,” though Agolasky, while not dismissing this theory, worries that he is too attached to it: “I fear his ambition blinds him.” Algolasky begins to grow close to one of the children, a girl he christens Petite, observing and following her, and eventually dreaming of her:

“The inhabitant of the cave I call Petite has entered my dreams. She looks at me entreatingly, asking for something… I woke up this morning covered in sweat, my heart thumping, for there was something terrifyingly human in the eyes of the creature I saw in my dream.”

As the children appear increasingly human to Algolasky, his fellow explorers become less so. Of those who are there to do the heavy lifting he says:

“It is unfortunate, but the men who have ended up on this journey are better off outside the reach of officialdom.”

Moltique himself is discovered to be less than civilised. Agolasky describes him as a steadfast ally but “as an enemy, frightening, even dangerous,” and goes on to recall:

“I am also trying to forget the beating I got back in winter, though I still cannot face the men Moltique put up to the job. The scars on my back and my legs will remind me for the rest of my life of how an uneducated herd of men can crush a person who thinks too highly of himself.”

As time passes, Moltique becomes increasingly unreliable, unstable even, and the men more fractious and unruly, placing both Agolasky and the children in danger, particularly when a conversation is overheard in which their de facto leader reveals his plans to:

“…slaughter the most human of the children of the cave, capture the rest, and also kill Moltique and myself if we object.”

Agolasky must pick a side.

In Children of the Cave Virve Sammalkorpi brilliantly captures, with the aid of translators Emily and Fleur Jerimiah, the idiom of exploration, from the hopeful optimism of the opening through the simmering tensions and burdensome boredom of daily life in the camp to the violent desperation of the end. Through its premise the novel questions both what it is to be human, and how well humanity can recognise itself. Though the novel is set two hundred years ago, the fear of the other is still very much alive today.

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