Fiction – print. Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah. Peirene Press, 2019. Originally published 2016. 176 pgs. Purchased.
In 1819, Iax Agolasky travels to northwest Russia as the research assistant to a well-known French anthropologist and explorer named Jean Moltique. The goal of Moltique’s exhibition is to locate lost or ancient tribes in the region, and their search leads them to a cave in the Russian wilderness where a small group of children live. Moltique believes the residents of this cave may be the offspring of the ancient Paphlagonians and eagerly instructs Agolasky to study the residents.
During the course of their observation, Agolasky and Moltique realize the children straddle the seemingly firm line between human and animals. One child – the de facto leader of the group – appears wholly human yet has a tongue similar in shape to a parrot; another child appears to be a wild boar until the explorers see his mouth resembles that of a human child.
Moltique is wildly excited by his discovery; he immediately writes to the scientific academy in Paris to inform them of the existence of Les Enfants des Ombres. The English translation of Moltique’s name for the group, according to Agolasky, is the Children of the Shadows, although he does occasionally refer to them by the title of the novella, Children of the Cave.
Moltique believes Les Enfants des Ombres is proof of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s evolutionary theories, namely that organism can pass on characteristics that it has acquired through use or disuse during its lifetime to its offspring. But the men hired to lead and aid Moltique in his explorations are horrified by the existence of the children, seeing them as blasphemy or as oddities to be put on display at the Parisian zoo.
Agolasky is uncomfortable with these viewpoints; after sitting quietly away from camp observing the children, he has seen evidence of their humanity and befriended a number of them. (His methods are similar to those used by the non-fiction Dian Fossey, Bill Webber, and Amy Vedder in their study of gorillas.) Madness and bloodlust begin to descend upon the camp as the group continues to wait for a reply from the scientific academy in Paris, putting Agolasky and the Children of the Shadows in danger.
Sammalkorpi structures her novella as a series of journal entries written by Agolasky and found centuries latter amid the archives of the French scientific academy. Large swaths of time are skipped because, as the archivist/historian narrator explains, the journals were waterlogged, lost via ignorance or willfullness, and/or stopped due to violent activities within Moltique’s camp. If it weren’t for the fantastical existence of the children themselves, it would be easy to read the novella as a work of nonfiction – the entries feel that authentic.
In part, that authenticity comes from the moral quandaries Agolasky wrestles with through his journal entries. Agolasky was raised in a religious home and, therefore, he sees Lamarck’s theories and these children as subverting the idea that man is formed in God’s image. Yet, their humanity is hard to dismiss as he sees the children caring for one another and learns more about how they came to live in the cave. He vacillates on how the children fit into the religious dogma and the scientific principles he believes in, and the questions he poses for himself throughout the text are ones to ponder over.
These moral quandaries are occasionally overshadowed by the adventure surrounding Agolasky. The exhibition is quickly and completely failing, and Agolasky’s life is threatened by the presence of a mysterious disease and a murderous crew in mutiny. It was easy to become swept up in those parts of the story, but there was nothing unique about these moments that stands out from other failed exhibition narratives out there. (I kept thinking of The Lost City of Z, although that failed exhibition occurred in the Amazon rather than the Finnish-Russian borderlands.)
Instead, the uniqueness of this narrative comes from the inclusion of the children, from the way each one was constructed so that their individual existences pose existential questions for Agolasky (and, ultimately, the reader). I was enthralled with the story, annoyed every time I had to put it aside to leave for work or cook dinner. A good reminder not to judge a book by its cover or a series by its title as I shamefully did when I learned the 2019 series from Peirene would be called “There Be Monsters”. I would have missed this gem of a story if I wasn’t a Peirene subscriber.
Sadly, this is the only work by Sammalkorpi that has been translated into English to date. Interestingly, in my search to learn more about her writings, I learned the inspiration for this novel actually comes from a series of photographs produced by Pekka Nikrus. The photographs and Nikrus’ original story for Agolasky are available on his website; they were not included in Peirene’s printing of Sammalkorpi’s novella, unfortunately.