A novel of fragments, an imagined narrative: Mark Roberts reviews ‘Children of the Cave’ by Virve Sammalkorpi

Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah. Peirene Press 2019.

In early nineteenth century Iax Agolasky leaves his home in Russia and travels to France. Once in Paris he finds employment at the Academie des Sciences and then, in 1819, he becomes the assistant to Professor Moltique on an expedition to North West Russia.

 Such is the basic premise of Virve Sammalkorpi’s extraordinary novel which has been translated into English by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah. Sammalkorpi adopts the position of historian/narrator, searching through Iax’s jornals and notes of the expedition. She has, however, set herself a difficult task, for as she teslls us, Iax’s notes have laid neglected in the archives of the Academemie des Sciences and for almost 190 years. The very nature of the expedition has also meant that there are numerous gaps in the journals and, where the records have survived, they are often water damaged or illegible. Children of the Cave is therefore a novel of fragments, an imagined narrative.

 The historian/narrator makes sure these gaps are recognised. Early in the novel she notes:

All the entries for May 1820 have been badly damaged, but the single lines that have been preserved indicate what a turning point the month represented for the expedition.

 Then, much later

Many pages of the book appear to have been destroyed at this point. The following extracts are undated, but their contents indicate they should be place here, given the course of events.

The narrative, therefore, is a personal one. We are told that apart from a few contemporary news paper reports, Iax Agolask’s journal is the only the record of the expedition.

 It is also important to realise that this expedition predates Darwin’s Origin of the Species by about 30 years but that both Moltique and Iax are aware of the emerging theory of evolution. Indeed Lamarck is mentioned a number of times in Iax’s notes. There is, therefore, a sense of real excitement when they find a cave which seems to be home to a group of human like animals:

May 22nd in the Year 1820

The animals of the cave appear mostly to move on two legs –
We do do not know what animals they are. They appear quite small –
Moltique is greatly excited. He did not touch his food tonight….

Within days they have a much closer encounter:

May 28th in the year 1820

 I think I was the first to see it –

I took it for a wild boar at first, but when the creature stood up I was certain for a moment I was facing a human being. I had no time to give warning. A shot rang out.

May 30th in the year 1820

 I did not tell Moltique, but the examination of the creature we felled gave me nightmares. The details I had noted down swirled in my mind: I dreamed of a human being with the ears of a cat, the muzzle of a dog, the tail of a pig, the hooves of a cow and feathers of an owl –

 This is the point that tensions in the expedition begin to escalate. Moltique sees the creatures as the source of increasing his standing as a scientist, the other men see the creatures as freaks and the source of income while Iax, with his scientific and religious background, sees the humanity in the creatures.

Iax continues his observations while Moltique dreams of scientific glory and the other men in the expedition dream of riches. Eventually Iax finds the truth, these aren’t freaks or the missing evolutionary link, but simply children born with deformities left by their parents at a distant cave to fend for themselves. He develops a friendship with Anna, a teenager with a deformed tongue who basically cares for the children, and begins documenting their stories. Increasingly he keeps his research from the rest of the expedition.

Iax’s journal details the splintering of the expedition. As Moltique realises he won’t return a scientific hero he descends into madness, becoming more like the beasts he has come to study. The rest of the men plot ways of taking over and capturing or killing the children the children for profit. Iax has to spend more and more time protecting the children and himself.

In the end of course the children are far more ‘human’ than the men in the expedition. At times we wonder if Iax is, indeed going to survive. But of course he must as his journal has found it’s way back to Paris. If the details of his survival are sketchy then that is because he didn’t write them down.

Virve Sammalkorpi has written a superb novel, a rare thing where narration, structure and technique are in almost perfect balance. Children of the Cave is the first of her seven novels to be translated into English. Lets hope the other six find their way onto the translator’s desk as as soon as possible.

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a writer, critic and publisher based in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He is a founding editor of Rochford Street Review and, along with Linda Adair, runs Rochford Press. His latest poetry collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016.

 Children of the Cave is available from https://www.peirenepress.com/ shop/new-releases/children-of-the-cave/


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