Peirene Press’s books are never anything but interesting. It’s founder and publisher, Meike Ziervogel, has a knack for seeking out unusual, thought-provoking fiction. For 2019 her theme is There Be Monsters. Virve Sammalkorpi’s Children of the Cave follows a nineteenth-century anthropological expedition which goes horribly wrong, posing the question who are the monsters?
Iax Agolasky, a young bookish Russian, is overjoyed when renowned French explorer Jean Moltique takes him on as an assistant in his quest to find the ‘children of the shadows’ thought by Moltique to be the descendants of an ancient Anatolian tribe. Moltique appoints a crew to accompany them before they set off into the north-western Russian wilderness in May 1819 on an expedition which will stretch into 1822. It will be a year before, Moltique and Agolasky discover their tribe, shooting the first member to appear before them, by which time Moltique has been revealed as vainglorious and egotistical, his crew a bunch of ruffians. They set up camp at the mouth of the cave from which the creature, seemingly a wild boar with a human face, has appeared. Agolasky is mortified by what has happened. It is his patience and empathy which leads the tribe to eventually show themselves. These are not fabulous creatures but children displaying a variety of physical characteristics which society finds abhorrent, each with a story to tell. As Agolasky gains their trust, he becomes increasingly fearful for their safety, both from Moltique whose ambition for fame will bring the glare of publicity and from the men who see a more sinister opportunity to make money. As the years wear on, Moltique loses his wits while Agolasky falls in love and the men continue to plot until, three years after the expedition began, it’s brought to a violent end.
Sammalkorpi uses the conceit of a fragmented diary to tell her story, exploring themes of reality and unreality, and what it is to be human. The reaction to the children, left by loving parents for their own protection, found abandoned or rescued from freak shows, is all too believable. Sammalkorpi is careful to engage our sympathy for them, telling their stories through Agolasky, an empathetic and idealistic character, distraught at Moltique’s exploitation and the brutality of the men. In the diary’s final entry, written in 1868 days before his death, Agolasky reiterates the vividness of his memories while questioning their reliability. As the postscript with which Sammalkorpi cleverly ends her book suggests:
However hard we try to capture our experiences, we still cannot be totally sure about what is real and what is illusionary.