Children of the Cave, by Virve Sammalkorpi (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah), is the first book in the latest Peirene series: There Be Monsters. Presented in the form of annotated and incomplete diary entries, it tells the story of an ill fated scientific expedition to a remote forested area in north west Russia.
Setting out from Paris in 1819, the leader of the group is Professor Jean Moltique, a controversial figure within the Académie des Sciences. His assistant, translator and author of the diaries is Iax Agolasky, a Russian born twenty-four year old eager to travel and work alongside a man he naively admires.
A year into the expedition the group comes across signs of life outside a cave. They set up camp and prepare to observe. What they encounter is a group of small creatures – not quite human yet not quite animal. The reactions of the various adventurers to this discovery lead to disagreements due to ethical issues. The arrogant Moltique pounces on the opportunity to present an exciting discovery to the scientific community. Agolasky is learning that sometimes facts will be bent to fit a preformed conclusion.
“I am surprised that an experienced and esteemed scientist like him, albeit one who is sensational and controversial, is not more critical of his own ideas.”
Agolasky succeeds in getting close to what are now referred to as the children. He no longer fully trusts Moltique but recognises that the professor is more likely to protect his research subjects than the other men in the group, who are described as rogues. They have their uses as labourers and hunters but have appetites that repel the young scholar who is more used to academic life.
“It is unfortunate, but the men who have ended up on this journey are better off outside the reach of officialdom.”
While Moltique is mulling over the best way to collate and present his findings, Agolasky is tasked with learning more about the strange creatures they are attempting to study. The children grow to trust him, something that places them in danger. Caught between the needs of these anomalous beings and his own people the young man struggles to stand up against Moltique’s stated plans.
“I fear his ambition blinds him.”
Agolasky notes in his diary that the professor sympathises most with the creatures that look most human, most like him.
The story builds around the attitudes of so called civilised society towards beings that are different from what is regarded as the norm. Given the way members of the expedition behave, the creatures’ looks are given precedence over their actions. Moltique’s theories require that they be animal yet he punishes those in his cohort who treat them as similar to the creatures they must feed on to survive. Agolasky now understands where the children came from but has neither the strength nor influence to fully protect them. He grows disillusioned with Moltique and at times in fear of his own life.
“To tell the truth I was impressed by the certainty with which the scientist I admired pursued the theory he desired. I could not help considering what the truth was about the yeti and his other achievements.”
The difficulties of living in an inhospitable forest take their toll as the years pass with Moltique still struggling to document his findings with any coherence. Meanwhile the other men in the group see a different potential for the children. Agolasky despairs at his ineffectiveness as events approach their inexorable conclusion.
The staccato style of writing serves to move the story forward quickly, offering snapshots of the changes taking place in each of the explorers. Their behaviour highlights the animal traits in all.
Although set two centuries ago this story has contemporary relevance. With fear of the other growing and swathes of society being dehumanised to protect the comfort of the privileged it is worth questioning the rights we grant humans, and how these are so inequitably enforced.
In many ways this is a disturbing read because of the truths it tells about man’s behaviour. Poignant and piercing, it is a story for our times.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.