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Interview with Rein Raud

Officially pubbing last Tuesday, The Brother by Rein Raud, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen, is a spaghetti western and “philosophical gem” (West Camel). It’s also Raud’s first novel to appear in English, following an appearance in the Best European Fiction 2015 anthology.

The book has received a couple of reviews already, including the one by West Camel referenced above (“within its short length [The Brother] manages to explore in great depth big ideas about human agency and determinism”), along with one in Kirkus (“a slim but satisfying novel with archetypal resonances”), and at The Bookbinder’s Daughter (“I was so thoroughly impressed with his language, imagery and characters”).

To celebrate the release of this book, you can buy it now for $10 from our website by using the code EASTWOOD at check out. And to give you a few more reasons to want to grab a copy, below please find an interview with Rein Raud.

The Brother by Rein Raud, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen

The Brother, Rein Raud’s first full-length work to appear in English, is a spaghetti western that has been referred to as “a lone Eastwood in the midst of a flock of van Dammes” (Tarmo Jüristo). It reads a bit like a fairy tale or mythical play, with a mysterious stranger (the “Brother” of the title) arriving in an unnamed town to right some wrongs. Below you’ll find an interview Rebekka Lotman conducted with Raud when The Brother was first published in Estonia.

Rebekka Lotman: Is The Brother the kind of book that you yourself would readily pick up?

Rein Raud: Yes—I at least always try to only write books that I believe the world is lacking. And you’re always most content with the latest thing you’ve written, up until there’s enough distance from it. I have to admit that the more time that passes, the more I also read books that counterbalance the visceral literary experiences of what I normally read. I don’t want to find out how awful things actually are when I’m reading, because I already know.

When I’m reading a very depressing text, I can understand that it’s outstanding literature, but when I think about what to start writing next, then I always tend to postpone pieces like that until better days, so to say, because it’s already not easy being human. Good literature doesn’t necessarily have to leave a bad aftertaste, even when it touches and moves you. In that sense, I’ve also always wanted to write in a way that might offer others support.

RL: How did The Brother come to be?

RR: Unexpectedly. The first chapter popped into my head during a seminar on freedom, in which we were discussing the concepts of liberty, and I simply came up with it out of the blue to use as an example. Afterward, I went home and wrote it down, and the rest of the story suddenly began to branch off from there. Actually, I’ve wanted to write a spaghetti western for a long time. Leafing through my old manuscripts recently, I found that my first attempt at the genre appeared in my first poetry collection, Barefoot, from 1980—a prose-poetry cycle titled “The Diner.”

RL: What fascinates you about Baricco?

RR: Baricco has the most precise parlance out of all the living writers I know—the ability to convey highly nuanced emotion in a light, descriptive language that is almost musical. Unfortunately, almost all of it has been lost in the Estonian-language translations I’ve come across. But I hope that kind of language transcends the connection to a single author and permeates—something like how Petrarch revised the sonnet in his time, or Chekhov’s and Ibsen’s theatrical language.

A school of writing like that has actually already developed in Italian literature. For instance, Paolo Giordano, author of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which has won many literary awards, is a student of Baricco, and there are also others among rising new writers.

RL: Where did you get the idea to combine him with Bulat Okudzhava and Clint Eastwood?

RR: Well, I wouldn’t like to say I’ve focused on the conscious combination of influences in my text—more like I’ve simply written, and then honestly acknowledged what parts of my intellectual biography shine through in the result. But Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood are my absolute favorites in that genre, as is Eastwood’s own self-directed High Plains Drifter, which they certainly strongly influenced.

But what’s more compelling for me than the setting and plot developments is their strange method of depiction, which prefers a very large and very general scale over an ordinary medium one. Important things can happen in a way that we either don’t see them at all because we’re observing the scene too closely and they are out of frame, or else we see them from too far away and might not even notice them. I like that—events and reality transpire in their own rhythm, but we never reach them; we only come closer.

As for Okudzhava, some of his songs convey the hopes of the downtrodden very well. But musically, it’s not crucial for the song in the least. There’s much more of that in Beth Gibbon’s performance of Rodrigo Leão’s “Lonely Carrousel” or in T Bone Burnett. Even so, I hope that searching for the influences listed in the acknowledgements at the back of the book doesn’t disturb the story itself for anyone.

RL: The Brother also speaks of justice. Is the world just?

RR: The world is the way it is. I myself would say it speaks rather of the winning/losing axis. One secondary character in the novel says that everyone who wants to win by any means will always lose. Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple in real life. But I suppose the establishment of the problem is defined a little by the genre, too: a nameless man wearing a big hat and a flapping coat arrives in a tiny town under the control of a corrupt group of men. What happens next is simply inevitable.

RL: Love has an important role in the book. One definition of love you propose is quite beautiful: “love springs from the ability to prefer imperfection over perfection.” Did you intentionally try to highlight love, justice, and other human values?

RR: I’ve always seen it as a problem when the negative characters in books and films are more interesting than the positive ones. Everyone “good” is cookie-cutter or anemic, for the most part, or else they’re not actually as good as they appear. I’d like this to be different in my books, because in my opinion, real-life evil and spite are actually more boring than nobleness and idealism most of the time. I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone calls this sentimentality.

RL: There are also philosophical musings, such as: “For what good is a name if it isn’t tied up in a network, connected to faces over the span of time, discovered in the trails that could demarcate the whole world?” Do you feel that you are in a teacher’s role as a writer?

RR: Not in this book, although my last, longer work Hector and Bernard was indeed a conscious attempt to bring Socratic philosophy into the contemporary world (thereby being more instructive). There are relatively few such places in this book, although I suppose I didn’t manage to separate entirely from the kind of mindset that tends to rationally present inner truths.

Remember, you can buy it for $10 by visiting our website and using EASTWOOD at checkout.



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