15 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next two days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.

Brecht at Night by Mati Unt. Translated from the Estonian by Eric Dickens. (Estonia, Dalkey Archive)

Below is a guest post from Bill Marx — the man behind PRI’s World Books — about another BTBA 2010 title. Almost there . . . Almost time to announce the finalists . . .

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
There will also be singing
About the dark times.
Bertolt Brecht, Svendborg Poems

But can an artist who has absorbed some of the dark times sing of them? Questions of political opportunism, as well as the twisted prerogatives of creative egotism, drive the late Estonian writer Mati Unt’s postmodern historical novel Brecht at Night. Unt isn’t concerned about how playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht sang about the rise of Hitler and Stalin or the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Instead, Unt examines, via an arch vaudevillesque irony, the narcissistic machinations of Brecht in the year 1940, when, fleeing Nazi Germany, he and his entourage of wife, mistresses and children end up in Finland, the guests of playwright Hella Wuolijoki, a rich Communist sympathizer with Estonian roots. It is the portrait of the artist as a determinedly abstracted man, aside from his paranoid fear that Hitler has sent out assassins to kill him.

Unt’s Brecht is primarily concerned with making it to America, not attempting to make sense of the gathering forces of the night, which would touch on his uneasy relationship with the Soviet Union, Stalin, and Communism. The general impression left by the book is that it isn’t fear of censorship so much as a pervasive inner decay that holds Brecht back from dealing with reality: The worse thing for a writer is not, Brecht thinks, having to keep your mouth shut. Its a lot worse when you have nothing to say via that mouth.

Sadistically, Unt, a narrative kibitzer in the book, surrounds Brecht with realities that should have given the writer plenty to talk about. He provides excerpts from non-fiction accounts (newspaper articles, academic studies) of the horrendous happening in Europe, with a grim emphasis on the Soviet Unions thuggish hijacking of Estonia. He also provides potted biographies of Brecht’s friends and lovers, showing how they were used and abused by Brecht and by history, camp followers betrayed or left on their own to survive.

All of this could have been heavy-handed Brecht the selfish artist slapped around, over and over, in a circumscribed barrel. At his best, however, Unt brings sardonic humor to the dark proceedings, perhaps tapping on his own feelings about being an artist (playwright, novelist, director) bottled up by the Soviet Union. Unt’s Brecht chooses to see the world through Marxian rules, Hegelian hocus-pocus: The covert theme of the book is, of course, dialectics, Brechts greatest love. That streamlined notion of Brecht’s vision isn’t entirely fair, as least to his poetry, which at the time made use of ambiguity and skepticism, a satire that made full use of mockery. Still, the characters intellectual triangulation amusingly seems to free him from looking too deeply at the demands of the here-and-now, aside from the sexual and secretarial demands he makes on the women in his life. (Unt draws on John Fuegi’s biography The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht, which details the authors swinish treatment of women.) Occasionally the author tries to wake Brecht up via an impish surrealism, such as having a very un-dialectical frog pop up in his room to give him a scare.

Unt includes a memorably funny chapter about a real-life Estonian government who served as a stooge for the Soviets named M Unt (no relation to the author). The guy counts down his acts of repression before his bosses murder him: Lithuania has been accepted as part of the Soviet Union (3rd August). There’s still time to go before my death.

Still, it is difficult to keep the inventive black humor coming, and by mid-point Brecht at Night increasingly shoves the title artist aside to chronicle the lethal facts of Soviet domination. The books imagination gives way to presentation; it suggests that Unt lost interest in drawing (and re-drawing) ironic attention to Brecht’s disinterest in reality, his obsession with bourgeois comfort during a time of chaos. If Unt had included more of the un-dialectical consciousness that informs the (anti)lyrics in Svendborg Poems the books exploration of the amoral writer-in-exile would have been richer and more compelling. Unt has a considerable reputation as a stage artist but there is surprisingly little dramatic conflict in the book. His Brecht devolves into a didactic puppet.

Unt’s other novels available in English, Things in the Night and Diary of a Blood Donor, tap on rich veins of fantasy (apocalyptic meltdown, vampirism) to evoke the brutal truths about the somnambulism of life under (or after) the domination of the Soviet Union. In Brecht at Night the author speaks openly and powerfully about the crimes of authoritarian barbarity, the degradation of creativity and morality, the slippery slope of self-involvement. But one misses his customary wildness, his imaginative gusto, as he goes about it.

2 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Nordic Voices is an interesting addition to the lit blog world. Run by three British literary translators (who combined translate from Finnish, Swedish, Russian, and Estonian), the goal of the blog is to bring more attention to Nordic literature (beyond the thrillers) and related translation issues. The site is still relatively new, but the early posts are really interesting, well thought out, and unique.

One post that caught my eye was an excerpt from Eric Dickens’s translation of Thomas Warburton’s memoirs about translating. (According to Warburton, he’s translated more than 30,000 pages from Finnish and English into Swedish.) Warburton uses his translations of novelist Mika Waltari as a launching point to get into a greater translation/editing issue and a description of a certain type of editorial assistant:

Waltari used to claim that he had a tendency to write too much and be unable to excise things from the text. He said that he was therefore grateful for any suggestions for abridgements from his translators and editors, and would nearly always accept them completely. All his later voluminous novels have thus been abridged by about five, six or an even higher percent each.

This kind of editing is, no doubt, more common than you would believe, and there are many foreign authors who are not even aware that something has happened to their books in translation. Similar, if not worse, things have happened with our books when published abroad, when we have managed to check up.

Obviously, such a practice is completely unacceptable and comes quite close to an arrogation of the rights of the author. But the law is vague on that score and tends to allow changes that do not alter the artistic merit or aim of a work. [. . .]

One of these [types of editorial assistants] is – or was, as the variant has surely vanished by now – what you could term the normaliser. He was a proponent of the theory that all books should sound as if they had been written in the target language, Swedish in this case, and why not make it the Swedish of Stockholm, just for good measure. That’s his problem. But such an editor will then go on to think that it becomes pretty unpleasant for the reader to come across rare or difficult words and expressions, however Swedish they may be. These words have to be simplified and aligned. Here, the fact that the original author may have wanted to express himself in an unusual way, even in a convoluted or stilted manner, is no excuse. You have to explain what he really means. – This problem area is adjacent to another: have you the right to improve the text, however tempting this may be, without consulting the author? No, you haven’t.

Not sure that I agree that “the normaliser” really has vanished from the publishing scene, but I agree that translations should contains some “strange” phrasings . . .

26 March 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [1]

Literature written in Yiddish has been one of the unluckiest in modern history. The language was regarded for several centuries as a kind of kitchen patois, spoken by people towards the lower end of Jewish society in Eastern and Central Europe. Just as it was emerging as a serious literary language, those writing in it were either murdered in Nazi concentration camps, shot by the Soviets, or emigrated to the United States or South America. And the Jews of Israel chose Hebrew as the national language, leaving what remained of Yiddish-speaking literary life somewhat in limbo. Now, by the early 21st century, the language is dying, despite attempts by enthusiasts to revive it by way of summer courses and other activities in cities ranging from Paris to Vilnius.

In literary terms, Yiddish is often regarded as the language of folk tales from small country towns—shtetls—with a good deal of input involving religious ritual and custom. Authors such as Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer have done little to dispel this idea, although he did write powerful realist novels such as Shadows on the Hudson. The Jewish dimension has therefore been very visible in Yiddish literature, sometimes giving gentile readers the idea that this was not quite for outsiders, unless they wanted to steep themselves in the finer points of specifically Jewish life and religiosity.

Dovid (or David) Bergelson wanted to break the mould. But his ultimate fate is as tragic as that of the Yiddish language itself: emerging as one of the few key Modernist writers in Yiddish, he was ultimately forced to conform to the edicts of Socialist Realism, but displeased the monstrous Stalinist régime, which was to prove fatal.

Dovid Bergelson was born in Uman in central Ukraine, then a Czarist province, in 1884. His father was a rich grain merchant, and his youngest son (one of nine siblings!) was given an eclectic education. But both of his parents died young and Dovid lived with various of his older siblings in Warsaw, Odessa and Kiev.

The major upheavals of 1905 passed him by. Bergelson was apparently more interested in literature than what was going on around him, and started writing in Hebrew, then Russian, but could not place his stories. He did not find it easy to start writing in Yiddish; the styles to be emulated seemed old-fashioned. He wanted to write tersely; his models were all verbose. He also wanted to write in a kind of Yiddish literary language, at one remove from the earthy colloquialisms of the majority of Yiddish writers at the time.

By 1910, Bergelson was enjoying some success with his short works. Although living in the city of Kiev, he tended to set his stories in small towns, where Yiddish was spoken. Yiddish was on the rise. Russian intellectuals wanted to show solidarity with Jews and a certain amount of liberalization was occurring in the Russian Empire. Just before WWI, the Kiev Group was established—a group of young Yiddish authors.

He married in 1917 in Odessa, but the family moved to Kiev for protection, as the pogroms raged. One of Bergelson’s manuscripts for a novel was destroyed in one such pogrom.

In 1920, the Russian Revolution had made Moscow the capital of the new Bolshevized Russia. Yiddish flourished and the mood was liberal. The Yiddish activists dreamed of a synthesis of Yiddish and universal culture. But Moscow was starving. By 1921, Dovid Bergelson was on his way to Berlin, attracted, as many other writers and intellectuals were, by improved living conditions.

He was to stay in Berlin until 1934. Many Russian intellectuals had fled Russia and ended up in Berlin, such as Andrey Bely, Ilya Ehrenburg, Vladimir Nabokov and Marina Tsvetaeva. The multilingual Bergelson appears to have felt at home there. The Weimar Republic had also attracted a whole host of Jewish writers, writing in Yiddish or, as in the case of Chaim Bialik, Hebrew. Bergelson mixed with such German writers as Alfred Döblin and Arnold Zweig. Bergelson and Albert Einstein once played violin solos at the same concert.

Gradually, however, with Hitler’s power on the rise, Dovid Bergelson began once again to look eastwards. He spent some time in Moscow in 1926. Maybe he was beginning to feel a yearning for Russia. At any rate he attacked Zionism and somewhat glorified the Soviet Union. During that fatal turning-point year in Bergelson’s fortunes, he was forced to renounce his previous writings, which had been more entertainment than agit-prop, according to the Soviet standards of the day. But maybe he did not conform enough. He was slowly slipping towards Socialist Realism, in an anxious attempt to prove how loyal he was to Russian-style Communism. And by 1929, Stalin had consolidated his power, and the literary scene became increasingly less liberal.

Dovid Bergelson did, however, see the other side of Jewish life, that of the USA. In 1929, he spent six months in New York, writing for the Yiddish press. But he found American Yiddish poetry élitist; he was already beginning to abandon Modernism in search of a more committed form of writing. By 1931, his visits to the Soviet Union were becoming ever longer.

In 1933, Bergelson spent a short while in exile in Denmark with his family. But his fate was sealed when, early the following year, he decided, as other key Yiddish writers had before him, to return to the Soviet Union. Maybe it is unfair to say that this was the beginning of the end for Dovid Bergelson, but from 1934 onwards, for the remaining 18 years of his life, he appears to have become bogged down in the intellectual and social swamp that Soviet Union had become. He visited Birobidzhan, the showcase republic set up for the Jews by Stalin, not far from Vladivostok.

After the assassination by Stalin of the prominent Jewish actor and cousin to Stalin’s personal physician, Solomon Mikhoels, in 1949, it was all over for Bergelson and a number of his Jewish writer colleagues as well. In his characteristically paranoid manner, Stalin began rounding up the Jewish intelligentsia in Russia, imagining all manner of plots. Stalin decided to eradicate Soviet Jewish culture, and one by one, Jewish intellectuals were arrested and put on trial. Dovid Bergelson spent the last couple years of his life in prison and was executed by firing squad on his 68th birthday in 1952.

This sad event for Yiddish literature occurred between 12th and 13th August 1952 and is termed the Night of the Murdered Poets. Executed along with Dovid Bergelson were Yiddish authors Peretz Markish, Itzik Fefer, Leib Kwitko, David Hofstein, Benjamin Zuskin, Solomon Lozovsky and Boris Shimeliovich.

The above is but a thumbnail sketch of the life of a complex man in complex times. The nuances and paradoxes only fully emerge in the chapters of David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism, edited by Joseph Sherman and Gennady Estraikh. This book strikes a happy balance between text and context, and the essays there cover everything from a close reading of his works to an examination of the literary, historical and cultural context in which those works were produced. This book is, in effect, more than the examination of the works of one author. The symbolic value of Bergelson’s fateful move from emerging as a Modernist author and ending up following the tenets of Socialist Realism forms the central leitmotif.

At the risk of over-simplification, it can be stated that when Bergelson described the decline and decay of the Jewish world in Eastern and Central Europe, and in a stylistically experimental fashion, he was at the top of his game. Once he started describing utopian change he was less convincing. One of the most stimulating essays in David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism is one entitled “Language and Style” in Nokh Alemen by Daniela Mantovan of the University of Heidelberg. This novel, translated twice into English as When All is Said and Done, is regarded as Bergelson’s Modernist masterpiece, and first appeared in Yiddish in 1913.

The story bears some resemblance to Madame Bovary although the main female protagonist disappears rather than dies. None the less, as Mantovan claims, Bergelson was influenced by Flaubert’s use of style indirect libre, where the distinction is blurred between direct and reported speech, which in turn affects the perceptions and limitations of the narrator.

The story is mostly centred around the life of one woman and her suitor, rejected by the “Bovary-type” of woman. As Joseph Sherman puts it:

“..the novel was among the crowning achievements of modern Yiddish fiction, the first not only to take a woman as its central character, but also to depict radical alienation. Bergelson’s prose sunders speaker from speech: monosyllabic language is punctuated by silence as though to conceal, rather than reveal thoughts.”

Mirele Hurvits, the woman protagonist, longs to escape the boredom of small-town life as the only and privileged daughter of a man with some status in the town. One step in this process is rejecting her lover. Mantovan:

“With her fiancé finally rejected, Mirele’s psychological make-up is established by means of indirect allusions: her reluctance to speak is manifested in the action of returning the engagement contract via an intermediary; her indolent decision through the inordinate lapse of time (four years!) Through which her relationship has dragged on; her aimlessness by pointless ‘promenading’; her need of suitors by immediately replacing her former fiancé with ‘the lame student’ and her self-centred use of [him] both before and after her betrothal.”

The whole novels exemplifies an interplay between various sets of values and attitudes to class. The subtlety is in the narration, not the plot.

Bergelson’s second novel Descent was published in 1921 and tells of the mysterious suicide of a young pharmacist Meylekh in the small town of Rakitne (the very name of which has the ring of rachitis or rickets about it). The title – “Opgang” in Yiddish – can be interpreted as decline, descent, sunset, and one or two other downward allusions. The book begins with the funeral of Meylekh (the name, ironically, mean “king”) and the arrival of his friend Khayim-Moyshe to sort out the financial affairs of the dead man. The local townspeople are very unhelpful, fall silent at the first opportunity. It is not clear whether any of the womenfolk that Meylekh associated with pushed him over the edge. One critic, Dara Horn, is puzzled by the fact that Meylekh’s unexpected death could be owing to one of three women, his former fiancé Ethel, a recluse, Khave, a rather smart woman about town and Henke, who is the earthiest, most straightforward of the three. But this puzzle is never resolved. The novel shows how the glue of small-town society has come unstuck. There is no redemption. Not an particularly life-enhancing way of approaching life. But it has been suggested that Bergelson already identified the decline of Jewish society after the shake-up of World War One; so this negatively-charged novel comes as no surprise.

What is much more surprising is why, by the early 1930s, Dovid Bergelson had sold his artistic birthright to Socialist Realism, a credo that should have been utterly alien to the sensitive describer of the decline of the Jewish stetl. What had occurred during the 1920s to turn the author from a gloomy Modernist into an adept of modern [Stalinist] man, a eulogistic supporter of the new project for Jews in the Soviet Union, the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Republic in Birobidzhan? How had Bergelson, then living in Berlin and even visiting Jewish communities in the United States, managed to convince himself that Soviet Jewry would fare any better than Jews had for hundreds of years under rulers of a more or less anti-Semitic variety? Was Bergelson the victim of his own bouts of wish-fulfillment?

In 1929, Bergelson published a novel entitled Mides-hadin which translates as “with the full force of the law”, a Hebrew concept. Critic Michael Krutikov says that this novel marks the watershed between Bergelson’s Modernist and Socialist Realist periods. While he was already trying to adjust to the Socialist Realist mind set, he was still experimenting, using a mystical concept in the title of what was to become a novel of revolutionary struggle. Bergelson appears to still have had the mental space, living in Berlin as he still was, to have it both ways: literary experiment and political commitment did not yet exclude one another. But by 1932, in his novel Baym Dnyepr (On the Dniepr; Part Two 1940), Bergelson had crossed the river. Harriet Murav of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that the author may have by now been “rewriting” both himself and history. You are almost reminded of the gin-soaked tears of Winston in 1984 as they run down the cheek of the new “convert” to Big Brotherism. The brainwashers had won the day.

Or had they? Murav suggests that while the surface of Baym Dnyepr conforms to the grand tenets of Socialist Realism, a number of stylistic devices used subtly by Bergelson undermine this surface reading. The very fact that the novel was enthusiastically planned as a five-volume suite, but in the end appeared as two volumes with almost a decade between them, points to a different reality than the hysteria of the Stalinist doctrine of “back to the future” with positive heroes following Lenin and their conscience.

Before his arrest and ultimate execution, Dovid Bergelson was to produce one more work of note: the play Prints Ruveni. This play was being rehearsed by the Director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre Shloyme Mikhoels, when Mikhoels was arrested and murdered on Stalin’s explicit orders on 12th January 1949. Mikhoels had hoped to turn Bergelson’s play into one of his theatre’s great achievements. But it was not to be. Within three years, Bergelson would also have fallen victim to Stalin’s irrational purge mentality. The play is based on the life of Prince David Reubeni (1490-1540), one of Judaism’s several false messiahs who ended up a victim of the Inquisition. Where was Bergelson going with this play, written in the Stalinist Soviet Union after the Holocaust? Was he in some complex way trying to square the circle of the Jewish state in Palestine and the life of Soviet Jewry? Was he implying that the Soviet Union might be swept away as Hitler’s Germany had been? Whatever the overt or covert message, Stalin must have interpreted the play, with a song sung in Hebrew, as a bridge too far as regards Jewish identity, because the message about a secular paradise seems to been overlooked by the dictator, and suspicions were aroused about other dreams.

The paradoxical nature of Dovid Bergelson’s life and the movement of his work from experimentation to conformity (with experiment and non-conformity still lurking beneath the surface) make the man and his writings a fascinating case in twentieth century literature written in one of Europe’s many literary languages.



When All Is Said and Done, (novel), translated by Bernard Martin, Ohio University Press, Athens 1977

The Stories of David Bergelson – Yiddish Short Fiction From Russia, translated by Golda Werman, Syracuse University Press, 1996

Descent, (novel) translated by Joseph Sherman, Modern Language Association of America, New York, 2000

Shadows of Berlin, (stories) translated by Joachim Neugroschel, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2005

When All is Said and Done (novel), translated by Joseph Sherman, Yale University Press, [forthcoming 2008]



David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism
edited by Joseph Sherman and Gennady Estraikh
363 pages, $89.50

26 March 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Our latest review is Eric Dickens’ examination of David Bergelson: From Modernism to Socialist Realism.

28 December 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Eric Dickens—translator of Kross and his fellow countryman Mati Unt, along with many other writers—offered to write an obituary of Jaan Kross for us. As Dickens points out, this is more than just an obituary—it’s also an overview of one of Estonia’s great writers who is hardly known in the U.S./UK despite the fact that several of his books have been translated and published by Harvill and The New Press.

Jaan Kross, the novelist and grand old man of Estonian literature died in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, on Thursday 27th December 2007. He was 87.

What follows is both an obituary, a history and a bibliography. As will be seen, life and letters are inextricably intertwined and as only three of Kross’ novels and one collection of stories are readily available in English, light will also be shed on those that are not yet available in that language. I will translate the titles of all the works mentioned for the convenience of readers.


Jaan Kross was born on February 19th, 1920, in Tallinn, as the son of a metal craftsman and engineer. The Estonian Republic, independent for the first time in history, had been proclaimed shortly before Kross was born, and he spent a reasonably idyllic life at school in Tallinn, and university in Tartu, studying to become a lawyer. But history was instead to ultimately make him the author of more than a dozen historical and semi-autobiographical novels, all intimately connected with the fate of Estonia.

At a national level, the twenty years of Estonian independence which marked Kross’ boyhood and youth were marred by a failed Communist coup in 1924, the knock-on effect of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and the resulting authoritarian governments of the 1930s. But worse was to come. Kross’ dreams of peace and prosperity, and those of most Estonians, were shattered as a result of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, where Hitler and Stalin in effect divided up Europe into two spheres of influence. Estonia, like Latvia and Lithuania, all three fledgling independent republics, fell under the Soviet, i.e. Russian, sphere of influence. From then onwards, until Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the country suffered occupation, war, destruction, deportations and a ruined and centrally planned economy, tailored to suit the exigencies of Moscow.

In 1940, the Soviet Union bullied its way into Estonia, stationing large numbers of troops in several parts of the country. A Communist takeover was then rigged so that it looked democratic. Yet the number of Estonian Communists was minuscule; Russian Communists were shipped in to pad out demonstrations. During this one year Soviet occupation, all the members of what had been the government of an independent state, including the President and Prime-Minister, were deported to Siberia, as were many members of parliament. Many were shot in 1942.

Kross was too young to be greatly affected, but observed, experienced. When the German Nazis invaded and occupied the country in the summer of 1941 and stayed for three years, Kross was imprisoned for a few months, on suspicion of being an Estonian nationalist. This was not the last time that Kross suffered at the hands of an occupying power.

In 1944, as the Germans retreated and the Soviets returned causing a power vacuum, a large number of middle-class people took the opportunity to flee to Sweden. Kross was not among them. He decided to stay put and take his chances with whatever history brought Estonia. All went reasonably well until 1946 when Kross was arrested, this time by the Soviet authorities, and sent to the Gulag – suspected, as by the Germans, of nationalist activity. He spent most of his eight years of labour camp and internal exile in the area around Krasnoyarsk in the Komi Republic, not returning to his home town Tallinn until 1954. Kross depicts these two periods of incarceration and forced labour in a series of stories, available in English translation under the title The Conspiracy and Other Stories.


27 July 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Our latest review is of Viivi Luik’s The Beauty of History translated from the Estonian by Hildi Hawkins.

This review is written by Eric Dickens, who has done his fair share of translating from Estonian. Most recently he did Mati Unt’s Things in the Night for Dalkey Archive Press, and will be doing Unt’s Brecht Appears by Night for Dalkey as well.

On a sidenote, Norvik Press does do some interesting things—needs some serious website help. I honestly couldn’t find Luik’s book on the site, which is why there’s no link in the review.

27 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

As a teenager, I watched on TV the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks. The year was 1968. The Soviet Union put an end to an attempt by a purportedly sovereign state to introduce a milder brand of Communism. Conscripts from the Baltic republics were also forced to take part in this blatant act of Soviet imperialism.

In those days I had never heard of Estonia. I only became aware of the country while studying at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K., several years later. A few albums, brought up from Cambridge and whose photographs were projected onto the wall with an epidiascope, left me with no more of an impression of that country behind the Iron Curtain than a pretty medieval city and lots of evergreen forest. Not until 1979 did I see the real thing. But we were chaperoned round Tallinn by a tour guide who was no doubt obliged to report our every move and utterance back to the KGB. Nor were we allowed to talk with ordinary Estonians. Tourists were given red Soviet champagne and three square meals a days at the best hotel in town, but local people were banned from entering that hotel to prevent them mixing with foreigners and telling them what life was really like in Estonia.

By the late 1980s the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, along with neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, was seminal in the initial stirrings of revolt: the Singing Revolution and the Baltic Chain. These events marked the start of what ultimately became the collapse of the whole Soviet Union under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. These three small countries had almost sunk into oblivion in Western eyes since being swallowed up by the Soviet Union in 1944. Now, suddenly, they had re-emerged into the limelight of history. At about that time, while it was still uncertain whether the peaceful Baltic revolt would succeed or be crushed like the Prague Spring, Viivi Luik, a popular Estonian poet, then in her forties, began to write her second novel.

Her first, The Seventh Springtime of Peace, written only a few years earlier, had dealt with Luik’s early years which had coincided with the period that the kolkhoz system that had been forced onto unwilling Estonian farmers by the Soviet authorities. It was received enthusiastically by an Estonian reading public that knew that woven into this delicate portrait of childhood was an implicit critique of the Soviet annexation of Estonia in 1940 and, after a few years of Nazi German occupation, again in 1944.

Luik now embarked on a second novel, this time set in August 1968, when the fate of Czechoslovakia, as it then was, hung in the balance. But, not only was the author unable, owing to Soviet censorship, to fire full Baltic salvos at Soviet injustices abroad, but she actively chose not to. This was to become one of the most poetic Estonian novels of recent years.

The Beauty of History is essentially a love story; but also the story of an emergent postcolonial awareness in Eastern Europe. The protagonist is a young Estonian woman, the alter ego of Luik, who is described over the first few pages of the novel as someone who “. . . has played unconcernedly all her life, with images and words, against a background of the history of the Baltic countries” which we know, with hindsight, to have been a history filled with of short-lived hopes and bitter disappointments. Her lover is a Latvian Jew, Lion (pronounced Lee-on), whom she goes to visit in his home town, the city of Riga, once the prosperous capital of Latvia, but which had, to all intents and purposes, become a run-down provincial town in the Soviet Empire.

One paradox in their relationship is language. “Why don’t we speak German?” asks Lion, not without impatience. This simple suggestion pans out into the whole tragedy of the Baltic countries who were occupied at times by Russian- and German-speaking overlords, sometimes for centuries at a time. Estonians and Latvians had no choice but to use one of the colonial languages to communicate with each other. The Estonian and Latvian languages are worlds apart, though the countries border on one another; the English language was only taught to a tiny number of people. The protagonist would have liked to have spoken to Lion in German, the lesser of two linguistic evils, but her knowledge of that language is limited to pat phrases learnt at school. In the end, they will have communicated in the least popular colonial language of the time: Russian.

Clothing takes on symbolic value. The Soviet system with its Five Year Plans and top–down economy led to periodic shortages. She herself wears sandals and a shirt with epaulettes, which may make her something of a Communist Youth member in Lion’s eyes. He, on the other hand, wears a soft woollen jumper with the label “Pure Wool – Reine Wolle” that reeks of bourgeois decadence. Even clothes, whether bought from second-hand shops, or discovered in a cupboard and dating back to Baltic independence in the 1920s and 1930s, allude to politics, in this instance, the twenty years of independence that Estonia and Latvia enjoyed between the First and Second World Wars.

Several folk tales are interwoven with the text. Unlikely yarns are told, tales that have been with the Estonians and Latvians for centuries, passed down by word of mouth. But some of the allusions are all too real. In the first chapter already, among lyrical descriptions of butterflies in April, spruce trees in the twilight, and the sowing of potatoes in May and their harvesting in September, comes the mention of bunkers and trenches. Bunkers especially have a resonance among Balts. In all three countries, an anti-Soviet resistance movement, the Forest Brethren, fought their hopeless fight against the Soviet takeover until well into the 1950s. These guerrilla fighters lived in appalling conditions in bunkers and underground hideouts in the forest, and were hunted incessantly and mercilessly by the KGB. When, in the very next paragraph of the novel, the author mentions Prague, Kundera, Havel, Brezhnev and Ceausescu, there is a fruitful tension between the seasonal rhythms of rural life and the magical month of August, which marked both the commencement of the First World War, and now that of the end of the Prague Spring.

The room has grown dark. Brezhnev’s tanks have just reached Prague. The Angel of the Lord smiles mockingly and tenderly. In his hand is no fiery sword, no lance, no spear or brine-soaked whip, but only a single stinging nettle, which gives strength to resist evil and purifies the blood.

Smoke rises vertically from factory chimneys, iron rumbles, bare bulbs light corridors and stairways. Do not trust others. It is better not to speak about yourself. Fear glows in naked forty-watt bulbs like an egg, like butter and cream, like an official testimony. Clouds float like leaflets over the long lonely beaches of the Baltic, over tracks left by soldiers’ boots in Bohemia and Moravia, the wind bends the grain of Lithuania double, strikes the beans of Latvia to the ground. More faith! More hope! More love!

What have all the countries mentioned in common? The clue is in the second sentence: suppression by Brezhnev’s tanks. The nettle is a symbol of the purifying resistance of small, weak nations against superpowers.

By 1991, when the The Beauty of History first appeared, the game was almost up for the Soviet Union. That is why Luik feels free to mention political events relatively openly. But lurking at the back of everyone’s mind in the Baltic countries was the fear that the beast would somehow be given a new lease of life, and that the Soviet Union would manage a few desultory reforms, then trundle on for another half-century. This was, after all, Gorbachev’s strategy, before Boris Yeltsin exerted his power.

One beautiful piece of ironic understatement, alluding to Ján Palach, who died by self-immolation in protest against the Soviet invasion, is: “A Czech boy pouring petrol over himself and then lighting a match does not really go with the carpets in the living-room of Europe, so the television is switched off.”

The style of the novel thus comprises the alternation of the idyllic aspects of life, mostly rural, and the real, much less attractive one, often urban. The kolkhoz system had ruined the rural economy, but trees and clouds do not follow the edicts of economists and politicians. Private life, within the home, also served as an inner sanctum of normality set against the absurdities of life on the streets.

When the protagonist (whose name we never learn) steps on a broken lightbulb and cuts her foot on the beach, Lion cuts open the wound a little further to release any infected blood. This description is treated poetically, despite the banality of the actions involved. But then we are tugged straight back to the looming reality of the military threat in Central Europe, in juxtaposition to the mundanities of everyday life:

Today, TASS no longer announces anything. On the shores of both the River Daugava and the Gulf of Finland, water flows from the taps into saucepans and coffee pots, bathtubs and wash-basins. Butter is taken out of refrigerators, bread is cut.

The River Daugava is in occupied Latvia; the Gulf of Finland has, on one part of the littoral, occupied Estonia, on the other a relatively free Finland, with Leningrad (now again renamed Saint Petersburg) in between, where Peter the Great drove a wedge into the continuum of Finno-Ugrian peoples at the end of the Gulf.

Viivi Luik makes good use of this contrast between the smallness of our lives with the huge vistas of history. The Angel of the Lord hovers over the whole historical scene, then, the next moment, we are back in the sensual scheme of life surrounding the protagonist, as she sits in Lion’s flat. She decides to write a poem (this is probably one of Viivi Luik’s own, written in 1968 and left unpublished) :

The moon shines brightly,
bq. the dead drive lightly.
bq. My darling, have no fear.

Then she considers for a moment what to write next, and adds:

In memoriam
bq. 21 August 1968

Soon, the reader is caught up in this rhythm of alternation, where the author can swing, quite unexpectedly from one register to another, from poetry to journalism, from the present day to memory. So we are not surprised to see words such as NKVD and Goethe on the same page, to be followed by a brief description of the weather in Riga.

Lion goes to Moscow, she is left behind in his flat in Riga with Aunt Olga, plus a thousand artefacts, items of furniture, and architecture that remind her of Lion, remind her of history. Lion is in Moscow in an attempt to obtain papers to exempt him from military service. The Balts secretly admire the Czech revolt, and Baltic conscripts would be loath to sit atop a tank and maybe have to fire bullets at those clamoring for freedom. Meanwhile, she ponders on the politics of poetry: the Russian dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, and the Estonian poet Paul-Eerik Rummo (who later, in real life, was for a while Estonian Minister for Ethnic Relations) can be “interviewed” by the secret police:

A certain Russian boy who is considered and underground genius once showed her, across the table in a café, a copy of Doctor Zhivago, wrapped in a newspaper. Rumours of secret circulars and plain-clothes men she considers exaggeration and bluff, although she has heard that Joseph Brodsky (who lives in Leningrad) and Paul-Eerik Rummo (of whom no one knows exactly where he lives) can be called in for interrogation for the dissemination of particular poems. Those words – called in for interrogation she repeats, carefree and mechanical as a parrot, and other people like her nod their heads, equally carefree and mechanical. Being called in for interrogation sounds almost as vague and grand as the Finnish Winter War, the Hungarian Uprising, the Three Baltic States.

In the Soviet Union, literature was never neutral. Any hint of revolt against the system, even in passing in a poem, could trigger off a negative response from the secret police, the Glavlit censorship apparatus or the Communist Party. One Latvian poet, Knuts Skujenieks, was sent to Siberia as recently as 1962 for possessing a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica!

The novel ends with the protagonist returning to Tallinn from Riga by train. The journey takes seven hours, in itself a critique of the inefficiency of the Soviet infrastructure. Trains formed a major part of Soviet travel, despite their slowness. Before the train has even begun to move, Riga is already unreal. The girls in the train are showing one another consumer goods they have managed to get hold of. Will she ever see Riga again, she wonders. At the Valga railway station, which marks the border between Latvia and Estonia, she sees a small boy playing with a flower as if it were a living creature. The Drunken Man is railing against the nearest that Soviet youth got to long-haired hippies.

At the very end, the Angel of the Lord, who has hovered over history throughout the novel, is replaced by the Angel of Death.


As mentioned briefly above, Viivi Luik herself started her literary career as a poet. Given the fact that she was born in 1946, it is quite remarkable that she already managed to publish her first chapbook of poems in 1964, in a boxed set together with a number of other Estonian authors of her generation: Jaan Kaplinski whose work has appeared in English, the patriotic poet Hando Runnel and Ly Seppel, who nowadays translates literature from Turkish into Estonian, including Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. Estonian authors often double up as poets, prose writers and translators. This last activity sets them apart from the vast majority of British and American authors; the smaller the number of native-speakers of any language, the greater the tendency to do translation.

Luik went on, by way of her low-key symbolic poems that take everyday life as their point of departure, to become a popular poet. But as has been pointed out by critic Arne Merilai, there is a certain element of melancholy in her poems. Between the early 1960s and the late 1980s, she produced nine collections of poetry of varying sizes, most chap-books; then she moved over to prose and essay-writing. Viivi Luik has also written several books for children. Her collected poems were published in 2006.

We can ask ourselves why has it taken so long for this accomplished poetic novel to appear in English. The Finnish translation appeared before the original Estonian version in 1991, because then, as now, Estonia was going through troubled times; Yeltsin had not yet stood on his tank. It was not even certain that the Estonian version would ever appear. The Dutch translation appeared in the early 1990s and the undersigned helped Viivi Luik a little when she visited Amsterdam, and the publishing house in the southern Dutch city of Breda. The Swedish translation appeared in 1993. There was even a foretaste of an English translation in the magazine Transition 1: Writing From the European Borderlands a literary magazine partly edited by the present translator herself, Hildi Hawkins. But that was back in 1995; it is now 2007.

A word about the translation. As far as I am aware, this was done from the Finnish version, with close reference to the Estonian original — the Finnish version did, after all, appear first, so this course of events is justified. Any of the minor discrepancies and unhappy turns of phrase should be forgiven by readers, given the fact that the translator has been trying for over a decade to get the book published in Britain.

The afterword is by Richard C.M. Mole, lecturer in politics of Central Europe at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London. Dr Mole concentrates on the geo-political and historical background of the novel, which may not always be immediately evident to the British reader, but does not touch on the poetics or aesthetics of the novel. That dimension is self-evident from the text itself.

Estonia continues to be haunted by its Soviet past even today. Ironically, owing to the riots in the capital Tallinn during late April this year, themselves sparked off by Estonia’s Soviet legacy, the country has gained the attention of the world again. But for all the wrong reasons. It would be so much nicer if Estonia were known, not for the smashing of the plate-glass windows of boutiques and wine shops, but for its wealth of sophisticated literature. When Russian-speaking youth rioted in Tallinn recently, protesting at the removal of a the symbolic Bronze Soldier from the center of the city, and the Russian Foreign Minister described such a removal as “blasphemous” , this formed an interesting coda to a period of history with little beauty about it.

Poetry and politics form the clue to most of Viivi Luik’s writing. People growing up during an occupation lasting decades learnt how to preserve that deeply private part of their lives that remains untainted by the wearying absurdities of the political system. Luik is a child of Soviet reality. A poetic rendering of such a life can dig deeper than mere history book description. We are introduced to the feel of what it was like to live in an vassal state of the Soviet Union.

The Beauty of History was launched at a reception the Estonian Embassy in London, during the London Book Fair.


Eric Dickens, Blaricum, Netherlands, April 2007

The Beauty of History
by Viivi Luik
Translator: Hildi Hawkins
Afterword: Richard C.M. Mole
Original language: Estonian
Length: 152 pages
Publisher: The Norvik Press, UEA, Norwich
Year of publication: 2007

ISBN 978-1-870041-73-7

19 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

The most recent addition to Eurozine’s “Literary Perspectives” series (an intro to which can be found here) is an essay on contemporary Estonian literature.

Pieces in this series aren’t always that tight or well-structured—although the opening on libraries not loaning or stocking many contemporary Estonian books is pretty fascinating, and I wonder what the borrowing ratio is here between Harry Potter and David Foster Wallace—but they do cover a number of interesting international authors.

I was fortunate enough to visit Estonia a couple of years ago (thanks to the amazing Estonian Literature Information Centre) and meet with a number of publishers, writers, and critics, so a number of the authors featured in Mart Valjataga’s article are familiar to me. And sample translations from most are on the ELIC website.

Tonu Onnepalu is a very interesting Estonian writer, and one of his books—Border State—is available in English from Northwestern University Press.

Other than that, the Estonian books in translation that I’m aware of are Things in the Night by Mati Unt and Jaan Kross’s Czar’s Madman, The Conspiracy, Professor Marten’s Departure, and Treading Air. (Anselm Hollo and Eric Dickens are the translators responsible for all these titles, although Random House UK doesn’t seem to mention translators on their website . . . )

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