18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Some time in the past I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers. (Finland-Estonia, Grove/Black Cat)

In terms of the book itself, I don’t have a lot to add to Larissa’s perceptive review. But to tie this particular post back into the actual WPR “Here On Earth” conversation that sparked this sporadic series of posts, I have to post a picture of Sofi, aka, the “woman with the most amazing hair.” (I feel like I must’ve mentioned this a half-dozen times during that interview . . . it was like my verbal crutch of the moment . . .):

I finally met Sofi at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and really enjoyed talking with her. I say “finally” because I was supposed to meet her at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last fall, but she wasn’t able to make it due to a bout of the swine flu. And continuing with a bit of cursed luck, prior to PEN World Voices, she was supposed to read in California, but, well, the volcano nixed that trip . . . As a friend said, she could write a book on being impacted by the not-so-insignificant global disasters of recent times.

Anyway, Purge is a really interesting book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Oksanen ends up writing. She’s really at the top of her game right now, having recently won the Nordic Prize for Purge, and was named Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009.

Although this may not be the most uplifting of the books in our summer roundup, it’s definitely worth checking out.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, which was translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers and published earlier this year by Grove/Black Cat.

Since this was one of the books I recommended on “Here on Earth,” I’ll save my comments for another post (which will be up in just a minute).

Larissa is one of our regular contributors and tends to focus on Scandinavian literature, which is one of her big interests. (That said, she’s also working on a review of Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango.)

Here’s the beginning of her review:

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller.

Click here to read the entire review.

18 June 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes—the Finlandia and the Runeberg—as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991—the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia—with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia—a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller. Both Aliide and Zara are survivors in the truest sense of the word—their suffering purposefully repressed by sheer force of will, their sole motivation to protect themselves from further harm. And they are both connected by a dense and untold family history that has festered for over four decades.

As the novel delves into Aliide’s past and the thirty-odd years that Estonia spent under Soviet occupation, it becomes apparent that the events of the present have all spun out from the same traumatic incident—a brutal “interrogation” that Aliide endured at the hands of several soldiers. Rape and assault were frighteningly common experiences for young Estonian women during this time, although not ones which were ever acknowledged—even by others who had gone through similar attacks. Rather, these women became isolated within their own communities and families, silent and ashamed. Aliide not only goes to great lengths to secret her experience, but also to distance herself from other victims. “She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said something similar happened to them,” we’re told.

From every trembling hand, she could tell—there’s another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier’s shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn’t keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn’t look you in the eye . . .

When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice similarities in their behavior . . . because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman’s . . . And they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from flinching at the same time, if they heard a familiar voice. They wouldn’t be able to raise their glass without spilling. They would be discovered. Someone would know.

Even as Aliide’s attempts at self-preservation become increasingly damaging to those around her—even as she allows herself to become complicit in the violations, abuses, and deportations that take place in her own home—the novel still treats her with a great depth of empathy. This is not to say that she is absolved of her actions—much to the contrary. But she is understood to be a casualty of her time and circumstances, and utterly alone with her memories and her guilt. As she realizes late in the novel, her whole life was spent “[w]aiting for someone . . . Someone who would do something to help or at least take away part of what had happened in that cellar.”

Stroke her hair and say that it wasn’t her fault. And say that it would never happen again, no matter what. And when she realized what she had been waiting for, she understood that that person would never come. No one would ever come to her and say those words, and mean them, and see that it never happened again.

There can be no real absolution for Aliide. This fact may be difficult for American readers, who have perhaps become accustomed to narratives of trauma and emotional distress which end in redemption—in the characters achieving some sort of closure, if not an out and out resolution to their suffering. In reality, however, true healing is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and impossible, the novel reminds us, if the victims involved are not able to discuss their experiences.

Where Purge does take hope, however, is in Zara, a young woman who has broken free of the cycle of victimization. Through her, Aliide’s experiences—as well as those of her grandmother and mother—will finally come to light. It is a painful history to be sure, as is that of the Estonian nation. But in order to move forward—in order to truly reconcile with the past—such stories must finally be heard and examined.

24 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A. H. Tammsaare was the pseudonym of Anton Hansen, considered by many to be Estonia’s greatest writer. Born in 1878 (on a farm called Tammsaare, or “Oak Island”), Hansen did not graduate from secondary school until age 25, because his family’s sporadic income necessitated long hiatuses in his education. However, he was a talented student, and began publishing his first fiction at about that same age. His magnum opus, the five-volume Truth and Justice, was published between 1926 and 1933. Epic in scope, it covers a long period of Estonian history, portraying characters from a range of social classes in both rural and urban settings.

The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939) was Tammsaare’s last novel (he died the following year). This edition is a revision, by Christopher Moseley, of an English translation by Olga Shartze published in Moscow in 1978, the hundredth anniversary of Tammsaare’s birth. In contrast to the ambition and breadth of Truth and Justice, it has the deceptive simplicity of a folktale.

On its surface, the novel’s plot is extremely mundane. Jürka, a brawny, simpleminded peasant farmer, struggles for economic survival against the elements and the whims of his double-dealing, double-talking neighbor (and later landlord), known locally as Cunning Ants. Life on Jürka’s farm, the Pit, is difficult and harsh: in the course of his long life Jürka buries two wives and also a few of his children, who are so numerous that Tammsaare never bothers to mention them all. Predictably, Ants takes advantage of Jürka’s labor, his good nature, and his almost total lack of business sense, until at the end of the story, when Ants threatens everything Jürka has worked so hard for, Jürka commits a violent and foolhardy act of revenge.

What saves the book from being little more than a rustic melodrama is the supernatural twist Tammsaare has given it: Jürka is Satan in human form. In a prologue, we witness a conversation between Satan and St. Peter in which we learn that the continued existence of hell is threatened by God’s suspicion that human beings are incapable of salvation and should therefore not be eternally punished for failing at something that was never within their power to achieve. To protect his fiefdom, Satan agrees to be subjected to earthly incarnation so as to win salvation and thereby prove God wrong. If he succeeds, then God will let hell—and humankind—continue to exist.

This premise makes for moments of social comedy as, for example, both Ants and the self-serving village pastor marvel at Jürka’s strong desire for redemption, which dwarfs their own more practically motivated religious faith. (Tammsaare has Ants think of himself as “[not] too devout, of course, but he had the wits to give the matter serious thought shortly before the end. What counted was whether you believed or not just before you died.”) Although Jürka insists to each of them that he is actually the Devil and craves salvation only as a means of keeping hell going, they either consider this a sign of mental instability or, even if they accept it as true, believe it to be of no real bearing in a world where arranging a comfortable life on Earth takes priority over planning for the future of one’s soul.

Tammsaare is adept at deadpan humor, especially in the dialogues between Jürka and Ants, whose self-interest defies logic and yet makes a twisted sense of its own, almost as if he were a precursor of the unabashed profiteer Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22:

‘Concerning that house which we built on my crossroads with your loan. You see, Jürka, this house is, so to say, part of the Pit, in as much as it was built with that land-improvement money, and during the time you were the owner of the Pit. And now it’s I who am the owner of the Pit, while you have become the tenant as before. But when you were merely the tenant you wouldn’t have received the loan, and you only got it when you became a property owner. I don’t know what you think about it, but the way I see it is like this: if you’re only a tenant and not the owner could the house which is part of the Pit belong to you? To make my meaning clear, here’s an example: suppose you have an axe and you sell it, would you say that the handle belongs to you after the deal has been made and the money for the axe has been paid you?’

‘I guess not.’

‘The handle, therefore, belongs to the chap who bought the axe, doesn’t it?’

‘I guess so.’

‘We’ve got it all clear then. The Pit is the axe, and the house on the crossroads is the handle, and since I’ve bought the Pit—the axe, in other words, the handle that came with it, meaning the house at the crossroads, also belongs to me.’

‘I see. The Pit was there before the house, of course.’

‘That’s what I say too,’ Ants said in agreement. ‘There was the Pit and then the house appeared—no Pit, no house, because what good is a handle if there’s no axe? . . .’

At the same time, Tammsaare is capable of real poignancy, as when Jürka mourns the accidental death of one of his young children:

Tears welled from his eyes when he lowered the little coffin into the grave, and when the clods of earth fell with a hollow thud on the lid. Jürka’s tears were the talk of the village, for it was a sight no one ever expected to see—imagine that huge bear of a man weeping! . . .

There was one thing that Jürka knew very clearly now—one’s own children meant something entirely different from the calves and lambs one had, from baby birds in the nest, from new, tender shoots on a tree, from grass sprouting in the woods and rye in the fields. None of this had ever brought tears to his eyes.

Ultimately The Misadventures of the New Satan is both a sly satire on human greed and a passionate indictment of human injustice. The humor and the sadness of Tammsaare’s worldview might best be summed up in this early exchange between Ants and Jürka:

‘Well, that’s how it goes in the world,’ Ants said instructively. ‘A small man slaves for a big man, a weak one for a strong one, a fool for a clever man. It’s God Himself who arranged it like that. And whoever goes against this order, goes against God, and anyone who goes against God shall perish. Remember this well, Jürka, and teach this truth to your children. And then you shall build your house on rock, and your herds shall graze in rich pastures.’

Jürka heard him out and said to himself: ‘You keep running up against God everywhere, and He’s always on the side of whoever’s stronger and smarter.’

24 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on A. H. Tammsaare’s The Misadventures of the New Satan, which was translated by Olga Shartze, revised by Christopher Moseley and published by Norvik/Dufour.

Although the title would be well suited to a mediocre sit-com, this novel sounds pretty interesting:

The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939) was Tammsaare’s last novel (he died the following year). This edition is a revision, by Christopher Moseley, of an English translation by Olga Shartze published in Moscow in 1978, the hundredth anniversary of Tammsaare’s birth. In contrast to the ambition and breadth of Truth and Justice, it has the deceptive simplicity of a folktale.

On its surface, the novel’s plot is extremely mundane. Jürka, a brawny, simpleminded peasant farmer, struggles for economic survival against the elements and the whims of his double-dealing, double-talking neighbor (and later landlord), known locally as Cunning Ants. Life on Jürka’s farm, the Pit, is difficult and harsh: in the course of his long life Jürka buries two wives and also a few of his children, who are so numerous that Tammsaare never bothers to mention them all. Predictably, Ants takes advantage of Jürka’s labor, his good nature, and his almost total lack of business sense, until at the end of the story, when Ants threatens everything Jürka has worked so hard for, Jürka commits a violent and foolhardy act of revenge.

What saves the book from being little more than a rustic melodrama is the supernatural twist Tammsaare has given it: Jürka is Satan in human form. In a prologue, we witness a conversation between Satan and St. Peter in which we learn that the continued existence of hell is threatened by God’s suspicion that human beings are incapable of salvation and should therefore not be eternally punished for failing at something that was never within their power to achieve. To protect his fiefdom, Satan agrees to be subjected to earthly incarnation so as to win salvation and thereby prove God wrong. If he succeeds, then God will let hell—and humankind—continue to exist.

Dan’s one of our longtime reviewers (see his other pieces here) and you can read his full review of The Misadventures of the New Satan by clicking here.

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.

29 October 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of the Estonian Literary Magazine is now available in print ant online.

It’s a very poetry heavy issue, with articles about the “legendary” Heiti Talvik (who was the “guru” of his generation “like Burroughs was for the Beatniks”), on Maarja Kangro (the title of the piece, “iiii-iiii-iiiiiiiiii! is pretty intriguing), and Eha Lättemäe.

There is an article on Younger Estonian Prose that is pretty interesting. In the piece, Peeter Helme looks at the paucity of outlets for young Estonian writers—really seems limited to the biannual “novel competition” and the magazine Värske Rõhk (Fresh Pressure) which only publishes authors who are between 17 and 27—and makes some general comments about the fiction the kids are writing today. He basically breaks it down into three categories: science fiction (which is a relatively new genre in Estonian literature), psychological realism (of course), and magical realism (just keep walking).

His info about the winner of the novel competition and the runner-up is pretty interesting. First, about the winner Tiina Laanem and her novel Little Old Men:

This debut novel is an ironic glance at Estonian society: the characters are not real people but caricatures of creatures as they are described in modern lifestyle and women’s magazines.

Helme refers to the novel that placed second—_Pupils of St Nicholas_ (aka The Pupils of Niguliste) by Olle Lauli (a pseudonym)—as being more “lucid” and “grim” than the winning book, and also claims that it was influenced by American Psycho:

This is quite an exception work in Estonian literature. Most importantly, it marks the arrival of the Anglo-American form of the novel in Estonia. The story is quite plot driven, using spoken language, occasionally coarse dialogue and—typically of American authors—the book is extraordinarily bulky, 535 pages. Pupils of St Nicholas is a grim and naturalistic tale about the decline of a successful yuppie and about hopelessly tangled human relations at the beginning of the 21st century in Tallinn. It is very disturbing and, as such, a convincing reading experience.

I’m never thrilled to see international authors trying to mimic the “Anglo-American form of the novel,” but some American publisher might be interested in this. There is also a full review of this title in this issue of ELM, which gives a bit more insight into the book. (Businessmen, corruption, God, lack of God, and beatings—that’s how I’m sum up their summary.)

13 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This actually arrived a few weeks ago (we’ve been a bit busy . . .), but the new issue of the Estonian Literary Magazine is now available both in print and online.

Estonian Literary Magazine is published by the Estonian Literature Information Centre, which, in my opinion, is one of the best cultural organizations in the world. They—in particular Ilvi Liive—do a fantastic job promoting Estonian literature, arranging for editorial visits, producing beautiful and useful publications, including ELM, which comes out twice a year.

There are a number of interesting articles in this issue worth checking out, including one on Jaan Kaplinski, who sounds rather interesting:

Kaplinski says: “We mostly write according to plan, knowing what we want to say. A poem, essay or story means growing flesh on bones, clothing a naked thought in images, examples, turning it into literature. My path is the opposite. I start with images, pictures and associations, and try to reach the thought, the understanding, through them” (Ice and Titanic 1995, p 13). The aim, therefore, is to understand. Kaplinski’s manner of writing does not concentrate on external activity, but on the inner states of a character, meditations, flows of thought, memories and dreams.

Also included are pieces on the Estonian Literary Society and Three Women in Quest of Narrative, which features three younger Estonian women all incorporating folklore into their work.

My favorite section though is the Short Outlines of Books by Estonian Authors. This is a fantastic book review section that is incredibly helpful in deciding which titles to look into . . . In this particular issue, nine titles are highlighted, including works by Tonu Onnepalu (whose Border State came out from Northwestern University Press a few years back), Toomas Vint (whose Woman With a Memory Gap sounds really interesting), Aino Pervik, and Mihkel Mutt. Covering fiction and poetry, this is a great way of getting ones bearings in terms of contemporary Estonian lit.

The book/author that jumped out at me from this section is Ene Mihkelson. I remember Ilvi raving about her new book back at the Frankfurt Book Fair and this review has resparked my interest, not just in the most recent title—Plague Grave—but in her first book—The Sleep of Ahasuerus—as well.

n some respects her new novel, Plague Grave is a mirror image of her previous one, The Sleep of Ahasuerus (2001), though it is, of course, a free-standing work. The first-person narrator of The Sleep of Ahasuerus, who stands in close relationship to the author, reconstructed the story of her father’s death as a Forest Brother through interviews and archival documents; the novel had an exciting plot and even included spy games. In Plague Grave the protagonist’s father is also a murdered Forest Brother; to piece together the story of his death the protagonist hunts down the memories of her 80-year-old aunt Kaata and her mother. The result is a depth-psychological novel, utterly focused on its subject of inquiry, and presenting the empathic reader with a formidable ordeal. The narrator as ‘memory hunter’ is not prepared for her ‘prey’, for the hearing of the confessions that await her. The truth that unfolds—betrayals in the distant past that lead up to murders—are clearly too hard to bear. The memory hunter’s ‘imagination of truth’— a paradoxical compound noun of Mihkelson’s own invention – is shot to pieces in the end. However, the writer cannot pronounce unambiguous judgment on what has happened: what hinders her is the justification given for the betrayals: at a time when making ethical choices was impossible, people needed to provide the next generation safety and security. Trivial, self-justifying sentences such as, “Everyone wanted to live. Let whoever has no sin throw the first stone” are thus given specific, painfully personal content.

The story told in the novel is not in itself that complicated: what makes the novel difficult is the impossibility of giving simple, one-dimensional explanations. Mihkelson`s purpose is to question trivializing interpretations of history, clichés, and class differences. To accomplish this, the novel calls upon analogies and digressions, which evoke the Baltic Germans, Jews, and identity issues both in earlier periods in Estonian history as well as the contemporary world.

Overall, a great issue . . .

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.

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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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