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.’
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .