13 May 08 | Chad W. Post

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 . . .

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