Tarmo Teder, Andruse elu ja õnn (Andrus’ Life and Joy)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2016. 102 pp.
ISBN: 9789985796795

Tarmo Teder (1958) is one of Estonia’s best storytellers, and an old-school writer in the very best sense. He is loquacious and a good short story author, but has also sparred with longer prose, and even writes poetry on fair days.

Teder’s short story collections have frequently come from a sense of place: his pieces are coupled with a particular site, neighborhood, house, street, or rural area. He is a detailed, realistic storyteller whose works often convey the grungier or more bizarre aspects of life in Estonia. His characters are ordinary people, not heroes. Teder also loves to interlace chess-like plot resolutions into his stories: he is a fan of good twists, juicy language, and rich, satisfying descriptions…

Andrus’ Life and Joy (Andruse elu ja õnn) is, on the one hand, a genuine example of Teder’s style: specific places play a clear role in the short novel or story or extended novella (pecking away at the limits of genre seems to be one of the favorite topics of Estonian literary theory). He gives special attention to a small island off Estonia’s western coast, but also to the atmosphere inside a Tartu jail and to life in other small towns and the countryside. Another important part of Andrus’ Life and Joy is Teder’s lengthier, more philosophical description of Europe’s capital city, Brussels, which the protagonist, already an old man, visits on his first longer trip abroad – a trip to the European Parliament to see his estranged daughter. Teder’s classic, characteristic manner of storytelling is vividly present here: he relishes every sentence as he paints a backdrop for the story, and sometimes even a second or a third. The author colorfully quilts snapshots of tiny occurrences together with quotes and historical parallels: the novel’s plot, which is comprised of one man’s life, meshes with a small country’s fate. The book is so script-like that it’s unfortunate Teder hasn’t been hired to work on any films dealing with 20th-century Estonian history: Andrus’ Life and Joy is strikingly visual and narrative, and some sections seem to be made for the big screen!

Still, there is something much greater here: the biography of a man living on a small island, extending from the Soviet era to the most recent of events (the book doesn’t end with the protagonist’s death, but with the start of a new life: an ending so optimistic that it’s un-Estonian, and even un-Teder-like!), is a unique kind of manifesto. Yes, Teder intends for it to cast an ordinary, serious, headstrong man’s gaze and judgment upon Estonian life as a whole. His intention is political, judgmental, liberal, and stubborn: everything, which literature (that blossoming and social-critical thing) has been able to allow itself over time.

I know of no better concise contemporary Estonian history lesson than this. While Teder briefly, in the middle of the book, gets perhaps overly hung up on describing the course of the economy (though only for a short time, and justifiably so, since the small-island fisherman becomes a “businessman” in early-1990s Estonia, just like almost everyone else), it’s actually an intriguing glimpse: a panorama of “Little Estonia”, recognizable to those who experienced it. Such was the life of an ordinary rural resident in the Soviet era, and such was the end of that country through his eyes. Such was how capitalism came. Such was how people in Estonia drank, and still drink. Such was precisely how banks’ forecasts and front-page newspaper stories about economic depression affected the lives of simple folk. Oh, and so has life changed in our prisons!

Teder has penned the history of a marvelous little man, a little Estonian. But not only that! He shows us life’s materialist burden, economic depression and the power of alcohol and the frailty of love, the hopelessness of love – and even so, he leaves us hope! It is an idealist piece of fiction aimed at the materialist world and Estonia’s inevitable fate, one with its feet deep in the mud and within life itself.

Andrus, the main character, finds the milestones of Estonian in its greatest celebrities: a famous skier, a beloved writer, an oafish prime minister, etc. His own name has a dash of added significance, as it was also the name of the greatest seeker of truth and justice in Estonian literature: Andres Vargamäe in A. H. Tammsaare’s pentalogy Truth and Justice (in Teder’s case, the protagonist’s full name is Andrus Kadakavälja, i.e. Andrus “Juniperfield”, and those junipers are quite the tough, gnarled trees).

For the positivist searching for the stories’ causes and backgrounds in the author’s own life, Teder is a tough nut to crack: he comes from an island, just like his protagonist, but there is much more to him than that. He is an avid fisherman and chess player, and both activities are very important in the story. Teder’s other hobbies are also mentioned in passing: football and pottery, which is a skill he acquired late in life. Just like the author once did, Andrus feigns insanity to avoid conscription in the Soviet army; however, the circumstances and method are different. Teder has acknowledged with a chuckle that, without fail, readers tend to regard the true events in his books as being made-up, and vice versa. This is an exciting fact and adds more liveliness to his writing: something, which is already in great supply.

Actually, even the murkiest wordplays and the scenes most distant from the writer’s own life still tell us something about him: we can positivistically poke around in even the greatest abstractionist’s art. It’s simply a way to plant more stories between the stories: for no matter how thrilling Andrus’ life and happiness might be, Teder himself is a serious thriller and a work of art. Yet, readers don’t need to know this to understand his writing.

For everyone who grumbles that contemporary Estonian books lack vibrancy: here! This is a story about capitalism’s birth in Estonia and in a man, as well as about overcoming that illness. It is a beautiful, masculine, and even conservative story strongly grounded in values. It’s simply a good, moving tale with a twist, just like Teder always gives us, so I won’t reveal the ending…


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