Andrus Kivirähk: The Old Barny. Tallinn 2000. 200 pp

Are you one of those who devour literature voraciously, like a horse? And soap like a countryside ignoramus? This is a book for you. All the more so since all Estonians have read it. It is probably the belletristic work most frequently referred to in its homeland nowadays. Whenever two Estonians meet, one of them just mentions the book, and the next second both of them burst into a unifying guffaw. The Old Barny himself, the protagonist of the book, has even been proposed as Man of the Year in Estonia.

With its burlesque humour, this is the best book I have read for a very long time. Just as every Norwegian finds that he is kinsman to the protagonist of Peer Gynt as depicted by Henrik Ibsen, every Estonian will discover his own kinship to the characters of The Old Barny. Both works were at first considered extremely national in scope. However, it doesn’t require much reflection to reveal the universality of both.

At first the reader will probably recognise his own acquaintances in the characters of the book. Soon he will mature to see that he himself is depicted along with the others. Although the portrayal is not always positive, it is so good-humoured that human dignity is preserved.

The first couple of pages were a little bewildering since they brought to mind the opening of Mihkel Mutt’s novel, An International Man (1994), about the first president of the newly independent Estonia and his efforts to rid his country of the Soviet stamp and put it back on the map of free and normal nations. In fact, the first words of Mutt’s novel are ‘edible soap’. At the beginning of the new era of independence, there was a shortage of almost everything, and Mutt has the whole population resorting to soap eating.

In Rehepapp the eating of soap is more of a symbol revealing the immense class differences in the Estonian countryside at sometime around the middle of the 19th century. Whereas scented soap is used by the manor people as an item in their luxurious hygienic routine, the ignorant peasant is unable to stretch his imagination beyond everyday needs. The pure and fragrant little piece cannot be intended for anything else but eating! All the more so as it is found in the pantry. A couple of candles are added to the menu and consumed in the same natural way.

Perhaps you happen to be one of those adhering to the Spanish proverb: libros y amigos, pocos y buenos – here is a friend for you. And like every friend, The Old Barny also serves as a mirror reflecting yourself as it reflects human beings in general with their flaws and frailties.

The subtitle of the book is November. That means 30 days and 30 mouthfuls to ruminate over, if you are, in fact, not a horse. Perhaps you are instead a cow with large dewy eyes – chewing thoughtfully, swallowing, chewing again … The Old Barny is suitable even for you.

But there is one group of people that should be forewarned: those people lacking a sense of humour, people who are unable to enjoy irony – especially at their own expense. It’s hands off for you!

© ELM no 14, spring 2002