Debora Vaarandi. This Far-off Voice (See kauge hääl).

Tartu. Ilmamaa, 2000. 190 pp

Debora Vaarandi, born in 1916, is well justified to carry the title of grand old lady of Estonian poetry. Her work and her radiant personality make her an important part of the tradition of great Estonian poetesses, which began in the 19th century with Lydia Koidula and continues well into the modern times. In her verses, manifesting ”the roaring falls of my blood”, the critics have found close relations, foremost, with Marie Under, the best known and most translated Estonian poetess, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times.

This Far-off Voice is a selected collection, containing the best of Vaarandi’s work. She began writing when the fires and bloodshed of WWII were raging in the world, and reached climactic transfiguration in her later work of the 1970s. Vaarandi’s debut collection was published in 1945 under an appropriate title Under the Burning Sky (Põleva laotuse all). Those times favoured Soviet pathos and utopian belief in Communism. Vaarandi soon freed herself from the ties of Stalinism, her poem Simple things, written in 1957, principally opposes her earlier rhetorical poetry; it has been considered as a milestone in the renewing Estonian poetry of that period. That year also marks the beginning of timeless and constant popularity of Debora Vaarandi, without doubt, much helped by the musicality of her texts – many of them have become much loved songs.

The best part of Vaarandi’s poetry was published in a collection In the Light of the Wind (Tuule valgel) (1977), containing her later verses, which are all included in the present collection. In this period she mostly wrote free verse, full of bright images, and almost devoid of the temporal and definite connections. Everything has been drawn together into a single ”excitement” or ”silence”, into the sound of the sea or an eternal journey. We can get some insight into the development of Vaarandi’s poetic voice to such metaphysical purity, if we consider also the authors she has translated: Edith Södergren, Anna Akhmatova and Georg Trakl.

But the best characterisation and acknowledgement of Debora Vaarandi’s poetry can be found in the words of Viivi Luik, a poet of a younger generation: ”In Estonian poetry, Debora Vaarandi personifies the rough open sea, the banners and flames, and heavy biblical clouds with flaming linings. Vaarandi’s open spaces do not indicate daydreaming. They are rolling and tremulous, we can truly believe that the horizon is hiding great hosts under flying banners. Whole nations are on the move with their tents and camels, columns of soldiers are marching somewhere, fires burst out and revolutions are kindled, new eras are born. Red is the colour of her open planes. /—/ But the wise and penetrating eyes of the poet are always and unavoidably following us between her verses.”

Ene Mihkelson. The Sleep of Ahasuerus (Ahasveeruse uni).
Tallinn. Tuum, 2001. 494 pp

A mediaeval legend tells us about a Jerusalem shoemaker Ahasuerus, or the wandering Jew, who did not allow Christ rest in front of his house on his way to Golgotha, but made him go on. As a punishment, Ahasuerus was condemned to suffering and a curse was put upon him, from which only the Second Coming can free him. The legend of Ahasuerus has proved to be a productive source for literature just for the double paradox embedded in it: eternal life as the ultimate goal of human striving becomes a curse, but the curse entails a promise for redemption.

Ene Mihkelson’s novel The Sleep of Ahasuerus concentrates upon the question, what actually happened on the 16th of February 1953, when the protagonist’s father – a forest brother, fighting against Soviet power – was killed in the Kolga (refers to Golgotha) battle. The murdered freedom fighter cannot find peace even more than fifty years after his death; old shadows, rising from the family tradition and historical sources have their effect on the modern times. Retrospection reaches back as far as into the 18th century, hinting at the Baltic-German roots of the protagonist. Suspension is added by the fact that the death of the forest brother had officially been registered only much later, on the 29th of February 1958, but the year of 1958 was not a leap year. The Ahasuerus-like suffering transforms from the killed forest brother to the main hero of the novel. She feels the curse and tries to liberate herself by pondering on the past events and talking about them. She sleeps with open eyes and sees visions that are hard to bear.

The novel is written as an inner monologue, it seems to document an investigation going on in the soul of the hero, there are many reflections and double takes. In the most emotional episode the protagonist recalls the reflection of herself in the depth of a well: the KGB people let the child toddle by the well (will she or won’t she fall in?), trying to lure out her parents hiding nearby.

The Sleep of Ahasuerus skilfully balances on the border between Estonian history and fiction. By copy and paste method of the word processor, scores of pages of documents and authentic archival material have been inserted into the text, indicating the games played by the British and Soviet intelligence service in the occupied post-war Estonia.

Juhan Liiv, the great Estonian poet of the 19th century, has said that those who do not remember the past live without the future. Mihkelson’s novels bring this truth home to us today: archival materials can blackmail us today and tomorrow. This naturally only happens if we have not learned their contents and do not remember our past. Remembering, bringing out from the oblivion and naming things has always been the imperative in Mihkelson’s work. Consequently, the soul searching in The Sleep of Ahasuerus leads to the very bottom, to the ultimate understanding of the essence of the games of denial, and the life of those times. The whole book is about the fight against forgetting, although the revealing of the past is usually painful. Once again, Mihkelson’s sadomasochistic conception of history, already pointed out by the critics of her earlier works, finds confirmation here.

It has been claimed that Soviet repression means as much to the Estonians as the Holocaust to the Jews. In The Sleep of Ahasuerus Mihkelson portrays the moral holocaust of Estonian people and analyses its effect on psyche; she describes the curse and indicates the opportunity of getting rid of it by restoring the memory. The novel’s thrilling plot, intertextual poetics and deep ethics have inspired the critics to call it the last great Estonian novel of the 20th century and the first great Estonian novel of the 21st century. For this novel Ene Mihkelson received the great annual award of the Estonian Cultural Endowment of the year 2001.

Jaan Puhvel. Abroad and At Bay (Ulgvel ja umbes)
Tartu. Ilmamaa, 2001. 264 pp

When Jaan Puhvel (1932) published his Comparative Mythology (Võrdlev mütoloogia) in Estonian in 1996, he surprised many of his readers. But the original work of the author, who lived in exile in the USA, had been published in English already in 1987, and had been used as a textbook at many Western universities. Jaan Puhvel has studied comparative mythology with two great scholars of the field – Georges Dumézil in Paris and Stig Vikander in Uppsala. At present, Jaan Puhvel travels to and fro between his two homelands and gives lectures both at California and Tartu University. Tartu University has elected him an Honorary Doctor.

The collection of essays Abroad and At Bay gathers together pieces issued in different publications during fifty years; the book also contains an interview with the author. In this interview he modestly defines himself as “a comparative linguist afloat in the wake of mythology”. The cycles ‘Language’, ‘Literature’, ‘Myth’ and ‘History’ give an overview of the fields familiar to the erudite author, who has studied many languages in danger of extinction. The reforming of the Estonian literary language at the beginning of the 20th century, pseudo-scientific curiosities, etymological and linguistic historical investigations – one of the most interesting among them follows the presence of the word ‘amber’ in the Baltic and other languages in the ancient Hittite texts – are the subjects that take us, in an enjoyable presentation, nearer to the lost and ancient times.

A large part of the book is devoted to the study of the translations of the great epics of world literature into Estonian and their reception in Estonian cultural context. Individual essays discuss ancient Egyptian ‘The Story of Sinuhe’, Sumerian ‘Gilgamesh’, Vetala stories, Buddhist literary classics and the influence of Veda poetry on Estonian poetry. Especially provoking is the witty way Puhvel relates the old texts to the modern times: he often finds something quite modern in them and points out the resonance these texts can create in the world of today. An essay ‘The Wandering Mariner at the Sea of Poetry’ observes the journey of Odysseus in the world literature beginning with Homer and finally reaching the 20th century. Puhvel is also fascinated by Paul Valéry, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. The essays on modern comparative mythology are richly illustrated with the author’s own observations of historical places and artefacts, seen during his travels.

The cycle ‘Near the Story of Creation’ displays Puhvel’s erudition and intellectual wealth in most characteristic manner. He is equally familiar with the Germanic, Indo-Iranian, Indian and Celtic gods. But the most charming feature of the book is its conservatism, which keeps up with the times, at the same time confirming the burning out of the Postmodernist project.

Haljand Udam, Oriental Journey (Orienditeekond)
Tartu. Ilmamaa, 2001.  448 pp (Series ‘Eesti Mõttelugu’, No 37)

This large volume from the prestigious series ‘Eesti Mõttelugu’ (History of Estonian Thought) offers a selection of articles of a well-known translator and orientalist Haljand Udam (1936). For thirty years the author has been working at different publishers, editing encyclopaedic reference works; his wide erudition and familiarity with philological disciplines is very much in evidence even when he discusses subjects far from his special fields of study, which are Persian and Tajik literature, Sufism and Islam culture in general. The present collection is divided into two parts: Iranica and Transoxanica and more general Orientalia and Philologica. Among others, the latter part contains articles about such great thinkers as Gaston Bachelard, Lao-tzu, René Guénon, and Estonian theologian and philologist Uku Masing; of different phenomena, Udam examines more thoroughly the New Age, treating it as an expression of the crisis of the modern secular worldview.

Most of all, however, Udam can be given credit for introducing the humanist thought of Central Asian high cultures. He has translated into Estonian the works of a number of prominent authors (Umar Hajjam, Rudaki, Saadi, Ibn Tufail and others). Oriental Journey contains the best of his thorough and expert afterwords to his translations. These discussions also reveal us the story of the author’s spiritual development. Autobiographical reminiscences take us to such exotic cities as Tashkent and Dushanbe, where Udam was able to further his education, drawing from the sources of ancient cultures during several periods, starting from the 1960s.

In addition to excellent discussions of timeless subjects, the book is made topical also by the current events in the Middle East, by Islamic extremism and terrorism, mainly in Afghanistan and Iran. He touches only briefly upon Soviet invasion to Afghanistan in the 1980s, but even here we can witness Udam’s admirable awareness and foresight with which his sympathies already back then leaned towards the Tadjik field commanders, and not towards Taliban ideologues.

This year, Haljand Udam received the National Cultural Award for his educational and enjoyable Oriental Journey.

Jüri Talvet, Have You Got Any Grapes? (Kas sul viinamarju ka on?)
Tartu. Ilmamaa, 2001. 79 pp

The fifth collection of poetry, Have You Got Any Grapes?, of the professor of world literature at the University of Tartu, a scholar of Spanish philology and a renowned translator Jüri Talvet, consists of two parts. It contains a longer cycle under the same title, and a shorter one, titled ‘At Long Last’, offering the author’s political credo, a number of linguistic experiments and several hommages to different persons.

While Talvet’s first book of poetry Awakenings (Äratused, 1981) was utterly sensual and even ecstatically emotional, by now his poetry has turned towards the intellectual interpretation of the world. This is scholarly poetry, full of Iberian-American allusions, sometimes even showing spaghetti style, and enriched by foreign phrases inserted into Estonian-language poems.

The title of the book is the question the author’s two-year-old daughter asked him over the phone when he was travelling in Spain. The child’s voice represents a fresh view of the world, which has become a routine for the grown-ups. A poet who has been able to preserve some of the child in himself can see many unusual things in our everyday life. Talvet is well able to see the world through such eyes, but a good dose of mature irony can also be detected in his voice. Many poems have been inspired by his travels; still he has not recorded common tourist attractions, but everyday details. (Vulgar thighs of Russian comradesses, which infuriate old Swedish women and make the hearts of old Swedish men jump.) He offers an outsider’s view of human migratory flocks, separating himself from them, and can, therefore, be ironical of banal tourism and cosmopolitanism.

Considering the romantic sub-current in Talvet’s poetry, we could claim that for him poetry is the means of making the world better. Even more – poetry is a way of living, an environment for life. He compares the social position and profession of the poet to that of the physician: Both approach the nerve, go deep/ to blood, touch painful knots (‘A Surgeon and a Poet’). Talvet claims that the poet’s lot is to shake tyrants and all kinds of traffickers, to write in order to liberate life and sing hymns to hope.

In this collection, a connecting axis is expressed by his daughter, who asks the question that lends the book its title, and the woman who brought him into this world – his mother. In a sense, we can even call it a religious axis, drawing together blood connections. Or we can simply call it love, not a Kierkegaardian love as a command, but love as recognition from soul to soul, from blood to blood, ignoring all commands.

Leo Kunnas. Servant of the Soldier God (Sõdurjumala teener)
Tallinn. Tuum, 2001. 333 pp

The cover photo of the book depicts a paratrooper with a Kalashnikov, tuning the reader in to the military mode. And the reader will not be disappointed – the contents of the book are rough and manly, taking him to the army and prison environment.

The first book of Leo Kunnas, major of the Estonian Army, contains two novels: The World of Undying Light (Kustumatu valguse maailm), which was published in literary magazine Looming and awarded a prize about a decade ago, and Servant of the Soldier God, which was awarded the second prize at the novel-writing competition in 2000. The time and the milieu of both of the novels are recognisably those of the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, (similarly to the novel The World and Some by Jan Kaus). But this time we are given the world reigned by iron rules and an eye-for-an-eye morale. The first novel tells us about the life in a juvenile prison, the other – about the life of the soldiers of the Red Army. The two novels form a whole, the main hero of the first narrative Metsavend, who has been sentenced to prison for keeping an illegal weapon, is a minor character in the second one. The protagonist of the second novel – a young man called Peeter from the town of Petseri, which used to belong to Estonia before WWII, but is now part of Russia – can be seen as a minor character Poliitik in the first novel. Both novels are set in a similar masculine, violent and closed space. The World of Undying Light is almost an ethnological description of a juvenile prison.

Servant of the Soldier God is remarkable for both its dynamic way of telling the story and its moral pathos. This is a development story: a schoolboy, interested in weapons, first learns about the army life under the rough drill administered by Captain, who was crippled in the Soviet paratroops, and becomes a patriot of the independent Estonia. His adventurous life contains an attempt to escape from the Soviet Union; when a member of special troops, he participated in an episode of firing at the prisoners; he has killed a man; and he has survived solitary confinement and the sentence of death. Waiting for his execution he dreams about his ‘own’ god, the ‘Soldier God’, who gives him strength, balance and belief in freedom in his soul. He escapes from prison, and when fleeing from Russia has a short relationship with a Russian girl, which brings some brighter emotional notes to the novel. The novel ends with the bloodless restitution of the Estonian State in August 1991, when Peeter and his friends are ready to fight for freedom with weapons. As a reference towards the future, we are told that Peeter’s childhood friend Pavel, with whom his ways had parted long ago, had been conscripted to Russian Army, and would be killed in Chechnya in 2000.

The novel is partly based on the facts of the author’s own life. It can certainly inspire willpower and self-assurance in the readers, and also play a part in integrating Russians into Estonian society and furthering patriotism.

A set of dialect poetry.
Hendrik Adamson. Under the Sky (Laotuse õlman). 102 pp
Mats Traat. A Yellow Evening (Kõllane õtak).  65 pp
Mari Vallisoo. A Snake Spell (Ussisõnad). 53 pp
Tartu. Ilmamaa, 2001.

The innovative poets of the 1960s who have achieved an almost legendary fame by now, used to publish their fist collections of verses in groups of three or four, with books in small boxes. The tradition was continued at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. But so far, all such books have been the debuts of the authors.

The new set of books is different, containing books by already acknowledged authors; Hendrik Adamson is a classic from the beginning of the 20th century. This time, the three authors are united by the use of dialect, different one for each of them.

We could say that the fact that the Estonian literary language is now based on the Northern dialect of Estonian was greatly a historic chance. Up to the 18th century, the Northern and the Southern dialects were both used in writing, and both had the status of literary language. Later, the poets from the Southern areas of the country have written poetry in their home dialects; the primer of the Võru dialect, and the first works of prose and plays were published in the 1990s. Besides dictionaries of dialect, even a Võru-Estonian bilingual dictionary was published recently.

The home dialects and the tone of the three authors differ considerably. The author of Mulgi dialect (in Central Estonia), Adamson used plenty of models from folk songs in his texts, he poeticised nature and village life of the early 20th century, his works contain humour and even, to some extent, eroticism. The second collection written in Tartu dialect by the novelist and poet Mats Traat is essentially retrospective – already its title A Yellow Evening marks nostalgia, but the book also contains reminiscences of ancient classical poetry.

Mari Vallisoo, the author of the third book in the set, who has twice received the Juhan Liiv Poetry Award, is the most programmatic, the most metaphysical, and the most interesting among the three, although her book contains poems in the literary language as well. Her collection begins with the question: The primeval language, in which the primeval mother/ told her teachings/ Do/ I remember it? Her texts can be treated as recollections and journeys into the primeval, the ancient world of language, and the playful attempts at reconstructing the mythical and magical world.

Naturally, the use of dialect in itself generates some archaic content of the poems, already due to the fact that the dialect vocabulary cannot express modern phenomena too well, and the authors do not engage in innovative word creation. The dialect is not the language of the urbanised world, it marks the return to one’s roots, to one’s origin. In Estonia, as well as in Finland, the revival of dialect literature has been seen as the sign of regionalism, and attempts of preserving the uniqueness and identity in the world that rapidly gets more and more cosmopolitan.

Jan Kaus. The World and Some (Maailm ja mõni)
Tallinn. Õigem valem, 2001. 144 pp

One of the former editors of the literary weekly ‘Sirp’, literary critic Jan Kaus published his first collection of stories Over and Around (Üle ja ümber) a few years ago. In that book the kindly disposed critics saw the first sketches of a future novel. His engaging short stories were seen as a parody and anti-utopian depiction of contemporary politics in the style of dispassionate realism; in general, the author concentrated upon the conflict between a young intellectual and his rough environment.

The novel The World and Some measured up to the critics’ expectations and it was short-listed for the annual award of the Estonian Cultural Endowment. The book tells in a slightly melancholy way the development story of a young man; the author has been inspired by the period around the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the following decade – the time when Estonia freed itself from the Soviet occupation and started to rebuild the state, being maybe too much fascinated by the Western models.

Although the descriptions of the milieu are realistic and detailed, this background has been depicted in a strongly allegorical way. Kaus describes recognisably and in detail such features of totalitarian society as the hate of rock music and the love of slogans praising great leaders. But these features, as well as the changing times, still remain the background for the further development of the story. The protagonist Taavi prefers to live with his books and stories in the world of literary ‘lies’, which is symbolised by the life of one of his ancestors. The conflict between generations arises in a quarrel with his father, who does not want his son to become a ‘horse thief’, an expression that has often been used to denote intellectuals. His father, a military man, demands that his son join the ‘Career Club’ (referring to the increasing importance of parties and party life in society), otherwise he threatens to renounce him. Taavi refuses, resigns from active life, moves to a small provincial town and gets a job at a shop that recycles empty bottles. He forgives his father and returns to his mother only after the death of the father. The changing times do not change the protagonist, he remains the puppet at the mercy of circumstances in spite of the fact that in the end of the novel he acquires a much better position and starts dealing in real estate.

The World and Some is thus an allegorical development novel, written in a subtle style; it is also an interrupted narration, since the unity of the text is broken by numerous episodes and anecdotes. The book reflects the opposition of the active, success-oriented, and consumerist ’world’ and ‘some’ thinking and passive or escapist personality. It criticises the world, but at the same time it is subtly ironical about the intellectuals who avoid active life.

© ELM no 14, spring 2002