Estonian writer and translator Peeter Sauter’s first novel Indigo (1990) became an instant classic and an important work in Estonian literary innovation at the time of its release. Throughout the last few decades, Sauter’s prose and prose poetry have mostly depicted everyday scenes, emphasizing repetition, and naturalism, and providing a portrait of a generation. Sauter has translated, into Estonian, selected works by Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Currently his novel Ära jäta mind rahule (Don’t Leave Me Be, 2013) is being translated into English by Adam Cullen with Tanooki Press.

Your first text was published in 1988 in Vikerkaar. How did you end up writing at all?

It started with diary-writing, as for many. At a certain point when I had nothing to do, I took some extracts from my diary – which I had switched from trying to be philosophical to trying to describe reality as exactly as I could – compiled something better together and sent it off to the journal Vikerkaar. Joel Sang, the editor, published it and gave a very prompt answer: “The story is fine, we’ll publish it.” That was all. But, later on I found out that Sang had said: this guy has described his own life and will probably never write literature.

That’s ironic.

Well, but I understand it. And he had a point. When I’ve tried to do certain fictional literature, well, it seems artificial and doesn’t work all that well. If I make up characters and stories and so on, it doesn’t interest me either. Maybe a good way [to do it] is somewhere in between, between describing your very close life and some fantasies, some fictional motives. Maybe. And I feel that most writers take a lot from their private life, characters are prototypes, and so on. And it’s the same with me. Nothing new there.

Reading your books, one gets the sense of peeking into your life. Your texts are extremely realistic and close to life, to the point of using the names [of the people around you] and situations that somebody might really believe have happened to you. It gives your work this memoir-like feeling. Is this intentional?

Using real names is common. Let’s say, Jack Kerouac first wrote On the Road with real names. I believe it was already in 1957. I translated it into Estonian. And the publisher asked him to change the names from real names to fictional. He did. Now they have published the original manuscript with the real names. There is not much point anyway, people who are interested or who are close try to understand who the prototypes are and who is who. Where else can we take material for literature? We start writing basically from reading. We enjoy reading, and then we think ‘that is exciting, maybe I’ll try to write’. But what to write about? About previous literature? This is an option as well. Combine classic stuff or something. But one well-known attitude is to write about what you know. Otherwise it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t touch you or anyone else.

It is very natural that we take from our own experiences. Especially writers who come from journalism. Like Hemingway, for example. And there are many who also write journalism. You can use that to try to get close to people and reality, and take down barriers. In other words, it is not proper, it is not nice to speak so directly about what was happening or who is who. Journalism also teaches one to write fast because you need such-and-such many characters by this hour and you just do it. You don’t think if it’s good or bad, there’s no point in that, because it comes and goes. The day after tomorrow nobody remembers it. Maybe this also teaches you to take literature lightly, not too seriously.

How do we know what happens to a literary text – nobody knows! Maybe it goes nowhere. Kafka asked that his novels be burned, but they were not. But if they were burned, well… it’s a pity, but it’s no big thing anyway. I’ve often thought that we could, let’s say, throw half of someone’s collected works into the bin. The essence, what is their personal attitude or style, is in almost every piece. Some can write better things, poetry, prose, drama, but regardless the core or the main thing remains the same.

If I don’t write another word of literature my whole life, what does it matter? Not much.

Living is more important than writing. If we make writing more important, then we are not nice to those we are close to because we put the writing first but, well, children, partners, loved ones, maybe they’re more important still.

You probably wouldn’t shut yourself in a room to write for three months in a row like Victor Hugo, would you?

Maybe I could, I haven’t done it, but maybe I could, just for a period, as an exercise. To get something completed. If you want to get something completed then you put other things aside, but in the back of your mind you still know that you will return to…  to Estonia, to nature, to… I don’t know, rock’n’roll and other things you love, motorbike riding for me and so on.

Right, that makes a lot of sense. I’ve noticed that many of your stories and texts tend to wander around and be about wandering around, as in having no specific beginning or ending or story arc, so to say. On the one hand it tends to exclude the possibility of giving a big meaning or one specific set meaning to your texts. What pulls you towards this kind of approach, what is attractive to you about it?

I had a word with Tõnu Õnnepalu about the matter and he said that characters, they stink, he hates characters! He doesn’t make up any characters or storylines, they are so predictable that you read a little and you can guess where it takes you. It’s kind of an imaginative thing that doesn’t touch the soul like music, or the things that touch your soul in poetry. How can you put your finger on these? Why does it work? How does it work? Creating a detective story or fantasy novel – why not? But it’s more of a technical work.

I see. An example perhaps is one of your later works Surm Bulgaarias (Death in Bulgaria) that, as critics have also said, quite clearly contains a story. How was the idea for that story born?

Triinu Tamm, the editor of Loomingu Raamatukogu, asked for something. And perhaps I thought that a very loose thing is not proper for Loomingu Raamatukogu, which publishes very good pieces. So, if I just cut a piece from some longer left-around text, will they like it? I tried to make more of a story with a beginning and an end. But it doesn’t end anywhere anyway, and it almost takes you to nowhere, and the middle part is also kind of nowhere. In Kafka’s writing, too, something just happens, followed by something that you don’t understand at all, and then it stops and there is really no ending; it could continue. And he didn’t end them, the publishers tried to put them together into a novel-like structure.

Is that also the case with Kana peni (Chicken Mutt)? I remember reading something about the editor tightening it. I really enjoyed that book. It feels very immersive. It feels like being right there and hanging out.

Chicken Mutt was not changed much. The previous work, Sa pead kedagi teenima (Gotta Serve Somebody[1]), was edited by Jan Kaus who tried to create a structure, made chapters so it wouldn’t be such a loose… I don’t know… scouse. He put some logic in there. He also proposed the title, which I didn’t like at all, but I agreed, because he did so much work with the text and I didn’t resist.

Laura’s version for the title was Vanad suitsuheeringad – or Old Red Herrings in Englishwhich is also nice, it has a double meaning. Vanad suitsuheeringad are of course me and Laura. Two old herrings, together, smoking, and being quiet, like herrings. I really liked it.

Yes-yes, it’s a great image for capturing that post-divorce type of situation.

You can’t split up entirely because you have so many connections and memories, and you can’t get together, and so you just sit together and are quiet. Hehe. It is sad but also not bad. It is kind of consoling, or… I don’t know… the only thing you want to do.

Your last two novels from 2021, Chicken Mutt and Death in Bulgaria both deal with relationship drama, as does a large part of your prose poetry, and the protagonist of Chicken Mutt believes a fight is necessary in a certain sense, it’s time to rest from each other. Do you agree with him?

This is a psychologically interesting matter. Why is there such a thing as sadomasochism? I did an interview with Kaur Kender and he said that, basically, fighting and making love are similar or the same thing because the endorphins you get flowing, adrenaline and the others, are from the same basis. I remember from my first marriage that good sex sometimes happened after severe fighting. When were we fighting and made up – what was there to do then? “What the hell, we are not fighting anymore, we are not quarrelling. Let’s go to bed.” [laughing] That is kind of a fresh approach, like a new love story.

Right, it certainly emphasizes or creates a new start, doesn’t it?

Why after a storm in nature is there occasionally a time of quiet and fresh air? Kind of a new start. Some things are broken. There is sadness, but there is also a new beginning.

You use a lot of repetition in your texts. Is this intentional and why?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s my character. I also like minimalistic music, which uses a lot of repetition. Like Gavin Bryars, Jesus’ Blood where it repeats, repeats, one song recorded from a homeless man. When the repetition works it can take you to some kind of… maybe even bliss. Maybe it’s that it gives rest or eliminates other things. Problems, surroundings. You understand that life is very much repeating itself. Our thoughts tend to come back again and again. Memories. Life is full of repetitions. If they are boring, they are boring. But if you enjoy listening to the sound of leaves or the wind or the sea, it’s kind of a meditative thing. Then you can slowly get high with it.

We can find analogs in the people close to us, who also tend to repeat themselves. Sometimes it is funny, sometimes lovely. Like my kid runs to me and says, “Daddy, I love you!” and I say, “I love you too.” How many times? I don’t know. It works. If you evoke the emotions, it’s a kind of reflex…

Conditioned reflex, I think.

Maybe, maybe. It sparks something. Something familiar is soothing. You go back home, and you want it to be like it was. Estonians, writers, and others who emigrated during the war, many of them did not want to come back to Estonia, not for political reasons maybe, but they knew that their Estonia was not there anymore. The town, the country they remembered, which was in their heart and soul, does not exist anymore. To see that it is all changed, hurts. Actually, in repetition there can be something very comforting. Maybe also intoxicating. But it is so and so: it can also be boring.

Yeah… I’ve seen that dualism reflected also in some of the feedback to your works. I stumbled on a student report of Don’t Leave Me Be, which said that it is either so special that it’s boring or it’s so boring that it’s actually very special.

Alright, maybe! [laughing]

But I think that, you know, we often think of repetition as the instant signifier of boredom and boringness. But you also give it a new spin in your books. As you just hinted in your answer, too, you see in it some profundity. The reality of everyday life is full of repetition, very important repetition.

It is negative when a writer repeats, but most writers repeat themselves. What else can they do? They can’t become different personalities. Developing emotionally, psychologically… knowledge… well, maybe you can develop, I don’t. Maybe we can also undevelop or get foolish.

With a beloved musician’s new record, perhaps you’re not seeking what he is doing that is new, but you want the thing you love. New songs, yes, new music – but if it’s totally different, you might be disappointed.

I remember when Linkin Park released a new album in 2011, some people were extremely disappointed, because they took their music in a completely new direction. It didn’t include the familiar aspect anymore.

Well yeah, sometimes we get used to… When Bob Dylan puts aside the acoustic guitar and begins something electronic – then it’s… “Why?” Maybe he is also bored with his old stuff. He must play it again and again and again. How many more times?

The repetition aspect is very interesting to see in music and musical performers. They go to concerts to play the same songs over and over. And every time it must feel like the first time.

With repetitions also… if we take nature, chaos, and fractals. Chaos is needed, but so is all the structure of the small things in nature and the big things, like in space and in microbiology as well. We see similar structures very often and they repeat themselves very often. Why? It seems to be in variations. We also try to find new ways. We repeat the same exercise like in sports or in writing. But we are also searching for something new. Others might not see or notice it. It is our inner travel or journey. Take all the Mozart and it’s all… Mozart.

Do you mean the essence remains the same or is inescapable, perhaps?

Both. Led Zeppelin has an LP called The Song Remains the Same. We can try to change but song remains the same.

I see. What about apathy or boredom in some of your characters? In Indigo the protagonist often felt apathy, not wanting to do anything. It is present also in Death in Bulgaria. You have said that this sort of short and fragmentary writing style that comes from not bothering to do something, “ei viitsi”, reminds you of Waiting for Godot. In that play it seems to bring to life a kind of emptiness in this fragmentation: characters don’t know what they’re doing, what they’re waiting for, and often they’re confused about what’s going on or even what their own motives are. But there is also no reference point. It’s a very minimalist and bleak kind of play, creating on the one hand nihilism and absurdity and on the other randomness and secrecy. Do you think this fragmentation has a similar role to play in your works?

I haven’t done those things knowingly, but yes, Waiting for Godot is also full of repetition and as a teenager I was, kind of… like everybody was, interested in Eastern practices and religions. Zen, you know, sitting quietly doing nothing, spring comes, grass grows, these kinds of things. Being passive, just observing, letting go.

Being part of something can take you to a kind of ecstasy or even bliss. You are happy with what there is, and you don’t want to change the world or people or to control anything. It’s better to be a part of it. The happiness of being included somewhere. Not consciously, but just to be a part of nature, the world, to be kind, not to think about myself, who I am, what I shall do. These thoughts can bring us to crisis because… what big things shall I do? I don’t know. Maybe little things are also good things. It is from Brautigan – one should appreciate the small things, and I do. It was somewhere in Brautigan. I believe it was Revenge of the Lawn.

Many of your characters tend towards passiveness rather than agency because agency is what sets one person apart from others: these are my doings, my projects, my goals.

Maybe it is just my passive character. I don’t know. I’m not able to analyze myself, but there are other people who, I don’t know, lead armies… and are film producers, and it’s good that those people exist. But not everybody is like that.

How was your trilogy, Don’t Leave Me Be, Gotta Serve Somebody, and Chicken Mutt, born? Why did you decide to present the story in three parts?

I didn’t have a plan. There are works that I can do, like a short story: I have an idea and it needs to have a “spring” or trigger or something that carries it. It needs to have tension. I can write it within a week or so, and then it’s finished, with one energy.

With longer texts, if I don’t have small works, it’s good to have something that I can do daily. In a way it is a pastime, it is a meditation. I do not know where life takes me. I let it happen. I follow what is happening. It is more like writing exercises. Just doing daily writing practice. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Then it slowly comes together; therefore, it has no story, no beginning or ending. It is just daily meditations.

Does the naturalism or realism also come from the diary-form, trying to maybe document one’s life?

Some people think it is my life, but it isn’t, because if you start writing it becomes something different. You can say it is a lie or it isn’t… you start writing about your last day. The writing itself takes you somewhere else and you include your feelings from your last writing. It is not reality or what happened. It is just writing.

From your first novel onwards, it seems that one of the themes in your texts has been the coexistence of being present and, on the other hand, the state of being numb or maybe bored. In Indigo the kind of nice moments were giving way to more bored and listless moments. The same in Don’t Leave Me Be, where the protagonist is contemplating the difference between good and bad lingering in the sense of “delaying”. What makes an experience nice for you?

It depends. Situations are different. With Indigo, the stuff was written in the Soviet time. In Soviet Estonia it was very common for young guys to just hang around endlessly because they were critical towards the state but there was no point in fighting actively against it and there was no point in going along with it. This put them in a situation of being like a hippie. Being against the establishment but not wanting to fight it. Living in parallel. There were not many options of where to go, what to do. It was very limited. You lived like a monk. You tried to drink and smoke, but it’s limited as well. (Laughing.)

Maybe it made some people… not philosophical, but meditative and… stay away from having much of a social life. It is possible that I have remained in this mode. As I have grown up there, well, we’ll always listen to our teenage rock’n’roll. We can’t help it; we go back to it again and again. Or our childhood also. Maybe it’s not only in my writing, but in the writing of some Estonians. The stagnant situation in Soviet Estonia. Life has changed and I am happy about that.

Merily Salura (b. 1993) is a PhD student of art history and visual culture at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Her Ph.D. dissertation concerns the temporality of creative processes, particularly painting and fiction writing, through the framework of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s aesthetics. With a background in political philosophy, Merily has translated Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism into Estonian as a part of the forthcoming Open Estonian Book series. She is currently compiling Peeter Sauter’s prose poetry collection. 

[1] Gotta Serve Somebody is essentially a revised version of Don’t Leave Me Be. – AC