Short outlines of books by estonian authors

by Janika Kronberg

Andres Ehin. Alateadvus on alatasa purjus (The Subconscious Is Always Drunk)
Tallinn: “Varrak”, 2000. 519 pp

There are two avowedly surrealist poets in Estonian literature: Ilmar Laaban, born in 1921, who has lived in Sweden since WW II, and who wrote the bulk of his surrealist works in the 1940s; and Andres Ehin, born in 1940, whose ongoing work has been a unique presence on the  Estonian poetic scene for the past 40 years. The present book of poetry – The Subconscious is Always Drunk – which happened to appear close to the author’s 60th birthday and André Breton’s 100th anniversary, draws together all Ehin’s poetry, so far published in seven collections, together with an edited selection of earlier and a cycle of entirely new poems.

Ehin calls himself a surrealist without any reservations, but according to his own words, he is more a heretic than a dogmatist, preferring C.G. Jung’s conception of the collective subconscious to Freud’s psychoanalysis. The former can also easily be related to Ehin’s interest in the Orient and in cultures of primitive peoples. He has, by the way, worked as a teacher with the Selqups in Siberia  and found inspiration in their folklore. Being a well-read person, he has also been influenced by Acmeists, Imagists and Spanish Modernists.

Ehin has said that he started writing poetry during the 1950s while attending compulsory Marxism-Leninism courses at the university. He wrote poetry to pass the time during these dull lectures. This fact in itself marks his difference from other well-known surrealists, who tended to be leftist, at least in the beginning of their careers. Ehin naturally synthesises undogmaticalness and the profusion of free associations, unexpected connections and imagination, freed from consciousness and opposed to common logic. The structural basis for his poetry is a sensual, often figurative, absurd image, around which he constructs an integrated whole. In the beginning there are easily visualised fragments, which, in the course of further developing and fabling, grow into a multicoloured mosaic in the texture of surrealist poetry. At the same time, a poem may originate simply from the pleasure of word play, where a change in some letters creates new comical and untranslatable associations. The dominant feature of his poems is the visual image, a realistic detail, appearing truthfully before the eyes of the reader. Just like the tractor being driven across a field, which suddenly, even to the great surprise of the driver, rises into the air, so that he can do nothing but light a cigarette to help him gather his wits.

In the laconic foreword to the collection Ehin writes: “I do not consider myself a formalist. In my poems I mostly record such moods and states of mind that can be expressed only in poetry. When a game becomes magic, it is not formal any more. I believe in thoughts that flash across my mind, ideas that shoot through my imagination, and in transfiguration. I believe in inspiration.” Ehin, an erudite, a researcher of the unexplainable and mysterious, a connector of the unconnectable, has given us his colourful work, under the playful surface of which we can sense a joyful demolition of bureaucratic hierarchies and common truths. 

A longer interview with Andres Ehin and a cycle of his poems, translated by Rick Adang, can be found in ELM No 5 (Autumn, 1997).

Peeter Torop: Kultuurimärgid (Cultural Signs)
Tartu, ”Ilmamaa”, 1999. 486 pp

Peeter Torop’s collection of articles, Cultural Signs, is the 30th book in the series Eesti Mõttelugu (History of Estonian Thought). The author, who will observe his 50th birthday this year, as well as 25 years of work in academia, is a slavist by profession, his speciality being late 19th century Russian literature. During these 25 years Peeter Torop, the most-renown of Juri Lotman’s disciples, has done research in translation theory and in semiotics. Presently he is Professor of Semiotics at Tartu University. The layout of his collection of articles reflects his academic development. The book is divided into four parts: Culture as Translation; Intersemiosis, (analysing the relations between literature and stagecraft); Russica; and On Remembering. The latter contains personal reminiscences about his teachers, two longer articles on the development of the Tartu school of semiotics in relation to Russian formalism and Juri Lotman, and some reviews on Estonian translations of Lotman and Umberto Eco.

Torop’s doctoral thesis, which contained an impressive amount of source material, was published in Russian under the title Total Translation (1995) and referred directly to the starting point of his cultural analysis. Torop conceives translation in its wider meaning, a translation is, simultaneously, a conversion of a work of literature into another language, but also the staging of this work and its reception, and culture as a whole. But any text can only be conceived in interaction, ”at the contact point of the relations inside and outside the text”.

The first three articles of the collection Translation and/as Reception, On the Theory of Metatexts in Relation with Some Problems of Textual Communication and The Principles of Compiling the History of Translation are devoted to the creation of a scientifically exact metalanguage, the primary result of which is a detailed typology of translations. The applicability and systematicality of the typology lends character and systematicality to the whole book. The articles building the typology of stagings – Literature and Film and Literature in Films – are of a theoretical nature. Torop’s research and teaching have focused on the work of F. Dostojevsky. Two of the more important articles on this subject have been included in the collection: Dostojevsky: the Logic of the Question of Jews, and The Embodiment of Word, based on lesser known materials, discussing the calligraphy of Dostojevsky’s manuscripts.

In the introductory passage to the more personal part of the book, On Remembering, the author describes the following episode from the beginning of his academic career. After spending the night preparing for his first lecture and worrying about whether his material would suffice, he ran into his former philosophy professor, Rem Blum, who understood his plight and encouraged him with the paradoxical idea that the informational value of even the best lecture is near zero. The attitude of the teacher towards his subject, his devotion and thoroughness, are the factors that leave a lasting impression on the audience.

Devotion and education, like that of Juri Lotman and the other founders of the Tartu school, characterise Peeter Torop as well, making him a worthy successor to these scholars. His collection of articles, by no means easy reading, is a methodologically integrated guide into the semiotical world of art and a good textbook on different cultural sign systems.



Matt Barker: Sarah’ jalad (Sarah’s Legs)
Tartu: EYS Veljesto, 2000. 276 pp

Matt Barker has for several years already published stories in Estonian literary journals. Sarah’s Legs is his first book. The author, hiding behind an alias, is a medical student at Tartu University, and hints about a medical background can be found in his work.

The book contains a dozen stories, balancing on the borderline between horror and science fiction, which are unified by a common setting, somewhere on the British Isles. Barker’s stories begin as realistic descriptions of milieu, where a seemingly common everyday situation leads to an irrational evil that threatens to spread and destroy everything in its path. In some sense, we can draw parallels with the work of Stephen King. In the story Residents of a Boarding-House, giant spiders live in the cellar, wrap a dog in their nets and kill it, and then kill the children who go to explore the cellar. This construction is ”horror for horror’s sake”. For Barker the main danger is seldom embodied  in strange extra-human powers, such as vampires, zombies or other attributes of horror literature. Usually he disdains these. For him the source of horror is more often an obsession that has developed into mental illness, which dims the boundary between reality and fantasy, and which is described with psychiatric precision. The source of danger could also be a passion for computer games, in which the player cannot distinguish between events on the screen and reality. Barker has also been inspired by Gothic and Celtic mythology. The latter is the basis of one of the best stories in the collection ,A Snake. A number of boys from a small town have mysteriously been ran over by a train. The police inspector investigating the case discovers a connection between these events and a mysterious snake of Celtic mythology, Myrpeaths, who sometimes took revenge on people who were not appropriately awed by nature by taking their children into a swamp. In Barker's story the myth is a way of combining technology and nature into an avenging power which obsesses people, and remains in their minds as a mad mission which has to be fulfilled.

The young literary critic Berk Vaher has classified Barker’s stories as anticolonial literature, because of their setting and the fact that the characters oppose a mysterious and dangerous Other – who defeats them. Barker’s characters often irritate, challenge and even attack the Other, making the Other’s passion to destroy a defence and a fight for his own existence.

In any case, Barker’s stories can be enjoyed by fans of horror literature as well as by more serious thinkers. It is promising first work.

Jaan Isotamm: Mina, Johnny B. Tekste aastaist 1967-1974 (I, Johnny B. Texts from 1967-1974)
Tartu: Ilmamaa, 1999. 192 pp

The poet Johnny B (1939), (alias for Jaan Isotamm), has been labeled a dissident,  hippie, beatnik, bohemian and ‘noble ravisher’. All these epithets are fitting, depending on the context. While he was still a schoolboy in 1956, he was arrested and sent to Siberia for seven years, accused of participation in a resistance organisation and for espousing nationalist views. After his return from prison camp he lived the stormy life of a bohemian, and when he started writing poetry he absolutely refused publishing in official outlets. He became a regular contributor to underground publications. Nevertheless, two collections of poetry were published at the turn of the 1960s and '70s. While working as a night watchman in the 1970s and '80s, he became a self-taught expert in the humanities. He translated works by Max Weber, Nikolai Berdjayev and other thinkers into Estonian.

The period during which Johnny B wrote poetry was short. The present collection, which marks the author’s 60th birthday, contains all his poems. For this book he was awarded the Tartu Cultural Endowment Prize and the Cultural Prize of the Republic of Estonia.

Johnny B's poetry, however, is not as nationalistic as one might assume, granted his dissident past. Beside the national themes, there are cosmopolitan attitudes which reflect the mood of beatniks, hippies and the sexual revolution of the 1950s and '60s, also allusions and traits which can be traced to the lore of Soviet convicts; in the poem dedicated to the young Joseph Brodsky we can recognise a spiritual affinity.

Because he had been punished for challenging political authority, as a poet and free spirit Johnny B came to oppose all forms of state power. As such, he naturally repudiated bourgeois culture and mentality, and constantly undermined and derided it. Here is an example of Johnny B.'s imagery: wetting an indelible pencil in his mouth, he writes his first poem on the bare belly of his lustful lover. Johnny B’s free verse is marked by vocal self-revelation and deliberate exaggeration, he couples the delicately poetic with robust irony. The poet is a romantic rebel, without illusions and with few ideals. Nor does he spare himself his own slashing words when in one of his poems he makes a self-ironic prophecy: ”i johnny b/ who butted against this wall in the past/ and split my head against this enormous wall/ now sit in the shade of the same wall/ and scratch my back against this wall/ in the future i will sit on top of this wall/ important disgusting and fat.”


Jaan Kaplinski: Silm. Hektor (An Eye. Hektor)
Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2000. 205 pp

Jaan Kaplinski’s book, which contains two short novels is the first in a new series by the publishers Tänapäev, designed to present new as well as already classic works by members of the Estonian PEN-Club, regardless of genre. As an essayist and poet, much-translated and acknowledged both at home and abroad, Kaplinski is a very fitting author to open this series. The book received the Annual Prize of the Estonian Cultural Endowment.

As works of fiction, Silm and Hektor mark a new departure in the author’s work. Both novels, bordering on science fiction, can be classified as semiotic or essayistic conceptual literature, and have already been compared to the work of Jorge Luis Borges or Albert Camus by critics. Still, Kaplinski differs from Borges by his construction of real space-time and clarity of plots, and from Camus by his Buddhist outlook.

The themes of both short novels are familiar from Kaplinski’s earlier essays: Hektor focuses on relations between man and nature, An Eye on those between man and god. Hektor has been inspired by genetics and the theory of evolution. Its main character, whose notes form the basis of the story, is a neotenic mutant dog with an exceptionally high IQ. After the death of his master – a scientist – the dog has assumed his role. He lives alone on the well-guarded territory of a laboratory and associates with the world via e-mail and a voice converter. Nobody knows about his strange existence and he has to hide from humans, especially from the police and people from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The dog tries to find the key to his master’s safe, to familiarise himself with the material hidden there, and finally, to blow everything up. He sends electronic notes on his life as a human dog to various servers, to be opened only after the results of earlier experiments and the research itself has been destroyed.

The novel treats anthropogenesis not as phylogenetic accident, but as a deviation, an ontogenetic mutation that has become hereditary. The scientist, experimenting with animals, came upon this deviation by chance, leading to the birth of Hektor, who learned to speak, read and write. Nestor, the raven with a liking for philosophy, and Achilles, the monkey who went in for fine arts, were born the same way, but both died of brain cancer before the master's death.

Kaplinski has presented an original analytical history of human society and progress as viewed through the eyes of a mutant dog, making it, quite naturally, dubious in point of view. Because a dog cannot by nature be  h u m a n e, he cannot adopt the humanist ethic which elevates man above the rest of all living nature. Of all religions, only Buddhism, which respects all living creatures equally, can be relatively understandable for him. On the other hand, Hektor cannot return to being a mere animal either, and thus the novel is about the suffering and utter isolation of a unique creature. Philosophically, Hektor is about the chasm between man and nature and about the need to bridge this fatal chasm.

An Eye is slightly longer than Hektor, its style and structure hint at an Oriental parable. The first part of the work depicts the development of a young theologian under the omnipresent eye of the KGB in Soviet society, which the main character attempts to outwit with Cabala and Gnostics. The second part gives the notes of the same, now missing theologian, which describe his meeting with a Chinese magus with whom he goes on to evoke the creators of the world. Each forthcoming god is succeeded by a new, more powerful and higher god, until in the end a macrocosm is reached,  in relation to which a human being is only a dream. The principal question the Chinese magus asks both the gods and the theologian is whether the world was created according to aesthetic or life-essential questions. In the search for the answer the theologian decides to follow the magus and thus disappears.

These novels by Kaplinski have been described as among the most important literary events on the Estonian literary scene in recent years. They are high-lighted by original treatments of questions dealing with existentialism, slightly self-ironical presentation of ideas, and fascinating plots.



Jaan Kaplinski. Kevad kahel rannikul ehk tundeline teekond Ameerikasse (Spring on Two Coasts or a Sentimental Journey to America)
Tallinn: Vagabund, 2000. 288 pp

Spring on Two Coasts is largely a sequel to the essay Ice and the Titanic, which was published in 1995. Ice and the Titanic together with a collection of poetry Several Summers and Springs was awarded the Baltic Assembly Literary Award.
Spring on Two Coasts..., is actually a travel book describing a lecture tour in the USA. Kaplinski visited Stanford University, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Connecticut and New York. Immediate impressions and notes made during the tour lead to deliberations and discussions of history and world culture. The author admits at the start that he would have preferred travelling in time to travelling in space. The book presents his tour, interspersed with numerous meditations on literature, religion, world politics and history.

Kaplinski’s entire work can be characterised as a defence of all forms of life, and the treatment of human development as a decline, an unswerving exhaustion of natural resources. Wealth, consumerism and mass culture offer many topics for reflection about the extinction of biological species, as well as of culture. As an observer rather than a moralist or a world reformer, Kaplinski sees the way out of the present deadlock in Western civilisation, in the ecological counterculture and green enlightenment movement, inspired by Ancient Chinese tradition. In this sense, even his self-definition is very characteristic: ”Since my youth I have belonged to a counter culture, being a person who does not want and cannot keep up with times and trends. I rebel against trends and customs that strive to limit my choices. Modifying Kant, I could say that there are two things that fill my soul with devotion and admiration – spiritual wisdom of some people, and the richness and variability of different cultures.” As a representative of counterculture, Kaplinski sees beatniks and American Indians as kindred spirits.

America, traditionally considered a society of immigrants, and, thus, a society of rootless people, paradoxically, leads Kaplinski to explain his own origin and ‘prehistory’. Namely, one of the motives for taking this trip was to find out more about his descent from Polish Jews. Kaplinski follows this trail in literature and memoirs to the mid-18th century, to a religious sect of Francists, who later adopted Catholicism. The pages dealing with Jewish history and talks with rabbis are, therefore, most personal and moving. Journey to America is, thus, a search for oneself, a trip back to the beginning, back to one’s sources.

Readers accustomed to trivial truths may find some of Kaplinski’s thoughts surprising and debatable. An extreme nationalist may react to his espousal of multiculturalism and criticism of present-day Estonian society like a bull to a red cape. But an intellectual reader will enjoy this sentimental journey documented by the poet. Although it is definitely subjective and sometimes inconsistent, it is also inspiring, poetic and fascinating. 

Rein Raud. Pisiasjad, mis omavad tähtsust (Little Things That Matter)
Tallinn: Tuum, 2000. 119 pp

Rein Raud (1961) is a third-generation member of a family of well-known writers. There are other authors in Estonia who come from literary families, but third generation  involvement in literature has only happened twice. Raud is a professor of Japanese at Helsinki University. He has translated Japanese prose and poetry, as well as poetry from several other languages into Estonian. He has published prose, poetry and also plays since 1981. His Kägudeöö (A Night of Cuckoos, 1995) contains three short stories. The author, who has previously discussed historical subjects, has now turned to a philosophical thriller. The title story of this book with its allusions to world literature is the most classical representative of its genre. This is a story about a journey, during which the characters arrive at existential riddles, to solve which they have to dare to ask all kinds of questions. Two young people on a journey, Vilja and Ragnar, spend a night in a strange house, where they run into a peculiar company, whose spiritual leader is Nestor. Their thoughts are read, their wishes are anticipated, they stay for a longer time, become disciples, and are led to questions they have to ask. The story is framed by a metaphor: if to compare their journey to that of a camel caravan, purposefully plodding through a desert, their own trip seems to be rather short. Vilja and Ragnar are receptive disciples, in the end of the book they travel on with the caravan, needing to find their own answers to the questions they were led to earlier.

Little Things That Matter are mostly aphoristic miniatures, paradoxes which have been influenced by classical Oriental literature, but which also present refined truths, formed by erudite and inquisitive minds. Some longer pieces are similar to philosophical stories presented in The Night Of Cuckoos. Fearing mediocrity, and believing that continuity is fed by inner strength, Raud, who follows the best historical traditions, knows how to be didactical without being banal.

His self-ironical position between the East and the West is illustrated by the last fragment of Little Things…, which begins with the words: “To Asia! Nowhere is there such loneliness as in Asia,” and ends with :”When the day arrives that I indeed decide to leave, but can no longer go further than the nearest Chinese restaurant to eat chop suey, then that day you can order for me a wreath.”


Kerttu Rakke. Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev)
Tallinn, 2000. 100 pp

This debut work by a young woman author, contains four short stories about the headlong flight of lively young women from feminine solitude in contemporary Estonia. The title story is the longest and most provocative. The main character goes to Finland in search of her mother, and to avenge her, steals a car and some money from a drunken Finn. Happily back home, she looks for adventures with her girlfriends   as she drives the car she lovingly calls the Sexmobile.. The story involves a number of different partners, lots of alcohol, skillful use of slang and a vigorous style. There are some witty allusions to the Estonian epic, Kalevipoeg. The car is stolen,  and in the end  she is run over by the same car  and both her legs are in plaster casts. In  Kalevipoeg, the hero gets a sword from a Finnish blacksmith. The sword is cursed and in the end it severs Kalevipoeg’s legs.  But the story could have been better composed. The last story Kivised unenäod (Stony Dreams) is about the sweet life of a young hashish-smoking woman. Of the two remaining stories, which are shorter, one deals with partying teenagers, the other, Kevadväsimus (Spring Fatigue),  indicates to a clear wish to change the previous life. The setting of Rakke’s stories is in towns and bars, and characters move elsewhere only to escape boredom. An anonymity pervades both settings and relationships. Male characters are often left without names, women use initials when talking about them. An emphasis on sexuality, distress of flight, rapidly changing scenes, and exact dialogues can be found in all four stories.. Kerttu Rakke is a name to be remembered among the younger prose writers. To some extent her counterpart in Finnish literature could be Rosa Liksöm.

Elin Toona: Rõõm teeb taeva taga tuld (Joy Sparks Fires Behind the Sky)
Tartu: Ilmamaa, 2000. 327 pp

Elin Toona (1937) belongs to the younger generation of Estonian exile writers. Most Estonian writers who were born after 1940 and grew up in exile, do not write in Estonian. Toona was born in Estonia, as a child escaped to Germany with her mother and grandmother during the Second World War, grew up in England, lives in the USA since 1970, and writes both in Estonian and in English.

Joy Sparks Fires Behind the Sky is a well-researched biography of her grandfather, the poet Ernst Enno (1875-1934). Ernst Enno, a mystic and a seeker of God, stands somewhat apart from his contemporaries in Estonian poetry. He was not a prolific author, his literary fame rests mainly on a few very popular poems and some children’s poetry. His best intuitive poems, expressing yearning and personal experiences, are widely known, and every schoolchild in Estonia, knows at least one of his poems by heart, even if he cannot name the author.

At the time Elin Toona was born, her grandfather, who had worked as a school inspector, had been dead for three years. The stories told by her grandmother, an artist by training, brought him to life in Toona's mind. But she did not set out to write the book about her life -long search for her grandfather, for her the homeland she had lost, her own roots in her grandmother’s stories, her grandfather’s books and his archives, and the description of how she found him. Rather, she wanted to write a traditional biography of Ernst Enno. She gathered and analysed everything ever written about him. In addition to family lore she sifted through archives, manuscripts and all published materials, quoting at length from many sources. Her exhaustive research succeeds in bringing the poet, his personality and his time close to her readers. She had the advantage of having immediate access to family memoirs, something that would have been unavailable to any other scholar. She also had an intimate relationship with the poet. We could criticise her effort to include too much,  materials scattered throughout newspapers and magazines, which makes the book a trifle boring at times. A slightly more belletristic, even a more personal approach would probably have fascinated a wider audience, who might otherwise have considered a traditional biography ”too scholarly”. But Toona has, without a doubt, succeeded in her work, something especially welcome in Estonia, where such biographies of writers are a rarity. In fact, many more important Estonian authors have never been researched in the way she researched this book about her grandfather.