Short outlines of books by Estonian authors

by Janika Kronberg

Andrus Kivirähk: The Barn-keeper (”Rehepapp”)
Tallinn, Varrak, 2000. 200 pp

Andrus Kivirähk (1970) has very often used elements of folklore and mythology in his work, deforming them into the absurd and grotesque. The plot of The Barn-keeper originates in national mythology, which Kivirähk treats rather playfully and freely, combining different elements without any restrictions.

The novel is set in some non-specified time during Estonia’s period of serfdom, when Estonian peasants were totally subjected to foreign landowners. The classics of Estonian Romantic Realism (Ed. Bornhöhe) and Critical Realism (Ed. Vilde) depicted the same period in their works and exposed the violence of the landowners against defenceless peasants. The Barn-keeper begins with a scene in which a farm hand comes from the manor in a dazed state and his master laments that his only helper has been killed in the manor. After such an opening an Estonian reader expects that the farm hand has been beaten half-dead in the manor and that the book will tell a story of class conflict in former times. But Kivirähk has, from the beginning of his literary career, been known as a humorist, and again he does not fail his readers. The point is that the farm-hand had stolen into the manor, having taken the shape of a treasure-bearer, and has eaten a large amount of soap – an unknown new food of the gentry – which, of course, did not agree with him and made him feel awful. Kivirähk turns the situation, familiar from the works of the Realist classic, inside out. His landowners are simple and impractical; greedy and often cruel Estonian farmers use them unmercifully. The spiritual leader of the village community is the barn-keeper, who is brighter and smarter than all the others and who is finally able to beat even the devil himself. The book parades a number of archetypal characters in front of the readers: a cruel and greedy pair of old farm masters, a macho-like young master, a bragging old soldier, unhappy lovers, etc. Kivirähk has made them all very comical, exaggerating the traditional characteristics of the types, or depicting some characters in a radically different way from the tradition. Such a character is, for example, a manor overseer, who traditionally is greedy and cruel; in this book he is, on the contrary, presented as a sensitive and tender platonic lover. Only the barn-keeper himself, who is a witty character in folk-tales, plays the same role in the novel, being its ideological centre and the leader of the other characters.

The novel is based on folk beliefs connected with the treasure-bearer. Traditionally a farmer made a helper for himself – the treasure-bearer – out of all kinds of useless rubbish found in his home – old brooms, barrels, or other lifeless things. Such a creature was given life by the devil.  The owner had to go to a crossroads on a Thursday night and give the devil three drops of his blood.  In doing so, he gave up his soul, and after some time the devil came to claim it. The treasure-bearer did everything its master demanded of it; most often it had to gather riches for him. It had to be constantly provided with new tasks, otherwise it could attack its owner.  However the owner would try to outwit the devil by giving his treasure-bearer tasks it couldn’t complete. Besides treasure-bearers, all kinds of mythological creatures are in action in the book.  The air is full of magic, mostly used to redistribute the riches.

In the novel the treasure-bearer rebukes the barn-keeper because all people are thieves who steal from the landowners, from each other and even from hell, but do not honour contracts. The wise barn-keeper tells the treasure-bearer that the people have nothing to pay with, except for things they have stolen. He says that their lives are also stolen and that they have to keep on stealing to stay alive; he cannot say what would become of them if they tried to pay honestly for everything. The barn-keeper’s belief embodies a folksy wisdom, which could also be called a survival strategy. Kivirähk places his readers in front of a mirror. Although it is a false mirror, amusing the reader, he still sees his own face in it. A wise person recognises himself, but everybody can enjoy reading the book.



Ervin Õunapuu:
Suicides Send Their Greetings (Surmaminejad lasevad tervitada)
Tallinn, Umara, 2000. 50 pp

Estonians, a nation with a high suicide rate, were able to add a strange book to their bookcases last year. Ervin Õunapuu, an artist, stage designer and the author of several books full of almost brutal dynamism, brought out a publication which resembles a spiral notebook. This notebook contains 50 texts in the form of suicide notes. On the one hand, it is undoubtedly a work of fiction, but on the other hand, it is a practical collection of ready-made letters: dotted lines have been put in for signatures and in some cases, for the name of the addressee; each notebook is supplied with a sharpened pencil and on each page there is a marked line for cutting out the letter. You only have to pick out a suitable letter, fill in the gaps and cut it out, and you have been spared one of the troubles of life – your last one! The motives for suicide differ from letter to letter, and the instructions left for others and curses meant to haunt the living are written in a strongly personal style. All these letters are dominated by the absurdity of the decision to leave life, by a stupid motive or by the writer’s inability to cope with his or her problems.

Õunapuu has followed the events and developments in society with an extremely sharp eye; he depicts social problems, expressing himself rather harshly, and very often finds a corresponding archetype or model for his plots in world literature. For this book, he has chosen a motto from Luke 8.33: “Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked”, and put these lines at the top of each page. Is this the moral of literature, presented repeatedly and in rather an obtrusive way?

In any case, Õunapuu’s book is well worth reading before you make your final decision regarding this question. Perhaps the ridiculing of the reasons why people kill themselves helps to diminish their craving for death.



Kaur Kender: The Abnormal (Ebanormaalne)
Tallinn, EKI, 2000. 294 pp

The Abnormal is the third novel from this young author, who recently made a vigorous break-through into the Estonian literary scene and market. His Independence Day (1998) created a furor by depicting an extremely exaggerated caricature of Estonian criminal circles of the 1990s; Yuppie God (1999) mocked the world of advertising the author knows so well and set this world against the background of the Creation myth of the Old Testament. The Abnormal follows the main character as he wanders through New York; he has come from Thailand to visit his brother and at the end of the novel he drifts on, maybe to Bombay. The story is narrated in the second person singular – an unusual practice, placing the reader into the role of the main hero, and fully revealing the author’s skill at creating the believably visual atmosphere of a big city, loaded with bewitchingly exact details. The novel is in full swing from its very first sentences and moves at the same rhythm as the metropolis; the characters of the novel reflect the multi-national and multi-coloured character of the city.

The Abnormal consists of three parts: “The Serenade of New York”, intertwined with reminiscences of the hero’s love story, which has just ended in Bangkok, and, inserted into the book, the outlines of a novel, My Angel, whose hero is writing to tell about his hopeless love. The last feature lends the whole book a surprising tonality, which may even disappoint readers who appreciated Kender’s previous brutal novels, which depicted harsh reality in thick colours. The hero of The Abnormal, macho-like Claude Chevalier, is characterised by tenderness and empathy, which make him, on the most intimate pages of the novel, help waitress Michelle find a new home for an abandoned dog. His name – Chevalier – has not been chosen accidentally, and the whole novel can be analysed in the light of the stereotypes of a novel of chivalry. Idealisation of mistresses and chivalrous services rendered to them, a love for their projection into oneself, not as real people, and a preference for creativity or public attention over the sexual life, allude to these stereotypes. After a delicately painted scene in bed with Michelle, the hero leaves her and is ready to give her up.

Kender has studied semiotics and mastered marketing strategies, which have helped him to turn his book (the second printing of which has already been sold out) into a best-seller and a cult novel. Critics have compared him with Bret Easton Ellis and have seen him as a young, strong and aggressive writer of a new age. Claude Chevalier reflects: A writer is a pioneer, an avant-gardist; he is a mirror standing at the focal point, and when he has some spare time left over from his busy life, he sends us messages from the places we might not reach ourselves. The same can be said about Kender himself. His purpose is to see something new and extreme, to accept new challenges, to move on, and, like Woody Allen, to spit on conventions. He wants to find new admirers and friends, but most of all, he hates to leave anybody indifferent to himself.


Hando Runnel: Riddles (Mõistatused)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2000. 64 pp

At the peak of his creative work in the 1970s and 1980s, Hando Runnel (1938) was clearly a political poet: he wrote patriotic Estonian poetry at a time when the song lyrics “my address is not a house or a street, my address is the Soviet Union” were a token of the official ideology of the occupying regime. Talking about Estonia as one’s homeland was virtually prohibited. Runnel’s poetry taught people to read between the lines; his language preserved the image of Estonia as a free country. Even at those times it was impossible to completely prohibit his poetry and make people forget him – when some texts did not receive the censor’s approval, they were copied and circulated in manuscript, or they were made into songs. Skilful use of the form of the newer type of Estonian folks songs made his poems very popular, and his truths, counterbalancing a forgery of history comparable to Orwell’s 1984, reached the hearts of people.

In the new, altered conditions of the 1990s, Runnel published some books of poetry, which did not attract much attention, but his contribution was even larger as a publisher and the co-ordinator of the book series “Eesti Mõttelugu” (The History of Estonian Thought), which publishes, as indicated by its name, important texts from the past and the present of Estonian cultural history. The appearance of his new book Riddles, so different from his earlier, rather lyrical and epigrammatic poetry, was a great surprise and a literary event of last year.

The title of the book seemingly again refers to folklore, but the need for or anticipation of interpretation, embodied in the book, is much more important than such allusions. The book contains 49 texts in free verse, the vocabulary, construction and rhythm of which are restricted and do not differ much from everyday speech. Most of the poems are intimate addresses to some mysterious woman. These addresses are ceremonial and solemn, and although their voice often reminds one of the “Song of Songs” or the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, they are not solely sacral and erotic. The image of the woman changes from a lover into a mother, and then into a small child, to talk with whom you have to bend down. The mythical and worldly, solemn and down-to-earth, ideal and material, interweave in his comparisons; the yearning for physical contact is muted by the fear of loss or of hurting somebody. In one of the poems he says: But I will only place my hand on your head/So that I can hear the whispering blood.

The collection conjures up the image of an eternal woman or a mythical Earth Mother, who has appeared in Runnel’s earlier poetry. But in contrast to the earlier Runnel, this book does not build national boundaries and it is not untranslatably located in the depths of the Estonian language. This is a radiant and grateful bow to Mother Earth, a turn towards the primal and primeval, and an affectionate cherishing of all this.



Jaan Kaplinski: What is Written. Selected Poems (Kirjutatud. Valitud luuletused)
Tallinn, Varrak, 2000. 943 pp

Jaan Kaplinski has been shaping Estonian poetry for about forty years. This collection, which appeared before the poet’s 60th birthday on Jan. 22, 2001, contains almost all of his poems, except for the latest collection, Night Birds. Night Thoughts (1998), which contained original texts in Estonian, Finnish and English. The earliest poems in What is Written were written in 1956; besides lyrical poetry the collection includes a metaphysical poem “The Return of the Soul”, a verse treatise “On the Art of Poetry” and a prose text “Through a Forest”, as well as a cycle of English-language poetry “I Am the Spring in Tartu”. This volume of about 1000 pages contains more than 700 texts, and has been divided into 18 sections, generally following the chronology of his work. Hasso Krull wrote the analytical afterword “No straight lines can be found. Three axes of Kaplinski’s poetry” for the book. Krull differentiates four stages in Kaplinski’s poetry. First, the simple verses in regular meter from the earliest period of his work; second, the dynamic, ecstatic and prophetic free verse of the late 1960s; third, minimalist poems without punctuation, where the text resembles a column or a graphic spire; and finally, since the mid-1980s, Kaplinski has mostly written picture-like essays which follow the rhythm of speech and pair meditation with the concrete and commonplace.

From the very beginning Kaplinski’s poetry has been characterised by his devotion to the Oriental way of thinking and to religious and ecological motifs. The approach of the Western world, aimed at consumption and spending, is contrasted with the sustainable and natural attitudes common to traditional cultures. It is really not important whether his beliefs have been influenced by the cultures of American Indians or by the mythology of Finno-Ugric peoples. Kaplinski, the thinker and the poet, crosses boundaries and reconciles differences between the ideas of the Western and Oriental spiritual worlds, as well as between poetry and prose.

Krull notes the development in Kaplinski’s poetry towards the abandonment of metaphor – the traditional characteristic of poetry – and his abandonment of the traditional arsenal of poetry as a burdensome weight. Such a move indicates an aspiration towards the original purity of language as the vehicle of memory. The images of the nature poetry of Kaplinski’s latest works contain no metaphors. His own verses, the lines that tell us about his wish to reach ”back to/the great/endless purity of this world/where we understand/ that we have never/ left it at all” can be seen as a motto for the development of his work.

Jaan Kaplinski was awarded the Annual Prize of the Estonian Cultural Endowment for his work during the year 2000, which included What Is Written.



Contra: Tassel of a Ski Cap. Poems from 1974-2000 (“Suusamütsi tutt. Luulet aastatest 1974-2000”)
Urvaste-Tartu, Mina Ise, 2001. 160 pp

Contra (1974), who creates a joyous commotion everywhere he goes, is a special phenomenon in Estonian culture. Having become known as a writer of poetic texts, as well as the performer of them, he is both a folk singer and a modern poet, who well understands the importance of creating a personal image and catching the eye (and the ear) of the public. His work, which can be fully appreciated only when he performs it, is syncretistic like folklore, but its content is modern. He sings without accompaniment and he is rather tone deaf, which itself creates a comical effect. He has called his texts covers, written to well-known melodies of popular songs (such as ”Bussijaamas oli Valgre Raimond” written to the Beatles’ melody ”Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, its words referring to a popular Estonian composer). His performances often mimic blues or rap music. He has displayed his spiritual closeness to the grunge style, especially to the work of Kurt Cobain, by covering all the songs from the Nirvana album “Nevermind”. Another special feature is that Contra has himself published and marketed almost all of his nine collections of poetry, which appeared between 1995 and 2000, thus creating a kind of separate literary institution parallel to “great literature”. In addition to all this he is also a journalist; his witty columns, satirising the mass media and the modern world, have reached the awareness of that part of the public that has never cared for poetry.

This playful author has dated his nonsensically titled collection of poetry from the date of his birth. In the book he confesses that his pseudonym hits the mark. In the poem “Pro et Contra” he writes: “you are against me/I am for you/I am against/ your being for.” Contra has created a real counter-world: he cares neither for philistine good taste nor for political correctness, he swears at aestheticism (“what do you damned aesthetes know about nature”), and he mocks glamour and ridicules advertising and the world view suggested by the mass media. He loves black humour: the poem “Suicides’ Club” laughs at the craving for sharp thrills, cultivated by certain films, by describing old men who dive out of windows and land on asphalt in a rain of blood. Only occasionally does he show some intimate and sentimental lyricism, and even then the “maiden is slender like a tapeworm”, or he dreams of being the clone of Don Juan and becoming a  tampon (”Don Tampoon”). Contra’s comic nature pours out of the rift between the jolly mood and vigorous rhythm of his poems and their colloquial, sometimes even obscene, vocabulary.

The three sources of Contra’s poetry are the new Estonian folklore, the grunge style, and the surrounding reality, which offers a multitude of subjects for his texts. But this actual reality is dislocated to such an extent that “all tender poets/turn up their noses” at it.



Triin Soomets: Vein (Soon)
Tallinn, Tuum, 2000. 106 pp

The importance of Triin Soomets (1969) in Estonian poetry has already been established by the fact that the title of the anthology of new poetry at the end of the 20th century, published in early 2000 – A Hidden Beautiful Disease – was borrowed from her work. The same spring she was awarded the prestigious annual Juhan Liiv Poetry Prize. The prize-winning poem was published in the most recent issue of ELM. In the foreword to the anthology, the compiler Kajar Pruul points out that “the inseparableness of brutality and tenderness, aggression and submissiveness, love and craving for destruction, form the leitmotif of Soomets’s poetry, which is rich in erotic undertones.” Obviously, such poetry is a worthy subject for attempts at psychoanalytical interpretation, which appeared after the publication of her four previous, much shorter, books of poetry. Vein is a selection of her work written during the past  ten years.

The tension line of Soomets’s poetry, which sometimes makes use of Neo-Romantic and Jugendstil images and which, without doubt, emerges from the tradition of literary Modernism, runs along the border between the cultural and the biological. On the one hand, her work is lent shape by romantic accessories and vocabulary, but on the other hand, she has borrowed from the modern feminist discourse, using aestheticised hints at body fluids. The fact that the Estonian language lacks gender specification allows Soomets to play with ambiguities and her poetic self lets us believe that the erotic “other” in her poems is a woman. The author has plainly stated that a woman is more mysterious and nearer to the essence of beauty and truth than a man and she hopes to reach herself  “t h r o u g h  a n o t h e r  b o d y  a s
b e a u t i f u l  a s  h e r s e l f.”

The co-existence of pleasure and pain, sexuality and destruction, Eros and Thanatos, in Soomets’s poetry has inspired critics to cite Georges Bataille, the Marquis de Sade, and Sigmund Freud when analysing her work. For all these features we can find explanations, which are based on a spontaneous wish to experience life at its fullest. The striving of her poetic self to “take all nuances of experience to the ultimate limits, until my passion burns itself out” reminds us of Charles Baudelaire and we can find echoes of his morbid aesthetic ideal in her work.

Mari Vallisoo: The Present Tense, Singular (Ainsuse olevik)
Tartu, 2000. 61 pp

Mari Vallisoo (1950) trained as a programmer, but since the 1980s she has been a freelance poet. She is a very private person, who prefers to be known only by her texts. The Present Tense, Singular is her sixth collection of poetry, all of which are distinguished by strong individuality and sensitive use of words.

Critics have praised all her poetry books since the very first one. Her third collection, Birds of Passage in the Next Room was named the best book of poetry of the year in 1983. In 1995 she was awarded the Juhan Liiv Poetry Prize, given to the best single poem of the year, and in 2000, which was a good poetry year, she was again considered for a prize.

She has recently confessed that the regular rhyme and meter she used at the beginning of her career have become boring and now she writes free verse. In spite of that, her poetry is still very song-like, and even resembles folk songs. We can consider one arbitrarily chosen poem from the last collection: “I saw a girl at the well/ her hair was black/ her lambs were oh brightly white/ now I cannot forget her/ shall we ever meet again.” The poem begins like an old ballad, but then suddenly gets very down-to-earth (“She bought/ neither champagne/ nor shampoo”) and ends with an intertextual hint (“But under some mask and under the times/ I do guess/ I really feel/ the face of beautiful Rachel.” Critics have often described Vallisoo’s poetry as ballad-like and even mythical. Although the sincere and simple poetry of everyday life and things has an important place in her work, she often twists it in some paradoxical way, entirely changing the course of the poem. The title of her last but one collection – Words about Birth and Messages about Death (Sünnisõnad ja surmasõnumid) – gives a good idea of the subject of her poetry. Like many of her contemporaries, she does not speak in a high style about her fatherland, but rather tells us about her own self, about life, death and everyday life, about all that is there between the beginning and the end. This is what fatherland means to her. In the poem “Duty” she reveals: “The two hundred generations before me/ have bound me/ they have laid the wish and prayer of their hope/ upon me/ And the next two hundred generations/ still to come/ expect me to …”.

She moves freely through the space of Estonian poetry, offering us intertextual hints and allusions, and she loves such play. She has found her way and moves along, independent of all opinions and interpretations.


Andrus Kivirähk: The Barn-keeper (Rehepapp)
Tallinn, Varrak, 2000. 200 pp

Andrus Kivirähk (1970) has very often used elements of folklore and mythology in his work, deforming them into the absurd and grotesque. The plot of The Barn-keeper originates in national mythology, which Kivirähk treats rather playfully and freely, combining different elements without any restrictions.

The novel is set in some non-specified time during Estonia’s period of serfdom, when Estonian peasants were totally subjected to foreign landowners. The classics of Estonian Romantic Realism (Ed. Bornhöhe) and Critical Realism (Ed. Vilde) depicted the same period in their works and exposed the violence of the landowners against defenceless peasants. The Barn-keeper begins with a scene in which a farm hand comes from the manor in a dazed state and his master laments that his only helper has been killed in the manor. After such an opening an Estonian reader expects that the farm hand has been beaten half-dead in the manor and that the book will tell a story of class conflict in former times. But Kivirähk has, from the beginning of his literary career, been known as a humorist, and again he does not fail his readers. The point is that the farm-hand had stolen into the manor, having taken the shape of a treasure-bearer, and has eaten a large amount of soap – an unknown new food of the gentry – which, of course, did not agree with him and made him feel awful. Kivirähk turns the situation, familiar from the works of the Realist classic, inside out. His landowners are simple and impractical; greedy and often cruel Estonian farmers use them unmercifully. The spiritual leader of the village community is the barn-keeper, who is brighter and smarter than all the others and who is finally able to beat even the devil himself. The book parades a number of archetypal characters in front of the readers: a cruel and greedy pair of old farm masters, a macho-like young master, a bragging old soldier, unhappy lovers, etc. Kivirähk has made them all very comical, exaggerating the traditional characteristics of the types, or depicting some characters in a radically different way from the tradition. Such a character is, for example, a manor overseer, who traditionally is greedy and cruel; in this book he is, on the contrary, presented as a sensitive and tender platonic lover. Only the barn-keeper himself, who is a witty character in folk-tales, plays the same role in the novel, being its ideological centre and the leader of the other characters.

The novel is based on folk beliefs connected with the treasure-bearer. Traditionally a farmer made a helper for himself – the treasure-bearer – out of all kinds of useless rubbish found in his home – old brooms, barrels, or other lifeless things. Such a creature was given life by the devil.  The owner had to go to a crossroads on a Thursday night and give the devil three drops of his blood.  In doing so, he gave up his soul, and after some time the devil came to claim it. The treasure-bearer did everything its master demanded of it; most often it had to gather riches for him. It had to be constantly provided with new tasks, otherwise it could attack its owner.  However the owner would try to outwit the devil by giving his treasure-bearer tasks it couldn’t complete. Besides treasure-bearers, all kinds of mythological creatures are in action in the book.  The air is full of magic, mostly used to redistribute the riches.

In the novel the treasure-bearer rebukes the barn-keeper because all people are thieves who steal from the landowners, from each other and even from hell, but do not honour contracts. The wise barn-keeper tells the treasure-bearer that the people have nothing to pay with, except for things they have stolen. He says that their lives are also stolen and that they have to keep on stealing to stay alive; he cannot say what would become of them if they tried to pay honestly for everything. The barn-keeper’s belief embodies a folksy wisdom, which could also be called a survival strategy. Kivirähk places his readers in front of a mirror. Although it is a false mirror, amusing the reader, he still sees his own face in it. A wise person recognises himself, but everybody can enjoy reading the book.


Toomas Vint: The Sweet Horror of Living. A Collection of Stories and Memoirs (”Elamise sulnis õudus. Kogumik jutte ja mälestusi”)
Tallinn, Kunst, 2000. 221 pp

The Sweet Horror of Living is Toomas Vint’s (1944) fourteenth book. His first collection of short stories was published in 1974. The author, who is also an artist, has remained true to the prose genre: besides short stories he has written a number of novels. The sweet horror of living has in some way been the topic of the whole body of Vint’s work, and is actually, one of the main subjects of all literature. This is also the subject of idealised landscapes, painted by Vint, where beauty hides some secrets or temptations. The key to the secrets is very often a sinister Eros, amplified by the hypocrisy of the bourgeois ideal of good living. Five years ago Vint wrote a filigree analysis of the development of a liar – the novel Janitor’s Wife, considered his best by many critics. The same theme of social lies, which the hero of the novel experiences foremost through sexuality, is the main subject of the present collection of short stories as well. In his latest works, the author himself, or rather, the image of the author, can more and more often be found among the characters of his works.

The Sweet Horror of Living contains 15 stories, half of which are more or less autobiographical. The opening story “This Wonderful Furry Animal Called a Lie” tells the story of the author’s childhood, which was marked by hypocrisy in his family. The following text, “We are the Children of Lenin and the Children of Stalin” (the title quotes the lyrics of the Soviet Pioneers’ song) tells us about the falseness of the whole Soviet society.  The story is set in an All-Union Pioneers’ camp at Artek, which only the best and most praiseworthy Pioneers of the Socialist Empire had the opportunity to visit. All the texts of this collection deal with lies, hypocrisy and relations between reality and illusion. The hero is haunted by the impossibility of a clean, bright and happy world. The main hero visits a forger, who fakes his paintings and presents them under the hero’s name (“A Landscape with a Limiting Sign”); he tries to expose the lie, but is told: “so what? what’s the difference?”  Reality and art are mixed up in several stories: in one of them the artist, visiting a strange town, reads a book which describes his home, in another the artist receives a commission for a painting depicting the view out of his window. Vint attempts to test the limits of reality also in fantasy stories, but remains most convincing in the stories about the anxiety of real life.

Critics have stated that Vint does not tackle social problems, but The Sweet Horror of Living gives the lie to this assertion.  While writing about the anxiety of human beings, he has always written about the problems of society as well. In his latest book he is a little bit more straightforward about the subject.


Andreas Oplatka: Lennart Meri – A Life Lived for Estonia. A Dialogue with the President (”Lennart Meri – Eestile elatud elu. Dialoog presidendiga”)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2000. 367 pp

Andreas Oplatka first met Lennart Meri in Tallinn in 1991, when Meri was Foreign Minister of Estonia, which still belonged to the Soviet Union.  The air was already heavy with the ripening of a complex historical turn. At that time, Oplatka was interviewing Meri for the Neue Züricher Zeitung. This impressive meeting was followed by Oplatka’s deep and thought-provoking discussions with President of the Republic of Estonia Lennart Meri in 1997 and 1998. The discussions were in German, a language Meri has a wonderful command of. The voluminous book, resulting from these talks, was first published in German (Andreas Oplatka. Lennart Meri. Ein Leben für Estland. Dialog mit dem Präsidenten. Zürich, 1999); the present publication is the Estonian translation.

Lennart Meri, writer and president, was born in 1929 into a family in which politics was an organic part of life. His father Georg Meri (1900) participated in the Estonian War of Independence as a young man, started his career as a journalist, then worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, beginning in 1934, as an ambassador of the Republic of Estonia in foreign countries. Lennart Meri spent his childhood in France and Germany, until the family returned to Estonia in the tragic year of 1939.

In 1941 the family was deported to Siberia. As the book is mostly addressed to readers who are not familiar with Estonian history, Meri uses striking examples from the life of his own family in explaining the essence of the violence, cruelty and absurdity of Soviet power. Georg Meri, having been a high official of the Estonian Republic, faced the death penalty, but the fate of the family was exceptional. Georg Meri was released from the labour camp and taken to Moscow together with his family.  They escaped the usual fate of deportees – death from hunger and exhaustion. After the war the family was able to return to Tallinn, and later Georg Meri was highly regarded as a translator of Shakespeare’s works into Estonian. The book describes very vividly the atmosphere of the post-war period at Tartu University, where Lennart Meri studied History. As the book renders the life of the president in relation to Estonian history, it mostly focuses on his political life. Oplatka’s questions touch upon the armed resistance to Soviet power after the war, the political thaw during the period of Khrushchev’s rule, the Estonian country life of the period, the actual application of the Soviet policy of Russification, Estonia’s condition of being cut off from the world, relations with other countries, especially with Finland, etc. Meri’s work as a writer is only mentioned in passing; more attention is paid to his films of Finno-Ugric peoples. The book also characterises the changes that took place in the Gorbachev era, Estonia’s situation during the complicated period of transition, Meri’s activities as Foreign Minister, as Ambassador of Estonia to Finland and as a presidential candidate. Meri’s thorough answers, his personal charm and his wit help to make this memoir of a politician into a writer’s work of supple style, with a wonderful eye for detail. The biography of the president of Estonia is also an individual and informative discussion of Estonian history during the second half of the 20th century.


Mari Saat: In the Winds of Blue Heights (”Sinikõrguste tuultes”)
Tallinn, Varrak, 2000. 117 pp

The novel In the Winds of Blue Heights was first published in the literary journal Looming, and was awarded the Annual Prose Prize in 1999. Mari Saat (1947)  admitted that the writing of this novel has been a new kind of an experience for her, as it was the first time she had written in first person singular and it felt like writing a poem. Saat has been a part of the Estonian literary scene for about 30 years, and she has written only prose so far. Her first book, the short novel Catastrophe, in which being was contrasted with possessing, brought her acclaim. The opposition of being and possessing is one of the main themes of the whole of Saat’s work, and is particularly  focused on in her novels A Hazel Hen (Laanepüü), An Apple in the Light and the Shade (Õun valguses ja varjus), and Charm and Spirit (Võlu ja vaim). The latter was published in 1990 as the first part of a larger work. The book received high praise, but the author, who holds a Doctorate in Economics, has been busy teaching business ethics at Tallinn Technical University, and with this latest work, broke a nearly ten-year silence.

We could state that the main subject of In the Winds of Blue Heights is a shipwreck, the influence of the sinking of the Estonia on people’s consciousness. But this statement would be an oversimplification. We could say that death itself is Saat’s subject: all her works are full of tensions created by the secret of being and non-being. Her characters long for something elusive, for an existential unity. They often slightly resemble sleepwalkers, who gaze in amazement at others and cling to possessions and power. They resist by withdrawal, by keeping their distance, by escaping. Withdrawing from power, they also keep away from everything that is connected with corporeality – a body is a stranger, it causes sufferings and alienation.

The narrator of the novel is an artist who lives in Tallinn. Her friend, a Swede named Emil, left her on that fateful evening and boarded the ship that sank in the Baltic Sea with hundreds of other people. But the narrator is not deeply moved by the tragedy of the shipwreck or by the loss of her lover, with whom she has a daughter Emilia, but rather perceives the events through the close experience of being and non-being. She analyses her relations with Emil, but she also analyses her relations with the world, trying to find some reason for her life, which has seemed to her to be rather unconscious. She has believed that beauty is truth, but suddenly she does not know whether this holds true. She does not know her inner feelings. She feels fear, and recognises that being means suffering, and suffering makes you think about being a stranger. The antagonistic character of a stranger is very common in Saat’s work, and sometimes this stranger is strangely attractive. In this novel, the stranger is the heroine’s father, a Russian military officer, who embodies a strange power. Her mother has taken her father’s side, while her mother’s relatives resent her father. Her grandmother ignores her father, saying that they do not have a common language (although the language itself could be Russian, which both of them do speak.) The heroine draws a picture of her father, in an effort to get to know him, trying to learn more about strangers. Her feeling that all things are related deepens after her father has died, and Emil has been lost at sea.

The world of Mari Saat seems to be devoid of events even when it actually is full of them. More than events she wants to study their traces in consciousness, which causes her eventless world to be very tense. Her heroine declares that she hates Freud. She resents unique solutions and examines the depths of consciousness and is amazed at her findings.


Eeva Park: A Ticket to the Merry-Go-Round (Pääse karussellile)
Tallinn, Huma, 2000. 120 pp

Eeva Park’s new collection of short stories is artistically her most mature book. Park (1950) comes from a family of writers.  Her first book was a collection of poetry, published in 1980.  Since 1990 she has turned to prose. Her short stories have found more critical acclaim than her novels and have even won some prizes. As a rule, Park depicts the world as seen through a woman’s eyes, but so far, she has not been interested in feminist discourse. Her heroine is a strong personality who wants to put herself to the test and to win; in her childhood she suffered because of family troubles; she yearns for love, warmth, and a harmonious family, and wants to be appreciated as a person. Park’s method, which she uses skilfully, is rather closely related to Psychological Realism.

The present collection contains 14 stories, all of which have strong autobiographical features. She turns again and again to her own childhood, to relations between her parents and their complicated divorce, but especially to the poverty and humiliations she had to endure in childhood. But the girl whose voice we hear in these stories is not humble and weak, but instead proud and sensitive. She is ready to show her courage and strong mind, and she is deeply offended when nobody seems to notice her efforts. She swims a very long distance and barely reaches the shore again, but nobody has missed her, nobody knows that she was at the point of death and has managed to cope with the danger. The adults have games of their own and they do not notice the hurts of a child; they do not see how this child is growing into a woman who needs a different kind of attention. These stories about love have been written from the position of a young and emotional woman. The author has a good eye for the most subtle of feelings as well as for details of everyday life. The stories take place in the 1960s and the 1970s, the time when the author herself developed as a person. She is good at rendering the atmosphere.  Her narrative is lively and she is more interested in the development of human feelings than in social analysis. With this book, Eeva Park has again proved herself to be one of the best modern writers of the genre.