Short outlines of books by Estonian authors
Jüri Ehlvest. A Stairway to Heaven (Taevatrepp)
Tartu, Krauklis, 2001. 148 pp
While reading Jüri Ehlvest’s (1967) books, one cannot help wondering whether they are hiding a real enigma, or whether he is simply duping the public. Such a question is actually already inbred into Ehlvest’s texts, since very often his characters are almost paranoid interpreters, who see signs and mysterious omens everywhere. A strange urge makes Ehlvest’s characters puzzle over the meanings of the signs, leading the reader to do the same. Quoting one of the author’s earlier short stories A Bloody Lamp (Verine lamp): “[There is] an irresistible wish to interpret. Inability to take one’s life as it is, but a need, an incessantly obtrusive wish to provide this interpretation with a meaning, to evaluate. /---/ To interpret, and to interpret once again, until the seemingly controversial texts are brought into accordance with one another.”
Such paranoia, presented to the reader in the form of a literary masterpiece, is contagious. Therefore, critics have characterised Ehlvest’s storytelling as a “chasm of stories”. In each of his short stories, the author tells us a number of parallel stories, which sometimes get hopelessly mixed up. What’s more, each character has his or her own story as well, and the telling of those from beginning to end seems to be a question of life and death for them. The stories interweave, even cling to each other, since very often, the main stories have a slightly erotic hue. A scene from Spring (Kevad) is a suitable example. In the course of children’s bragging, a net containing a mysterious book is thrown up into a tree. The book contains, if not pornographic, at least anatomical pictures of sexual intercourse. The main character, a boy, climbs the tree and very much wants to see the book. A girl called Mariann begs him to come down and promises to show him the book herself. The boy obeys, but first the girl wants to tell him a story about her grandfather, an inventor. Having completed the story, the girl takes her clothes off. Against the background of Ehlvest’s other works, we must also pay attention to the motif of the climbing of the tree, which he connects with initiation, and with the solving of a secret not in the story itself, but which appears later and in the open air. Ehlvest’s characters climb trees rather often. There is also a comical aspect – the characters seek for a high viewpoint, either up a tree (of knowledge) or balancing on the stairway to heaven, searching for the limits of human perception. But many of them fall, and the misinterpretation of omens and signs creates a comical effect in many stories.
Critics, analysing Ehlvest’s enigmatic texts, have, among other methods, used psychoanalysis, achieving rather good results. The author has several times received the prestigious Friedebert Tuglas literary award for his short stories. In A Stairway to Heaven he continues to show his strengths.
Lehte Hainsalu. Listeners to the Bell (Kellakuuljad)
Tallinn, Eesti Raamat, 2001. 488 pp
Lehte Hainsalu (1938), who is well known to the Estonian reading public as a poet, a prose writer and a children’s writer, made her poetry debut as a schoolgirl. She published her first prose work about a decade later. Her earlier prose, written in a slightly journalistic style, dealt with the contemporary topical problems of ethics and everyday life. To write her latest novels, Hainsalu has plunged deeply into Estonian literary history. One of her recent novels, Cock’s Wattle, showed how the protagonist used Estonian poetry to express herself.
Hainsalu’s latest novel, Listeners to the Bell, is a monumental work; the author herself has called it a chain novel. It is a kind of revived literary history, where each link of the chain offers a portrait of a writer. One by one, more than fifty Estonian writers pass before our eyes, starting with the legendary Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801-1822) and ending with Valeria Ränik (1964). Each portrait is based on documentary and archival materials; all real-life characters are linked by a fictional character, one of the twin brothers, named Jott Tee. (An Estonian reader easily finds the acronym ‘jt’ here, meaning ‘and others’). This friend of literature journeys as an observer from one writer to another, passing through different times. Sometimes he finds himself in a school or a café, or at a meeting where revolutionary events of Estonian history or literary history are in progress. Naturally, the author has recorded the first Estonian Song Festival in 1869 – the time of national awakening – as well as the events of the restitution of the Estonian state near the end of the 20th century. The novel is full of quotations and intertextual references. Hainsalu is familiar with Estonian literary history and has found a number of characteristic situations to depict different writers. She never exceeds the bounds of good taste and never allows travesty. Some cases, such as Marie Heiberg’s unfortunate passion for Friedebert Tuglas, have been written about earlier, and the facts concerning Jaan Kaplinski in connection with KGB searches and “The Letter of 40” have also been discussed before. The portraits of Johannes Barbarus and some others leave the impression that the author has not found a sure footing and it would have been better if these had been left out. The portraits of the older writers, more distant in time, have been written with greater empathy and inventiveness than those of the more contemporary ones. Nearer to the present day, Hainsalu becomes more hesitant and shy in displaying controversial ideas. The leitmotif of the whole novel is the shaping, development and transformation of the idea of Estonian patriotism and statehood. The picture Hainsalu paints of Estonian literary history is not too conventional, but she still carefully avoids subjects which ‘cannot be mentioned’: all literary stars are depicted with their best features; thus, the book can be used at school and read at home by both the young and the old. The concept of the novel is clever and grand, and the book is unique in Estonian literature.
Piret Bristol. The Shelters of the Century. (Sajandi öömajad)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2002. 239 pp
Piret Bristol (1968), who has so far published only poetry, let the readers of her third collection Kingdom Not Come (Tulemata riik) (2001) have an inkling of her intended turning to prose. Her debut novel The Shelters of the Century proves that the expectations were justified, at least concerning the genre of the work.
The characters of the book and their interrelations, the background and the plot have not been sharply outlined; the disordered narrative is characteristic of modern literature, but the fragmentary space-time is recognisably Estonian. We follow the inner monologues of the first person narrator, and we can guess that this young woman without a formal job and a regular home, even without a firm identity, has a child and that the source of her scarce income is the writing of Bachelor’s theses for undergraduates. There are hints to her childhood and her visions of future, which are ruled out without fully developing them, and replaced with new ones as plausible as the old ones had been. At the same time, the text is extraordinarily visual, containing photographically exact details of everyday life. The book is a mixture of different styles: the more recognisable being the genuine depiction of reality, which is continuously disrupted by the generalising and abstract figurative language, striving for to represent the eternal truth. The marginal minor characters are sometimes given the opportunity of voicing their opinions as well.
According to the author herself, The Shelters of the Century is about lying, or to be more exact, about the opportunity of creating different imaginary life-stories by lying. For the protagonist, who believes that the truth is possible only in a game, lying is one form of escapism, which is constantly stimulated by permanent intoxication, by an intermediate state between sleep and wakefulness, and by travelling from one shelter to another. The conditionality of the novel and the avoiding of reality are revealed already in its motto: ”Nothing happened, except that we enjoyed each other in our rapidly changing shapes”. In these variable conditions the author focuses upon human relations, showing no hope of clarifying these relations in the mixture of real and virtual worlds. Trying to cover her tracks, the protagonist finally flees also from the very person she really desires most. The door of a lift closes and the fugitive’s hand automatically presses the button even if it is absolutely unnecessary.
The Shelters of the Century is a depressive book, depicting the existentialist state of human beings in an insecure environment. But the anxiety of the book also contains the craving for rebellion, the wish to launch into the air, symbolised by colourful balloons on the cover of the book.
Do you Hear…? A selection of Radio Plays 1994-2000 (Kas kuulete …?: Valimik raadionäidendeid aastatest 1994-2000). [Compiled by Tamur Tohver, Editors Mari Tuulik, and Pille-Riin Purje].
[Eesti Raadio Raadioteater] [Tallinn], Kirjastuskeskus, . 239 pp
The radio plays in this collection were elected from the plays that have been produced at the Estonian Radio during seven years. The book, published to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Estonian Radio, contains eleven short plays from eight authors.
The book opens with Jaan Kaplinski’s A Fire and a Drum, discussing the perishing of small nations and cultures – a subject of great importance for him. An anthropologist recalls his meetings with the last members of a Siberian nation, who have been robbed of their land, woods and fishing rivers and relocated into a stone building in a village. An American missionary Rebecca has come to save them, wishing to get the last that they had retained – their souls. In an accidental fire she perishes together with the people she had come to save. The anthropologist remembers the Shaman’s daughter and hopes to retrieve at least the Shaman's drum.
The collection includes three deeply psychological and philosophical plays from Madis Kõiv that express the anxiety and irrationality of being. In the first – The Pike (Haug) – a man has hurt his leg in the wood. In his imagination he feels as a pike that has swallowed a fishhook. The dialogues of the play touch upon the right of ending one’s life, euthanasia, abortion, and the wider problems of being and non-being. The Lake (Järv) contains two related stories, the characters of the first one are the Protagonist and the Poet and a company of intellectuals. In the second, Mother is talking about the things she saw at an old country house, which she had gone to examine, as she wanted to buy a summer house. Horrible events happened there in the past and the house is still hiding its secrets, showing that the whole human existence is full of dangers. The philosophical discussions in The Discus (Ketas) are about life, death and the borders between them. A man, who does not know, whether he lives or not, has been hit with a discus at a stadium, when he was two years old. Time slowed down for him, this event might have occurred 50 or, as well as 2500 years ago. The author attempts to find answers to essential questions about life, death and time.
Viivi Luik’s play A Puppy’s Birthday (Koera sünnipäev) examines indifference and the evil that is born from it. A family discusses everyday matters, watches TV, exchanges superficial phrases about world events. At the same time, the Son saws pieces out of a frozen animal heart that had been bought for the puppy’s birthday. Blood and the heart inspire cynical remarks from other family members. The alienation and the banality of life and death are emphasised by a Soldier, who arrives at the end of the play, boasts about the killings and cruelties of the war he had participated in and starts shooting his machine gun.
Two plays by Jüri Tuulik, as well as those by Toomas Raudam and Tiia Teder are nostalgic, they tell about everyday life and people’s wish for small joy.
Mati Unt’s Do You Hear…(Kas kuulete…) is mostly a monologue. An actor rehearses a famous poem ”The Beginning and the End” by Gustav Suits ”Do you hear the ground trembling!… We are standing in the doorway of two worlds.” He tests his attitude toward the Suits’s text and toward history, and toward independence.
Ervin Õunapuu’s The Supper at Emmaus (Õhtueine Emmauses) is a surrealist story, where Sebastian buys a painting by Caravaggio The Supper and paintings by other old masters for Polikarp at the auctions. Polikarp is the incarnation of enormous wealth. He serves the works of art to his guests – dipped in different sauces, or as pickled and smoked delicacies.
The radio plays published in this book have won awards at the European Festival of Radio and TV Programs. The year 1996 was proclaimed the Year of Estonian Radio Plays by the European Broadcasting Union.
Mehis Heinsaar. The Chronicles of Mr. Paul (Härra Pauli kroonikad)
Tallinn, Loomingu Raamatukogu 2001, No 31-32. 104 pp
In recent years, a number of young Estonian authors have attained fame through scandals outside the literary scene. Mehis Heinsaar (1973) quietly arrived on the literary scene and become a celebrity. An academic reference volume, The Lexicon of Estonian Writers (2000), still does not include him, but in 2000, Heinsaar received his first Friedebert Tuglas Short Story Award for his short story Butterfly Man. His second Tuglas Award came this year, and last year, Heinsaar received the Betti Alver Debut Award for his collection of short stories, The Snatcher of Old Men (2001). The Annual Prose Award of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, given for The Chronicles of Mr. Paul, is a natural sequel to the previous awards.
The book is broken into three cycles, containing short, rather journal-like stories, which map the movements of a strange Mr. Paul in time and space and document his meetings with strange minor characters. If we wish to describe the birth of The Chronicles of Mr. Paul, we should proceed from the breaking point, where fading Dadaism gives way to Surrealism, which, via psychoanalysis, reveals the path to the fertile world of dreams. Having eagerly spent time discovering the world recorded on maps, the authors turn their attention to journeys into the internal world, which had so far been neglected. The stories of Mr. Paul remind us of Surrealist spiritualist seances; the old-fashioned accessories (rubber plants, harps, and different institutions from the Soviet time) are connected with modern virtual reality with a striking naturalness. But an innovative feature of these stories is the interaction of different realities and an unpretentiously ironic attitude towards the customary dark theory of urges. Heinsaar is a good game leader, especially when Mr. Paul’s opposite players are a psychiatrist with the peculiar name of Üsegei and Constable Marcello. Here the spirit beats the power with an amazing ease and brightness, and, what’s even more important, without any hostility.
Critics of Heinsaar have pointed out numerous sources of inspiration, from the Old Testament to Bulgakov and Surrealism. Supernatural events and objects occur in The Chronicles of Mr. Paul; the usual relations between time and space have been dislodged, as if they were governed by some still unknown laws of physics. Mr. Paul’s Academy of Ignorance, where he himself embodies the main building, lecture halls and students, is mainly preoccupied with the secrets of inorganic matter, but also emphasises the Schweitzerian reverence for life. This book is a real delicacy for those who love intellectual prose and the joy of literary games.
Paul-Eerik Rummo. Café Music. (Kohvikumuusikat)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2001. 68 pp
All critics have unanimously praised Paul-Eerik Rummo as a living classic of Estonian literature. Starting with exalted and magnificent images in the 1960s, his voice was silenced in the early 1970s by the censors, but it emerged again and inspired his readers when the atmosphere became freer. He was able to publish the full version of his collection A Sender’s Address, completed in 1972, only in 1989. In the Estonian Republic, Rummo has been engaged in politics and social activities; he was Minister of Culture and a long time Member of Parliament. Due to these activities, his literary work has been somewhat neglected and his publications have been separated by longer periods of time. But such interruptions have made each of his new books a more important and meaningful event.
Café Music came out to celebrate the poet’s 60th birthday. To fully interpret this book we have to return to the year 1966, when his collection of poems Light of Snow, Darkness of Snow (Lumevalgus, lumepimedus) contained the cycle Café Music from a Small Town. In the new collection, the poems from that cycle have been scattered all over the book, having been placed, together with the poems of a more recent cycle, Happy, at key positions. The spaces between these poems have been filled with other texts. This method of compilation displays Rummo’s good instinct for composition, which has been recognised by critics.
Instead of the earlier pathos and magnificence, Café Music is dominated by more intimate poems of “small things”, but Rummo’s uncompromising passion for freedom has remained the same. In contrast to his earlier texts, where social criticism was hinted at, the new poems are existentialist and focused on intrinsic problems. It is as if he is striving to reach back to the foetal state: critics have found some parallels to this in the images of closed spaces in artificial environments (a bathyscaph, a plane, and others). The state of happiness and the state of resignation are no longer opposites, but instead they change places, as if the poet would wake up into a dream, not into the state of wakefulness.
Being perhaps the most clear-cut existentialist in Estonian poetry, Rummo has always been open to experiments. As an experiment, he recited his poems from Café Music accompanied by one of Estonia's best jazz saxophonists, Lembit Saarsalu, improvising and reworking them in the course of the performance according to his mood, swinging, or even rapping.
Kalle Käsper. Brothers Luik (Vennad Luiged)
Tallinn, Faatum, 2002. 423 pp
Brothers Luik is a novel about Estonian intellectuals of the recent past, which has brought Vello Käsper (1952) into the public limelight. The novel opens in the period of stagnation at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, touches upon the transition time and concludes in the first years of the Estonian Republic. The activities depicted in the book are centred on the Institute of Scientific Study of the People’s Mind, where the majority of the characters are employed. The older brother, mathematician Silver Luik, is a valued specialist; the younger brother and the central character of the novel Martin Luik – a literary figure - has now and then conducted sociological surveys for the Institute. Martin sympathises with the dissidents. During the New Year's Party at the Institute, at the beginning of the book, he hoists the Estonian national flag on the tower of the astronomical observatory. As a member of a secret organisation, ”Young Estonian”, which has, all in all, only three members, Martin is sent to the West, where he manages to escape by marrying a Finnish lady. He moves to the U.S. and marries again, this time to an exiled Estonian lady, who works at the Voice of America radio station. His active role in the novel begins after his return from the U.S. Meanwhile, an overview is given of the life of a Soviet scientific institute, where it is possible to have a rather comfortable life while doing absolutely nothing. The varied gallery of characters includes an ironic Russian intellectual, Pavel Sergejev, who hates Soviet authority and moves to Estonia from Leningrad because of the relative freedom in Estonia compared to the circumstances in Russia at that time, and a rational lady, Tiia, whom Pavel marries. The intrigue of the novel is woven around the suicide of Silver Luik; Martin tries to investigate the reasons that led his brother to kill himself. Silver had committed suicide at the time of transition, when all characters underwent different metamorphoses, some of them emerging as winners, and others as losers.
The novel ends with a party, held to celebrate the birth of a new fashion magazine, Lolita, in the former St. Nicolaus Church, which had been made into a museum and a concert hall during the Soviet time. The new Estonian Republic is already five years old.
Brothers Luik presents a witty description of Soviet everyday life and the pseudo-life of the period of stagnation, and depicts ironically the time of transition and the life of the newly independent Estonia. This is the first large-scale comprehensive discussion of this period in Estonian literature. Several other colourful descriptions of shorter periods have been published by other authors – for instance, the stagnation period has been analysed by Jaak Jõerüüt in The Vultures, by Mihkel Mutt in The Mice in the Wind, and by others. The transition time has been examined by Mihkel Mutt in The Penguin and the Carrion Cat, and the first years of the Estonian Republic by Mutt in An International Man and The Progressive Mice, and by Jaan Kross in Tahtamaa.
Käsper’s text is saturated, perhaps even over-saturated, with meaning; trying to make each sentence a small work of art, he fills them with aphorisms, intertextual hints and idioms of the period. The wit of the novel is sharp as a blade, slashing at the ideals of the time. Such wit is a strong feature of the book, funny and enjoyable, but sometimes the author’s wish to mock everything makes it too banal. The reason for Silver Luik’s suicide appears to be the futility and emptiness of the people and circumstances surrounding him. In such a case, Silver should represent the striving for something that could build, reconstruct and create, and since he does not find that something, he leaves. The author does not solve this mystery, he does not elaborate Silver’s role in the novel, and therefore, it seems that he has not fully achieved his goal of writing a serious discussion of the time. The number of characters in the novel is large; having been rather superficially characterised, the reader tends to mix them up, and we see most of them through Martin Luik’s ironic viewpoint. The author’s views are rather similar to those of his protagonist. Yet, the book is representative and thrilling to read, and an Estonian reader might even recognise a number of prototypes of the characters.
Enn Põldroos. A Man with a Foolscap (Mees narrimütsiga)
Tallinn, Kunst, 2001. 281 pp
Enn Põldroos (1938) is a renowned artist who was Chairman of the Estonian Artists’ Union and participated in social life and politics. His book, A Man with a Foolscap, is not a routine memoir, but a many-layered autobiographical study of memory and time.
The author opens his reminiscences with the confession that for him it is not routine activities which form the peak of the day, but rather the moment when “a forgotten event or a face suddenly, for an unknown reason, emerges out of the oblivion of the past”. Looking for regularity in the events of the past, Põldroos does not attempt to chronologically line up the faces and moments he remembers, but rather tries to find certain turning points. The invasion of the Soviet Army meant “the end of childhood”. He relates the occupation and war mainly to the gluing of paper strips on windowpanes and the packing of things to start a journey. The time of transition after Stalin’s death is, unexpectedly, most clearly outlined by feelings that overwhelmed the author, when he could again listen to tango tunes or Yves Montand’s songs over the radio. The author often contradicts himself. He admits that he has never much cared for memoirs, but still begins his book by telling what memories and reminiscences have meant for him. He keeps repeating that he should not have started tracing the past, but at the same time he greatly enjoys the genuineness of his memories. He constantly reflects on the process of memory. His memoir is focused on his development as an artist, but even more, he follows his development as a person and a personality. He observes the changes in his own consciousness as well as those in society. He ruminates on how inevitable or accidental past events have been, on the depth of ‘the chasm we were in’, and on the nature of a person’s opportunities and contributions to helping the truth emerge. The author deliberates about the fact that contemporary people are not able to comprehend the totality and perversion of the regime of those times. Using different, and seemingly accidental, cultural signs, Põldroos reminds us of interpersonal relations during Socialism. We could argue with him when he claims that during Stalin’s era, people still knew very little about the great outrages of the time, because 'those who knew about them, were afraid to talk', but we can agree with the fact that ‘relations with reality were formed on the basis of daily life'. Acknowledging that ‘there is much in my life that I have not redeemed', Põldroos still does not experience guilt. He recalls the paradoxes of the stagnation era and discusses the 'half-opportunities' that Estonian artists had during those times. At the end of the book Põldroos writes about the highlights of the time of regaining statehood ten years ago and about his own part in these events, and analyses the key figures of the time.
A Man with a Foolscap, observing the historical process of climbing out of the ‘chasm’, is one of the most unique and sensitive works in the Estonian tradition of autobiography; it is immediate and offers a visually perfect image of the time.
Olev Remsu. Margit Puusaag and Her Men. Selected Works II (Margit Puusaag ja tema mehed. Valitud teosed II)
Tallinn, Wellesto, 2001. 344 pp
Margit Puusaag and Her Men is another novel of a prolific writer Olev Remsu (1947), which makes use of the form of a diary. Remsu’s diary-novel A Tragedy in Haapsalu, subtitled Erik Norrman’s Diary (1998, see ELM No 8, Spring 1999) was given the Prose award in 1998. His next diary-novel Ungern-Sternberg – the War God (Ungern-Sternberg – sõjajumal) was rather a failure. Remsu’s third novel of the same form is again a success. The first-person narrator of all Remsu’s diaries is a naïve, undeveloped mind, which registers itself and all its surroundings in a linear, superficial and innocent way, hiding nothing. Remsu’s exuberant fantasy places the owner of such mind among crazy historical events, the reality of which has been even more amplified by numerous grotesque scenes.
At the opening of the novel, Margit Puusaag is a thirteen-year-old girl. She loses her parents during the bombing of Tallinn in March 1944. Even at so young an age she perceives history not as a succession of events, but as a chronicle of possible male partners. The orphaned girl is sent to her relatives in a small backcountry village, and her greatest problem is who would make her a woman. The first men to get her are three forest brethren, with whom the still underage girl has a son. The story gets more and more frantic. Margit, who has been sent to an orphanage, escapes to the Crimea with an orphanage supervisor, who then leaves her after having found out that she had not been a virgin. Then Margit adopts a Tartar boy, and has numerous adventures in the caves that had belonged to the Tartars, who had been deported from the Crimea during WWII. She becomes a concubine of Moslem men and accompanies one of them, who travels to sell watermelons at the Polar circle. After that, Margit’s life takes another crazy turn and she meets Lavrenti Beria’s son – a photographer and film producer – who photographs naked Margit in the snow. He takes her to Moscow and gets her accepted into the All-Union Cinema Institute. The pages depicting the life among the Moscow Soviet elite in 1952-1953 are the most colourful of the whole book. Margit lives in the luxury hotel Metropol, she attends parties at the Kremlin and parties of bohemian film students, she befriends Stalin’s daughter and falls in love and sleeps with film producer Sergei Bondartchuk, and so on. Generally, Margit is in love with somebody all the time, but usually she is ready to share her bed with men even without love. Her life philosophy is that she ”would want to worship nature, and woman’s body and her urges”. ”I decided that sin does not exist for me. Without punishment there cannot be sin,” she writes in her diary, adding some meditative notes to her chronicle of events. Actually, Margit receives a punishment after a punishment, but she takes the turns of fate as natural phenomena. She lives like a cat and she is called Marka-cat by Pavel Beria, the last one among her numerous husbands. This remarkable fictional character voices witty commentaries about the communist regime. His ambition is to produce a film Lenin’s Love, which would surpass Sergei Eisenstein’s scenes of the seizing of the Winter Palace, and to create a new historical myth with his film. At the beginning, Margit was cast as Krupskaya, later she was given the role of Lenin’s mother, who was the Czar’s lover in the film. In the new history Lenin would have been the Czar’s illegitimate son. This fabulous panorama ends with the fall of Lavrenti Beria and the shooting of his family. Having spent eight years in prison, Margit comes back to Estonia in the epilogue of the novel. She falls in love with an orthodox priest and becomes the Bride of Jesus.
Margit the narrator (the diarist) is, at the same time, the strong feature of the novel and its weakness. She is a medium, who reveals crazy historical scenes, which Remsu paints in very bold colours. She is an empty page, she does not know, what is going on in the Soviet Union, or who is L. Beria. She is a young female, for whom not history, but her own urges are most important. In her diary she registers her orgasms in the same way as her talks with Stalin’s daughter, Pavel’s cynical and clear-sighted political commentaries and the details of the behaviour of Stalin’s courtiers. Having heard that Stalin had killed his first wives, she writes in her diary: ”It would be nice if women were not killed”, and says that Stalin is ”over all, a rather nice man”. Sometimes, when she writes that she is reading Spinoza’s works, her naivety becomes almost feeble-mindedness.
Remsu’s treatment of history hides a germ of magic, but he does not fully develop it into all dimensions. Margit’s body is as experienced as inexperienced is her mind. Society does not forgive her either of these features. Remsu has depicted the contradiction between a sexual body and an innocent mind only as a sequence of automatic repetitions, leaving aside the symbolic plane. Margit Puusaag’s diary is like a two-dimensional picture, where the author has neglected perspective. The picture is, nevertheless, fascinating.
Peeter Sauter. The Dirt (Pori)
Tallinn, ”Loomingu” Raamatukogu, 2002. 80 pp
Peeter Sauter (1962) trained as an actor, and made his writer’s debut in 1988. Since that time, he has written a number of stories, which, all together, can be taken as one story without the beginning and the end, an open text. The story is like life itself, where nothing special occurs but everyday routine, drinking and sex. All Sauter’s texts have remarkable dialogues, they use exact and natural language, and they represent the so-called ”small people”.
In his recent stories The Smell of a Woman, the Smell of Money, Tomato Soup and The Bum and the Father Confessor, which the author himself has manifested as simple criminal stories about love and Mafiosos, Sauter has increased dramatism and intensity and preserved sharp dialogue, truthful milieu and naturalness. He has published these stories in the form of small pocketbooks, and they have all been sold out. In his own way, Sauter is a classic.
Thus, in his recent works Sauter tries to contrast the fragments of the flow of life with sharp passions and games with death.
He has called his latest book The Dirt a film story, written on the motifs of Stanislaw Przybyszewsky’s play The Snow (in Estonian in 1909) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (in Estonian in 1971). The characters and plot of The Dirt are based on Przybyszewsky’s story (the earlier version of The Dirt, published at Sauter’s home page, has retained the names of the characters of The Snow, which have later been replaced). Sauter has brought the modernist and symbolist drama The Snow into the contemporary time and everyday life. The aesthetics of beauty and decay has been replaced by the aesthetics of ugliness and decay – the low and the noble are one and the same. A businessman Mats lives with an artist Anna. Anna comes from East Estonia, the region where a large part of Estonia’s Russian population is living. She is an archetypal child-woman: unbalanced, clueless, defenceless, irrational, she has repeatedly attempted suicide and continues to try. Mats has become bankrupt.
Earlier, Mats had lived with Maarja. Maarja’s business had been thriving. They all had studied together during some time in the past, their relations are complicated, and they all have reached a kind of dead end. Maarja, who is doing well in life, has also found only total emptiness.
Maarja wants Mats back, she ties him to her with a murder she had hired him to commit, and paid for. Maarja asks Mats to shoot her at the moment of orgasm and leaves all her money to him. Anna has a brother, Vassili, who had also been an artist, but who had by now drunk himself to oblivion. Anna has a child with Vassili (Anna: ”I have nothing to lose.”). In the end, Anna and Mats buy a baby carriage; they had wanted a child for a long time.
From Dostoyevsky, Sauter has borrowed the mixing of good and bad in human soul, the duality of human beings, the presence of an executioner in the depths of everybody’s soul and the demonstration of the irrational powers of human character. The character of a prostitute, who, despite everything, preserves her inner purity, also refers to Russian literature. Lida, who has had to go to brothel because of poverty is simple and humble like Dostoyevsky’s characters, she arouses pity in Vassili. In a more refined way even Anna resembles the same type, since she has kept something helpless and pure in her soul. And besides evil, we can find something hard to explain even in Maarja, which reminds us of Dostoyevsky’s Nastasia Filippovna form The Idiot. Vassili’s fall arouses pity in Anna; Anna’s fall arouses pity in Mats. Maarja does not sympathise with anybody, she knows no god, and death is the end of the game. God exists for Anna and Vassili, but they cannot find strength. A banal and carnal priest seems to indicate that in the end, everything is banal and low. Only vodka remains. Anna utters the last words of the book: ”Much, much, much to drink.”
”What happens when the dirt and the snow meet?”, asks Sauter at the beginning of his story. ”Probably, the snow gets dirty.” And he continues: ”The dirt is nasty and dear to us, our home is in the dirt. We wallow in the dirt like piglets, we throw dirt at each other and get hit.” Sauter dislikes morale and pathetic words. But still, the dirt cannot exist without something pure to counterbalance it, such as the snow.
Aleksander Suuman. The Nymphs of Dragonfly with Seaweed. 1957-2002. (Tondihobu tõugud vetikatega. 1957-2002).
Tallinn, Huma, 2002. 319 pp
The Nymphs of Dragonfly is a bulky volume of poetry, published to commemorate the 75th birthday of painter and poet Aleksander Suuman. It offers a selection from his 14 poetry collections and also contains a cycle of new unpublished poems.
Suuman’s first collection of poetry, Oh, What a Man, was published in 1963. From that time on he has steadfastly climbed the slopes of the Estonian Parnassus. He started with mostly free verse nature poetry; his sometimes elegiac, and sometimes youthfully restless verses seem to show the brush strokes of a painter. Suuman has developed into a witty examiner of social and art life. His abstract nature poetry has gradually been replaced by poetry with a more definite space-time and more concrete characters. At the beginning of his career, he painted impressive and vivid pictures with words, but now he also structures his texts graphically: his poems may resemble an amphora, a sea wave, or other things he mentions in the poems. Effortlessly he has even presented an old postcard as a poem. In the 1970s he wrote more traditional epic poems in fixed forms, and even sonnets; now his means of expression have become more colloquial and more laconic. His aphoristic poems of only one line, the meaning and context of which is often explained by titles that could be even longer than the poem itself, are good examples of minimalism. In the 1990s he added dialectal features to his poems and sometimes he rewrote his earlier poems in dialect.
All these changes and developments are well displayed in this selection. At the same time, Suuman’s conception of poetry has mainly remained unchanged. In one of his earlier poems he saw poetry even in the starry sky, where the crescent moon was like a comma. For Suuman, a poem exists in its completed form even before the ‘making’ of it. One only has to notice it and put it on paper. Some word play or slips of the tongue, some dialectal or archaic words help to provide a humorous or a sound effect. Even a row of Saami words written on the paper obtains independent poetic value.
For the last dozen years Suuman has carefully observed Estonian society and art. He can be subtly satirical and ironic. He finds anecdotal situations in everyday life and presents them in the form of witty laconic texts, never allowing brutal mockery. He gently teases performance artists who yesterday displayed excrement in an exhibition hall but have to eat it today, since art is in constant development. He scolds art critics who demand innovation for innovation's sake from artists and from life. His work is an enjoyable art in words, full of worldly wisdom and humorous scepticism, and fortunately, lacking intrusive moralising.
Ervin Õunapuu. The Sword. Like a River. (Mõõk. Nagu jõgi)
Tallinn, Umara, 2002. 160 pp
It is the year 1979 somewhere in a rural area of Soviet Estonia. The young long-haired artist Taavet – the kind of youth the Soviet authorities used to molest – is walking along a dusty country road. He barely manages to avoid a speeding tractor, which runs into a ditch full of water right beside him. Taavet saves the drunken tractor driver from certain death, since the driver had been tied to the seat with a rope to prevent him from falling out of the cab. Together they continue towards the village where the parish church is located. Such opening scenes are followed by life-like descriptions of the surroundings, and grotesque meetings with people; the merciless point of the story reveals everyday Soviet life and the church atmosphere of the time in clear and dispassionate colours.
The Sword, in which he continues the settling of accounts with a society which is hostile to independent personalities, is Ervin Õunapuu’s (1956) sixth book. The book was presented to the audience at the opening of Õunapuu’s solo exhibition “Private Collection” (the author is also an artist). At the opening, Õunapuu spoke against the selling of works of art made by Estonian authors to private collections abroad. He also sold an exhibit made of sawdust, the product of sawing logs taken from an old wooden church, called “Wooden Church 2002”, thus collecting money for the construction of the Estonian Art Museum.
Compared with Õunapuu’s previous novels, The Sword is more centred on details and a concrete milieu. Numerous hints refer to the emptiness of the shops of the time, as well as to the products of the Western mass culture, despised in Soviet society as the relicts of ‘decaying capitalism’, but nevertheless passionately craved and in short supply, offering wide opportunities for all kinds of speculators. It is no accident that in the landscapes of the novel the reader recognises the home of an Estonian literary classic, A. H. Tammsaare, whose portrait now graces the Estonian 25-crown note. Similarly to Tammsaare, Õunapuu is anticlerical. The difference is that, while at the beginning of the 20th century Tammsaare confined himself to the limits of realism, Õunapuu eagerly reaches into the grotesque and naturalism. We find no characters in the novel we would want to identify with or even to feel sympathy for. There are deceitful and lecherous representatives of power; no mercy has been shown to the clergy or idealistic freedom fighters. Their greed and total corruption in the Communist Empire is well displayed. The paranoid society, represented in the novel, in which everybody spies and informs on everybody else is topped by a cutting image where it is revealed that the young artist – the protagonist – is actually a valued KGB sleuth with the alias ‘the Sword’.
Anton Nigov. Exercises (Harjutused)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2002. 311 pp
In 1993, Tõnu Õnnepalu published his first novel, The Border State, under the pseudonym of Emil Tode. The critics soon claimed that the book was the first messenger of the ‘brave new’ Estonian literature. The intertextual The Border State depicted an Eastern European young man in Paris and Strasbourg, where he discovered a society of well-being and prosperity, committed a crime and fled from the consequences. The most impressive image of this many-layered fictional work is a hand reaching out of the Seine and clutching a computer diskette, which contains the text of the novel. The novel, written while the author spent some time in Paris on a fellowship, has been translated into at least a dozen European languages.
Õnnepalu’s new book, Exercises, again confirms his love for Pessoan games. Anton Nigov is the name of Õnnepalu’s grandfather. This book was also written in Paris, where Õnnepalu organised the work of a branch of the Estonian Institute for a year. And this book, too, concludes with a leave-taking – one among the many in human life: the author leaves Paris, calling it the preparation for the last leave-taking. Paris is conceived as a place of initiation, as a symbolic door, which has opened to let many people, for instance Hemingway but also Estonian artists at the beginning of the 20th century, come to the sources of culture. Paris has been a place for self-discovery for Õnnepalu as well.
Although the pseudonym seems to indicate some mystification or fiction, the author tells us straight-out in the very first pages that everything written in the book is true. This diary of thoughts, complete with dates, was written during the last two months of 2001, inspired by impressions of Paris, and by meditations and memories which came to the author while studying a map of Estonia. This flowing book contains very confessional and pronouncedly subjective prose, embodying such deep, honest and sincere self-analysis that it is unique in Estonian literature. Nigov describes traumas that Õnnepalu has suffered during his life, and also his homosexuality, which was a crime during the Soviet time. Living with such a burden alienated people from society and they had to learn to live their lives as recluses, having only culture as their friend. Nigov conceives art as the homeland for outcasts, but he still questions its finality and endurance, because, in culture, the dead speak with the voices of the living. Apocalyptic reflections and meditations on the vanishing of a nation are balanced by the mission of making the past clear before the final destruction, the final oblivion and the final leave-taking.
One of the leitmotifs of The Exercises is the yearning for some continuity in a culture that is daily becoming more and more rootless and nomadic. The author examines his own genetic and cultural roots: “I do not know where I come from, where my real and proper home was. It seems that as long as I do not know that, I am only wandering about, I do not know where to go, I am searching for the way back.” He bends over a map of Estonia in Paris, searches for vanished villages and remembers ruined farms – all this refers to the same retrospective and contemplative way back: “I am going backwards, but I want to see even farther into the past than the reaches of my own life. I am sure that all this begins much farther away, and now I am holding only the last pages of a book torn in half.”
The Exercises, a book about the yearning for continuity and about being abroad, is an enjoyable confession, and can be read as a comment on Õnnepalu’s other works, as well as an essay and a diary of thoughts.