Short outlines of books by Estonian authors
Karl-Martin Sinijärv. Artutart & 39
Tallinn, Tuum, 2002. 75 pp
Karl-Martin Sinijärv (1971) entered Estonian literature almost as a child prodigy during the days of the Singing Revolution in the 1980s, against the background of patriotic enthusiasm and spiritual excitement fed by the process of the restitution of the Estonian Republic. The younger generation of poets of that time coined the term ethnofuturism, the godfather of which is, supposedly, Sinijärv. In literature ethnofuturism was meant to merge the inherited folk culture with futurist forms. The ethnofuturists manifested themselves as cheerful optimists on the principle “much noise and much gain”.
Sinijärv’s sixth collection of poetry Artutart & 39 deservedly received the Poetry Award of the Estonian Cultural Endowment this year. The excitement of poetry has not deserted the author, although already in the opening poem of the collection, addressing the reader, he straightforwardly declares that he is “on a comfortable and pleasurable move towards old age”. Pleasure, or more exactly, the pleasure of words and thoughts is one of the characteristic features of Sinijärv’s life and writing and of his poetic perception of the world. This is supported by his easy and tasteful sense of style, through which he captivates his readers, offering them enjoyable somersaults of pleasant sounding free verse, as well as various gourmet culinary allusions. The latter are important, since Sinijärv is also an acknowledged restaurant critic and the author of a popular cookbook for bachelors. He is a writer who promotes healthy and easy hedonism. Now and then he also weaves ironic reactions to social problems into his poems, although this is not his main aim.
The signs of growing up and growing old can still be found in Sinijärv’s poetry, but not the resignation, growing with years, which in many cases accompanies such notions. His turbulent and ethnofuturistic years of youth were mostly spent in Tartu, which is indicated even in the anagram that forms the title of this book. And since these poems are mostly of a reminiscent nature, they contain a certain nostalgia for his ethnofuturistic compatriots and audiences. As critics have already noted, such reminiscent images do not ooze sentimental nostalgia for the joyful years of his youth; rather they have given birth to a new life – he is energetic as always, enjoying beer and gourmet food and daringly defying the approach of middle age.
Priidu Beier. Monaco
Tartu, 2002. 66 pp
Jaan Malin. To You. Occasional Poems That Did Not Occur (Sinule. Juhtumata juhuluulet)
Tartu, 2003. 95 pp
The usual forms of occasional or dedicational poetry are often carelessly pushed into the marginal areas of “real” poetry. Despite this fact, two poets of almost the same age published absolutely independently of each other and almost at the same time two intimate collections of dedicational poems. Even the pocket format and the laconic red and white design of the two books are similar. Since in both cases the majority of the poems are dedicated to women, these colours suggest purity and love. Through a number of heart-shaped holes cut into the white cover of Malin’s book To You we can see the red underlying page, thus filling the cover with red hearts. To conclude this introduction – it should be clear that hidden behind the purposefully old-fashioned style of the poetry and the design of the books lurk clever parody and pastiche.
Jaan Malin’s (1960) To You deviates from the surrealist style usually characteristic of the author, and has the effect of technically somewhat constructed poetry, leaving his habitual domain of poetry and reaching a metalevel. The poet is well aware of this fact and cultivates a kind of gallant and ennobling attitude towards the objects of his poems. Although these are real and recognisable people from the author’s circle of friends and acquaintances, their being recognisable is not important. More important is the genre itself, which Malin has thoroughly mastered.
Monaco, written by Priidu Beier (1957), who received the prestigious Juhan Liiv Poetry Award last year, carries a bilingual dedication: “Printsess Stephanie Grimaldile. Für Stephanie Grimaldi” (“For Princess Stephanie Grimaldi”). This collection is truly characteristic of Beier, dedicated to the princess of the small European country of Monaco, the author being fully aware that the princess has never heard of such a poet. Although we can find objects of yearning in Beier’s poetry, who are much nearer to us than the Princess of Monaco, they all merge into one unified image of a woman. For the most part, Beier’s verse is firm and dynamic, with well-shaped rhyme and rhythm, his images are clear and sensual, and his mood varies from melancholy to self-irony.
Lovesickness and being abandoned have often been the subjects of Beier’s poetry, but he has always known how to present them in the style of a joker or Pierrot – half of his face suffering and in tears, the other half grinning. His poetic self elevates his lady and lowers himself in a way that makes the situation tragi-comical. The main voice is that of a consumptive, a shaggy and ragged beggar. He yearns for his lady love’s exotic and shapely breasts with the passion of a sick man, and mixes the high with the low. At the same time he knows about the dangers hidden beneath the underwear, as well as the illusory quality of the fulfilment of his desires. Even more – he knows that such fulfilment would dry up his well of poetry. The object of desire of such declarative and commedia dell’ arte poetry must be unreachable, so that the poet can sigh for it like a young Heine.
Toomas Liiv. Poems 1968-2002 (Luuletused 1968-2002)
Tallinn. Tuum, 2003. 238 pp
Which is better – to be a literary critic who writes poetry, or a poet who writes literary criticism? In the case of Toomas Liiv (1946), who has in recent years irritated Estonian literary critics with his adventuristic essays and attempts to rehabilitate Socialist Realism, the latter is preferable. Although he is a prolific essayist and critic now, he came into literature as a poet, having published his first collection of poetry in 1971. Since that time, he has published only four collections, the latest of which, under the foreign title Achtung came out in 2000. But all these collections have been uniquely remarkable and refreshing. Achtung stood out also for the fact that the author had added a review, written by himself, which has also been included in the voluminous present collection that draws together all of Liiv’s poems. Such a trick makes us react to the review, although seemingly a metatext, as an ambivalent poem, or at least, approach it with caution.
Liiv’s poetry is the educated poetry of a literary scientist that embodies a rebellion against norms, manifested not so much in ignoring these norms, as in the conscious considering and still avoiding of them. A vivid and already chrestomatic example of this method is the poem 154 Syllables of Poetry, which gives the impression of a sonnet and has been printed as one, but which actually is an enjambed description of a common marital disagreement. Enjambement really is Liiv’s main method. While reading his poems, this gives the sudden effect of the ‘aesthetics of stopping’, and it is equally used on the levels of syntax, syllable and phoneme. Graphically, it results in poems in the form of a regular rectangle. Liiv has confessed that above all he enjoys the transforming of metric texts into prose and that writing poetry is, for him, mostly the creating of specific writing, pure écriture.
About what, why and from which standpoint does Toomas Liiv write? In his earlier, traditional free verse poems, we can sense the tinge of the post-hippie era, desire for freedom and inverted pacifism (the poem To the Swan Who Killed a Tank pities a ruined machine of war cowering on a hill, which had been molested by a swan), as well as the young man’s romantic discovering of the world, complemented by almost surrealist images of reality. Naturally, there are also love scenes, and nature motifs. This poetry of earlier years culminates in the shattering of youthful illusions and myths. And since Liiv, as a literary scientist, conceives literary history also as a series of myths and misconceptions, in his later poetry he cultivates the shattering of myths as he does the avoiding of fixed forms. His newer ‘rectangles of poetry’ are often feuilletonistic meditations on political or cultural topics, full of unexpected images. Secondary inspiration prevails over nature and immediate impressions and creates collisions that reach across time, such as in one of his latest poems about the war in Iraq, where a security officer of the previous Soviet Union kicks a sergeant of the US Army into a gutter in Baghdad.
In his self-review Liiv declared that his poetry is a trick and parody. Still, such a claim cannot be accepted as the single truth of his poetry. Through playful irony and self-irony, Liiv also discusses social and global problems, the seriousness of which can best be overcome with the help of the poetry of paradoxes.
Arvo Mägi. Plague and Cholera. Fragments from the Edges of the Disc of History (Katk ja koolera. Kilde ajalooketta servadelt)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2002. 208 pp
Arvo Mägi, who celebrated his ninetieth birthday in Stockholm on 13 June this year, is one of the oldest and most productive authors and critics in contemporary Estonian literature, whose activities reflect the continuity of time. During WWII he fled from Estonia via Finland to Sweden. Living in exile, he has since the mid-1940s published about 30 works of criticism and fiction in different genres and worked as a journalist at exile-Estonian newspapers. His new collection of short stories, published to celebrate his jubilee, contains stories written in 2000-2002 and demonstrates the usual high quality of his work.
Mägi has been largely interested in European and Estonian history and he has compiled two widely used books of historical chronology. Much of his literary work is also related to history, although it is not based on archival materials as are books written, say, by Jaan Kross or Lion Feuchtwanger. He does not depict historical persons or examine great revolutionary events. Such events may form the initial impulses of his novels, and may be hinted at in his works, but soon he again turns to the daily life of different social classes and the morals and customs of the era he writes about. Attention to customs and ways of life can best be followed in scenes, often rendered in racy dialogue, where different views of life mix or clash. Revolutionary ideas are accompanied by sexual freedom; European ideas, patriotic spirit and snobbish love of Germanic things and ideas are all intertwined. Sometimes the characters have to think and act between opposing lusts and laws, meaning morals – and as a rule, it is not the morals that win, but the lusts, and the characters are eager to find reasons and compromises to indulge in.
Plague and Cholera is a good illustration of history. At the beginning, Mägi examines the folklore-like attitude to life and worldviews of ‘primitive people’, then he describes quickly the years from 1869 to 1952. Each episode is true to its time and history and can well be used as supplement to history textbooks. Still, the work is purely fictional, and historical figures remain in the background. Time, as it is found in Mägi’s work, flows easily, running from scene to scene. We should not search for deep analysis, but rather, enjoy his fluent and smooth narrative.
Jaan Kross. Autobiographism and Subtext (Omaeluloolisus ja alltekst)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2003. 227 pp
In 1998 the grand old man of Estonian prose, Jaan Kross was invited to assume the position of Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Tartu. His lectures based on his own work have now been published under the intriguing title of Autobiographism and Subtext. Jaan Kross’ works have been translated into many languages. In his prose works he has mainly discussed the intellectuals of the 16th to 20th centuries who have undeservedly been left in the shadows or remained marginal in the cultural context of the time. Although his latest novels and some of his short stories are based on his own experience of historical events, there arises the question of how the life stories of the 16th-century chronicler Balthasar Russow or other characters of Kross’ novels, who lived in earlier centuries, can be connected with Kross’ own biography. This example is not accidental, since Kross himself has named Russow as the closest to his heart among the gallery of his characters.
Kross conceives autobiographism both as an opportunity and an inevitability in literature, stating that “everything that a writer may write is actually his own story”. For instance, he differentiates between three levels of, or opportunities given by, autobiographism. Firstly, it is a pulverised substance of memory that originates from the author’s consciousness; secondly, it is the weaving of suitable episodes of the author’s life into the text he is creating; and thirdly, it is pure autobiography. In his lectures, Kross gives numerous examples of how, when writing the biographies of Russow, as well as some other characters, he has filled the gaps in history with material from his own biography. The result is much more convincing and offers surprising finds in the paradoxical intersections of parallel biographies, as the author has stated that the main method of his work is reincarnation and change. Kross is thus using poetic license, but he still remains within the limits of believability and historical truth. He does not allegorise in his historical works, but rather finds analogues to his own time and his own experiences in history. The time of the chronicler Russow is broken by the Livonian War. In his youth Kross experienced the downfall of the independent Republic of Estonia and the change of power. In addition, the chronicler of the 16th century wrote his chronicle under essentially similar conditions of political pressure as did Kross when he was writing his novels. More or less intentionally, or simply to check the alertness of the censors, Kross masterfully inserted hints into his works that the reader was able to understand as criticism of alien powers. Among other things, the lectures describe some quite curious episodes of the activities of Soviet censorship.
Having started his literary career as a poet in the 1950s, Kross has been shaping Estonian literary reality for more than fifty years. His collection of lectures gives an overview of the background of his work, of the obstacles and inspirations he has met. In his essayist way he mostly theorises about his own prose, but also offers examples from his poetry and his long-time translation practice, which started with the translations of the works of Heinrich Heine and Béranger. Besides the novel about Russow, he has devoted more space to such well-known novels of his as The Czar’s Madman (Keisri hull), Treading Air (Paigallend), The Novel of Rakvere (Rakvere romaan), Excavations (Väljakaevamised) and several others, as well as to a number of works of short prose. Considering the description of the time and conditions of the writing of his novels, as well as their relation to historical materials, Kross’ lectures are extremely informative and they are as enjoyable as his novels.
Jaan Kaplinski/Johannes Salminen. Nights Light and Black. Correspondence from the Year 2001 (Ööd valged ja mustad. Kirjavahetus aastast 2001)
Tallinn, LR 2003, No 19-20. 108 pp
This book, published by one of the most prominent Estonian poets and essayists, Jaan Kaplinski, and a well-known Finnish-Swedish essayist, Johannes Salminen (born on the Åland Islands), contains five letters by each of the authors, written in 2001, and forms a sequel to a book of correspondence written in Finnish and Swedish, titled Is the Nightingale Still Singing in Tartu? (Kas Tartus laulab veel ööbik?). This is an exchange of ideas on a global scale, voiced by two cosmopolitans, and reflecting a number of hot issues of our era, including the tensions in the Middle East, as well as the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001.
Both of the authors have called the Mediterranean countries the homeland of their spirits; Kaplinski’s part of the correspondence begins at Villa Mazzano near Rome, and one of his later letters was inspired by his trip to Israel. But even Kaplinski, who has declared that he does not have a homeland, has often stressed the need for a safe and secure space, where one can view world affairs from a distance. Therefore, he opposes his lack of homeland to a home in the country, which is related to a natural and sparing way of life, and to love of forests and migratory birds. At the same time, his ideas are not naïve calls ‘back to nature’, but rather stem from real experience of the world. Kaplinski speaks about the cult of the new time and the misguided path of the brave new world, about the Soviet past and the smallness of the world, where all things are interrelated, and about poetry, which, whether about the creating of another, better world or about a quest in our own world, has always had a mystical nature for him. Salminen’s letters are dominated by resistance to change, and by the preservation of permanent values, which is especially evident in his interest in the Eastern church and Byzantine culture.
Due to Kaplinski’s Jewish roots, Jewish questions, from the historical humiliation of the Jews up to the macho-complex of Ariel Sharon, are discussed as well. Kaplinski sees a great danger to others in a state that so vehemently identifies itself through its enemies as Israel is presently doing; Salminen observes the rebirth of a South-African type of apartheid in Israel: Jerusalem – the place where three religions meet – should be a city of peace, but it has become a vipers’ nest. Both correspondents criticise modern religions, as well as America, which is striving to be the Rome of our times.
Essentially, this book by Kaplinski and Salminen is a meditation, in the mood of soft and sceptical humanism, on the present ecological and political state of the world against the background of its historical development. The form of the book displays brilliantly the persistence of epistolary culture even in our present era of computers.
Kauksi Ülle. The Solstice (Käänüpäiv)
Tartu, 2003. 198 pp
Having already spoken about ethnofuturism in relation to Karl-Martin Sinijärv’s poetry, we have to discuss Kauksi Ülle’s (1962) new collection of poetry The Solstice in the same context. This is the seventh, the most voluminous and much illustrated, collection of poetry of the author, who has also published a number of prose books. She writes in the Võru dialect, which is spoken in southeast Estonia, and is difficult to understand for people who speak standard Estonian. It has been inspired by local folk traditions and represents ethnofuturism non plus ultra, which, differing from Sinijärv’s thoroughly modernist cityscapes, brings to us a consciously archaic country culture derived from polytheistic folklore that has common features with the world experience of Estonians’ distant relative nations in the East – the Maris, the Erza, the Udmurts and others. Kauksi Ülle’s poetry does not poeticise folk religion or the archaic worldview, but is one with it in its depiction of everyday activities. This is not a stylisation or the creation of another naturalistic utopia in poetic form, but a world view and world experience. Her poems are in free verse and often use everyday language, but they contain both lyric images and a strong epic potential.
Kauksi Ülle’s poetry is strongly polarised, opposing the familiar and the strange. Her poems seldom display direct didactics, but constantly stress ‘traditional values’ – family, work, the need to preserve the ancestors’ inheritance, to speak the ancestors’ language and to honour and continue their ways. It is only natural that one of the poems is titled A Prayer for the Ancestors’ Land. Sometimes this opposition develops into the attitude that modern culture is alien and evil. In a milder way she talks about the lessening of the beauty of Greek sculptures when juxtaposed with Northern felt boots and winter caps, etc. One’s own is ‘sacred’ – this is a key word that characterises the way of life and behaviour that follows “the most ancient way”. On the other hand, such an attitude does not prevent Kauksi Ülle from borrowing her motifs from popular culture when she finds it suitable. Such loans are more numerous in the song lyrics she has written, and in the repertoire of the band Lõkõriq, who sing Murder Ballads by Nick Cave as well as rap songs in the Võru dialect.
Kauksi Ülle’s work has strong regional characteristics, but has also been discussed in the context of the postcolonial paradigm. Linguistic colonialism in particular is important – in her opinion, the Võru dialect has been oppressed by the literary language. These are rather polemic views, but they do not affect the value of her literary work. The Solstice is Kauksi Ülle’s most integral, and so far best, collection of poetry.
Tõnu Luik. To Talk about Philosophy (Filosoofiast kõnelda)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2002. (The History of Estonian Thought 44). 184 pp
Considering the relatively young age of Estonian culture, it has sometimes been doubted whether Estonian philosophy really exists. It is true that philosophy has been taught at the University of Tartu since the 1920s, but generally it has really only been taught, talked about and mediated; there is no tradition of philosophising in the normal sense of the word.
This book written by a lecturer of philosophy of the University of Tartu, Tõnu Luik (1941), is titled To Talk about Philosophy, but the author himself has been called ‘a chapter in Estonian philosophy’ by his colleagues. Having taught for decades, Luik has become a kind of legend and it is no exaggeration to say that he has shaped a school of philosophy in Estonia. His services in forming and developing Estonian philosophy were acknowledged with the State Award of the Republic of Estonia this year. Luik is foremost a talking philosopher; his book is based on a transcription of his tape-recorded lecture series ‘Philosophical and Historical Introduction to Philosophy’.
This book contains Luik’s discussions of the essence of philosophy, its fundamental concepts and history, which are mainly based on Greek and German classical thought and follow Martin Heidegger’s fundamental-ontological thought. His lectures are often only introductions to the subject, touching upon time, historicity, the relations between philosophy and other sciences and the original thinking of the Greeks. The reader/listener is guided to further independent thinking. But most importantly, these lectures are guides to the very sources, the etymological explanation, of mythical thinking and fragments of Greek philosophy, which help to avoid the later and often shifted meanings of the concepts. His reasoning is illustrated with examples from Estonian poetry, thus representing a balanced symbiosis of classical philosophical thought and the poetical text. Since thinking derives from language, and proceeds in a unique way in each language, Luik’s way with words, through which he so beautifully makes philosophy audible in the Estonian language, is most remarkable and admirable.
Tarmo Teder. Stories from the Attic (Pööningujutud)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2002. 252 pp
Tarmo Teder (1958) started his writing career with poetry and has, since 1990, published both poetry and prose, including a novel, and criticism. Above all, he is known as a writer of short stories who tells us about the life of bohemians and lower classes of humanity.
Like many other Teder stories, Stories from the Attic are about the lives of the outcasts of society or present the voices of those who feel that they have not been invited to the banquet tables of society. The characters of the 14 stories of the book represent a cross section of society, or rather, of a certain segment of it. The world they walk in seems to have been newly created, the rules of the game have not yet been fixed – some of the previous robbers have made a rapid career in politics, others have been able to launder their black businesses bright and clean, but the limits have not yet been reached and everything is still possible.
Teder is not interested in big predators, but rather in small fish. The writers and critics he depicts in his stories, the ‘good average’, have, as a rule, succumbed to alcohol, their paths meander, they are not afraid of adventures and there is no need to pity them. We can meet even more grotesque figures in the world of politics, but Teder again offers us the perspective of small players looking up to big ones. This is a male world, where each has to fight for himself; women and children are only used and sometimes pitied. Among the characters there are thieves, prostitutes, gays and weirdos. Teder’s prose is socially sensitive literature that reaches out to the limits of decent life. One of the short stories The Line for Lice (Täi piir) is a harsh tale (following the best traditions of Russian literature) of the insignificance and emptiness of human life in the Soviet Union. The first person narrator raises the question of whether humans have been placed in the world only to ponder the line between lice and God. Teder has placed the man he is writing about somewhere in the space between insects and God, his bustling life more resembling that of the insects. But in his moments of yearning he senses the absence of the limits on God.
Teder is a realist, he writes about the daily life of the so-called small people, and his skill in analysing their problems has grown with each of his books.
Enn Vetemaa. My Very Sweet Life Or A Marzipan-maker (Minu väga magus elu ehk martsipanimeister)
Tallinn. Tänapäev, 2002. 206 pp
Enn Vetemaa (1936) belongs, along with P.-E. Rummo, J.Kaplinski, A.Ehin, V.Luik and others, to the literary generation of the 1960s, having for a long time been a leading prose author of the period. A steady and prolific author, Vetemaa has always been present in Estonian literature, but recently he has become a kind of ‘forgotten classic’. His works discuss current topics. As always, they are full of brilliant esprit. Although in the past he has sometimes been accused of superficiality and loquacity, critics have found his latest novel Marzipan maker much more praiseworthy than several of his preceding works.
The novel has two titles. My Very Sweet Life receives top billing and is the first person narrator’s – the marzipan maker’s – appraisal of his life. Sweet life has usually been ambiguously understood as an easy life that is in fact often quite bitter. Vetemaa has added the word ‘very’, and the word ‘sweet’ seems to hide one of the keys to the book. The protagonist of the book takes everything very earnestly. The protagonist’s name – Ernst – which we learn only at the end of the novel reflects the protagonist’s serious attitude.
The marzipan-maker tells us about his life; he thinks that he has been a really lucky fellow and firmly believes that although little known to the public, he is an extremely outstanding artist. His profession is quite an unusual occupation and his life is extraordinary. He is fond of philosophising and teaching, and thinks that he is far above the masses. The story follows the model of a biography, written in the first person and explaining the descent of the protagonist, describing his youth, self-realisation, love life and work, and containing, like all spontaneous biographical narratives, numerous digressions. The claim voiced by Ernst the marzipan-maker that he is writing his artistic and philosophical autobiography, and integrating his life story into a whole without intending to make it into a chronological series of moments, is quite true to a real autobiography. Very often even serious autobiographists write more about what they think about this or that event rather than describing the actual events. Naturally, despite its format, Marzipan-maker has no more to do with autobiography than any other first person fictional narrative. The rather loosely composed Marzipan-maker mostly presents the so-called artistic and philosophical views of the protagonist. The marzipan-maker poses as a real patriot, an Estonian man of thoroughly right and righteous views, who approves of the market economy, believes that old age pensioners lead wonderful lives, praises the progressive cultural policy of the Estonian Republic, etc. He is pleased with his extraordinary ability to go along with the things considered right in society at just the right time. Naturally, the reader is able to sense the author’s irony. It seems that the marzipan-maker is a socially deaf self-admirer. On the other hand, he presents opinions that indicate social sensitivity. We could ask to what degree the novel is an analysis of adaptation and to what degree it is grotesque. Vetemaa seems to enjoy the creating of his marzipan-maker, leaving it to us to decide whether the man is really a simpleton or a cunning and sly type, an unfortunate autistic or a man of the world. In his earlier works, Vetemaa depicted, with great pleasure, good and simple-minded fellows caught in the treadmill or roasting on the spit of society. The marzipan-maker thinks that he turns the spit, rather than roasting on it. Seemingly, Vetemaa only offers us easy reading, but the marzipan-maker and his very sweet life represent a quite familiar social phenomenon. His profession may be unique, but his views on life are rather common to a certain class of people. The author’s ambivalent representation of such an attitude only lends additional charm to this novel.
Enn Põldroos. A Striped Stone (Joonik kivi)
Tallinn, 2003. 130 pp
A Striped Stone is the third book of the distinguished artist Enn Põldroos (1933), but his first novel.
The book was awarded the third prize at the latest novel-writing competition, but several members of the jury have called the work a real discovery and have greatly admired its masterful style. Only its comparative shortness prevented it from receiving a higher award.
Põldroos’s first book A Man with a Foolscap (Mees narrimütsiga) was a memoir published in 2001. A Striped Stone is also largely based on memories. They are not simply autobiographical splashes of colour, but form a strictly composed work that still leaves some open ends.
The main character of the book is an old half-crippled man, whose daily life is mostly filled with grumbling about his housekeeper. Memories of his lovers and friends, and a less detailed outline of the family story of Franz Krull, are much more important to him than the present time. He believes that if he counts the gains and costs of his life, the costs will not balance the successes and achievements. He finds that only those moments that have not been related to his moves on the career ladder are truly important. His fate is revealed not in a “dizzying career, but in the feelings, smells and colours one has been granted to experience in one’s life”. The protagonist meditates on many chapters of his life and attempts to determine the important and essential things he has experienced. Did he live his life fully or did he waste it? How much has his life been connected with reality and how many moments of exquisite perfection has he witnessed? He enjoys his past, its power, victories, experiences, impressions and passions and arrives at the truth that mostly the golden moments of his life were spent in his youth. He had been told his fortune once, a prediction that his life would seem to be interrupted, and then be continued when he would have no use for it any more. The point of the novel where his housekeeper is identified as his one time lover also explains his attitude to life. The intriguing metaphor of interrupted life remains, unfortunately, unexplained.
This sensitive book has been written with the skilful hand of a painter, using half tones and only outlining half of the images; it offers peaceful and enjoyable reading, reflecting the exceptional character of its author.
Lilli Suburg. The Collected Writings (Kogutud kirjatööd)
Tallinn, Eesti Raamat, 2002. 504 pp
Lilli Suburg (1841-1923) is a forgotten Estonian woman author. This new edition of her collected writings (actually, the recent volume contains only selected short stories) could be a discovery for many a reader. Lilli Suburg’s school classmate, Lydia Jannsen (Lydia Koidula), became a classic of Estonian literature, the founder of national literature and theatre, and has been affectionately called the Singer of Dawn. The fate of Lilli Suburg was to remain in the shadow of her famous schoolmate and she has often been pictured as an Estonian Salieri, whose jealousy stalked the talented Koidula. Both of the girls were educated at the Pärnu Girls’ School, where they received German-language education and were influenced by the petty bourgeois morals of the period. Lilli’s parents acquired quite substantial wealth by making and selling cheese, but a comfortable life did not bring happiness and freedom to the girl. She sought escape in religion, work and the philosophy of suffering, until she discovered something truly extraordinary for the Baltic countries of her time – women’s emancipation. She became a writer who gave edifying instructions to women and made her whole life a model for others. She founded a girls’ school and established the women’s magazine Linda. She was one of the first independent women and the initiator of the women’s movement in Estonia.
Suburg’s first short story Liina (1877) was probably her most popular work at that time, and was also translated into Finnish. She based the story on her own diary and it is about the fight against Germanisation of the educated women of her time, encouraging women to find their own way and develop self-confidence. Her prose does not discuss trivial things customarily considered as the subjects of women’s literature, but instead deals with many topical themes, such as education and ignorance, prejudices, drinking and poverty. Another story Leeni presents a classical story of a girl who has been married off against her will and whose body and spirit wither with hard work. The author constructed a happy end to the story, where the husband and the mother-in-law eventually realise how much harm they do in subjecting a clever young woman to hard and demeaning work. Leeni gets a divorce and marries the love of her childhood. Such an ending gives the message that neither husbands nor parents can deprive anybody of the opportunity for free development and self-expression. Other stories also display the ideals of educated Estonian women.
Suburg can be considered the first Estonian memoirist. Suburg’s memories of her childhood home, her family, the Pärnu of the 19th century and the people she has met form the most captivating part of The Collected Writings for the modern reader.
Lilli was not the only writer in her family: all her sisters had literary interests, and Laura Suburg also published a couple of books. The sisters Suburg could be called the Estonian Brontë sisters. It is remarkable that during the time when Estonian literature was still at the beginning of its development, Lilli Suburg was a real pioneer of women’s literature.
Henn Mikelsaar. Walled In (Müüritud)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2003. 215 pp
Henn Mikelsaar (1943), who traded his successful scientific career for that of a writer, received the first prizes at two novel-writing competitions in 1994 and 1998, but has still remained a kind of outsider, having attracted no media attention.
He has tried out several methods of narration, and has finally started creating characteristic model situations in his novels. He wrote his first novels together with his twin brother, who also left science for the life of an author.
Mikelsaar’s latest novel, Walled In, is about a private prison. “It has no beginning and no end,” artist Raul Huum joyfully exclaims about the prison, opening the novel with these words. Raul Huum flies in a small aircraft over the territory of the prison on his way to become an inmate. He has been accepted into the prison rather than sentenced to stay there. As declared in the first sentence of the novel, nobody has ever been able to find the actual boundaries of the prison. Neither has anybody ever seen the owner of the prison. To the protagonist, the prison seems to be a real paradise. He has been sentenced to life imprisonment, as have all the rest of the inmates. Only persons with life sentences are accepted into the prison. The greatest danger to the inmates is the possibility of having their sentences reviewed and shortened. They are afraid of the temptations of freedom.
The prison offers an escape from the disabling influence of society, as Raul Huum, whose brother is already waiting for him inside, finds out. This is a kind of ideal territory, where the prisoners have been offered opportunities to engage in their hobbies and where everything is done to prolong their lives. This is a place for the chosen, created for offenders with personality disorders.
The main questions are: on which side of the wall are the characters?, where is the boundary between reality and illusion?, are people inside or outside?, and what does it really mean to be inside or outside? The novel again raises the problems of an individual’s need for freedom, the essence of freedom, the providential essence of totalitarianism, as well as the playgrounds (territories) of science and art. The walled in world of the prison and its inmates are resourcefully presented in great detail, but the whole book is rather abstract and has a somewhat monotonous effect. It is a stylised book for those who enjoy deliberations on the limits of freedom, on free will and on the essence of evil.
Jan Kaus. The Hour of the Blessed (Õndsate tund)
Tallinn, Tuum, 2003. 165 pp
The number of young Estonian writers who write about the topical problems of our time is rather small. Jan Kaus (1974) is among the few who do so successfully. He is sensitive to social processes and writes with pleasure about all things that are reflected in young people’s minds. He depicts the confusion and disorder that is made up of dreams of success, wishes to resemble glamorous media figures, defiance, protest and self-consciousness, with both sympathy and ironic distance. Usually he balances on the border between the believable and unbelievable, banalising even more the banal, making the unbelievable possible, and making the dreams of his characters come true. He heaps up coincidences, adding a banal dimension to reality and a magical dimension to the banal.
The Hour of the Blessed consists of five short stories and a film script “A Realistic Afternoon for the Whole Family”. Each story contains some consciously added features of a soap opera, making them parts of a postmodernist game. One of these stories has been written in the format of web portal commentaries. “A Realistic Afternoon…” is a parody of action films, which does not rule out the possibility that it might be used to make a film (the Hollywood film “Candles in the Dark”, based on the liberation of Estonia, looked like a parody to Estonians). Kaus’s script at least gives a clear message of its real character.
Kaus has put plenty of internal monologues into his longer short stories. For example, at the beginning of one of the stories the main character, before joining the action, describes to himself what he sees and decides to intervene to save an old man who is being beaten by three rough youths in the street. The story continues like a fairy-tale. To show his gratitude, the old man invites his rescuer to a luxurious party. And the story takes another turn and starts to mock a fairy-tale. The party turns out to be like a pornography film or a story from a cheap gossip magazine. There is a goldfish that attempts to anticipate the main character’s wishes, but gets them all wrong and the man does not want the things he is offered. The men in Kaus’s stories are mostly losers or lone ramblers. They are city people and their language is full of Americanisms, but they try to distance themselves from mass culture. Kaus sympathises with his protagonists, and does not spare irony in colourfully describing his other characters. The everyday life in his stories is not a bleak, boring and meaningless life from which one has to escape into drugs or violence. Small miracles are possible there; safe and secure corners can be found where lovers or long-time friends offer warmth, understanding and support. The hour of the blessed really exists, both for those who are poor in spirit and for those who do not covet the property of their fellow men. For the blessed – take them as you wish – everything is possible.