Paper presented at a literary conference on the occasion of Arvo Valton’s 70th birthday on 12 December 2005 at the Estonian Writers’ Union
Estonians do not have many great men whom people would know by their first names: Lennart, Edgar, Georg ... Literature fares no better: Andres, Pearu, Indrek2... More specifically, the familiar characters of Arvo Valton’s work are probably the man with a green rucksack, eight Japanese women and Arvid Silber. On a first name basis, however, there is only one – Juku from the rural settlement called Jaani. Juku is a good-natured village drunk – a simple man and the protagonist of the short novel A Day Into Blessedness (Õndsusesse kulgev päev).
The story itself is quite straightforward: a description of one day in a drunk’s life, from his waking up with a bad hangover on the edge of a ditch, to the (last) evening drunken stupor by a spring. But the whole emphatically mundane midsummer tale in the bright sunshine that blurs colours is clad in an extremely poetic language. This may be the most poetic text Valton has ever written. The uniting of these two levels is what gives such pleasure in reading the story: poetic language twists around daily reality.
This impression was precisely described by Marianne Vogel in the magazine Estonia (1/92). The review starts with the sentence: Juku’s life seems like a fairy-tale. (--) This is a life without work. Juku has no troublesome inmates either, only the sun in the sky and dear God in heaven. And Juku can handle these two without problem.
However, the core of Marianne Vogel’s review focuses on the German translation of the story, Juku der Dorftrottel – Juku the Village Idiot. In Vogel’s opinion this title is too simplistic and misses the main issue, which is Juku’s aspiration to blessedness. There is a nice word in German for that – Glückseligkeit, blessedness, blissful happiness. The more exact title would thus be Der Tag, der in die Glückseligkeit mündete -- not the slightest hint at Juku’s outward appearance.
The title alludes to the way in which the novel should be read. It is too significant a part of the whole to be completely altered.
A Day into Blessedness thus tells about something else than a village drunk’s daily worry about where to get his first drink in the morning and find booze later. What, then, is the short novel about?
The first pages immediately start propagating an aversion to work. If you live more slowly you live longer: this was the experience of Juku, who cycled everywhere. Life was like the distance from Puusaku farm to the Metroo cellar and back again. (5)
- There is nothing more unnatural to man than work. This has ruined mankind for ages, and ruins every man from birth to death (---) (8).
- For Juku, work was really the only hated thing in this world; work was constantly trying to turn man into a monkey or an ox (13).
Sweating and toiling have always been essential to Estonians. According to general consensus, Estonians are hardworking, slaves to work, workaholics. This has been explained by our geopolitical situation, climate, Protestantism, long experience of slavery, pigheadedness, envious neighbours...
The association between an Estonian’s life and work is most poignantly tackled in A. H. Tammsaare’s epic novel Truth and Justice. Children in Estonia were for decades fed the biased interpretation, for educational purposes, based on what old Andres tells his son at the end of Book I: ‘Work hard and persevere, and love will come.’ What was left out was the reply young Andres gave his father: ‘You have done it, and mother did it too. Why else did she die so young? But love did not come, and it still isn’t anywhere at Vargamäe’.
The short novel by Arvo Valton, published in 1983, is therefore rather unusual. We have to assume that if A Day Into Blessedness was tackled at all at schools, it was probably done in terms of the German translation, Juku der Dorftrottel, as an example of what happens to a human being who does not work.
The short novel precisely reflects the mentality of the early 1980s: Juku was one of the few who did not build anything or elbow anyone out of his way, did not marry his daughters off with great pomp and ceremony or arrange magnificent funerals (---) because he had no wish to deceive himself as had the entire village, which was busy building plastered houses (7-8).
It is paradoxical that the Soviet period, twenty-five years ago, is remembered as a time when people had a lot of time, when people whiled away the working hours of the week, when men spent their weekends fixing their cars in the garage, and two-day long literary conferences attracted masses of people.
In that light, A Day into Blessedness fits into the present day even better. To counterbalance the mad daily rush and haste where people have become slaves to huge bank loans and leases, there is an increasing amount of talk about taking time off, going on holiday trips, having a relaxing massage, yoga, healthy walks, so that after all that people can plunge into work even more vigorously. People acquired all sorts of things and then seemed to live for them; things were like a ball-and-chain (in Estonian the word is bombs????) attached to their ankles and not wings (34).
As a critic of success and progress, Valton is certainly one of the pathfinders in modern Estonian literature. Some writers of the younger generation have followed the same line quite powerfully (Kivirähk, Vadi, Sinijärv etc.).
In Valton’s novel, the protagonist Juku is, however, not at all arrogant or ironic towards those who toil away. He is, in a way, simply very shrewd, trying to do as little work as possible and charge as much as he can. The best example in the book is the scene where someone has to get his father’s coffin home before the funeral. He cannot find anyone to do this, and the only one who can help is Juku. They hoist the coffin onto their bicycles and the subsequent scene describes the long comic journey in which Juku attempts to get out of the task. This time he has to complete the job, and is rewarded with a proper meal and the desired bliss, which he achieves by drinking moonshine. He mounted his bicycle and pedalled up along a country lane; the impact of the spirits had not yet fully hit him. However, instead of turning towards the village, he turned into the forest and was soon out of breath. So as not to fall over, he dismounted, pushed the bicycle into a ditch under the shade of some willows, crawled on all fours up the other edge of the ditch, and lay down among the trees on the longed-for moss. Bliss embraced him now in another manner and soon became sleep (49).
Blessedness is the main topic of the novel. Juku’s eternal striving for bliss. This is what affords the whole story a poetic tone. Juku has one aim in the world – to achieve bliss, feel bliss, get there every single day. This constant and determined striving towards blessedness can be seen as a sequel to Tammsaare’s 1939 novel The New Devil of Põrgupõhja Farm (põrgupõhja – hell’s hollow). Of course, this comparison might well be arbitrary. The desire of the owner of Põrgupõhja farm, Jürka, to become blessed, and the wish of the drunk Juku to feel bliss, are two different things: Seligkeit – blessed, eternal blessedness, and Glückseligkeit – blessedness as a feeling of bliss or pleasure. They seem two totally different perceptions. But are they? Let us take a closer look.
The Põrgupõhja novel of 1939 had no prologue and no epilogue. It starts with the sentence: Far way from all people and roads, in a deep forest, stood a farm called Põrgupõhja. The prologue and epilogue were added to new editions many years later. The writer did not at once make it clear to the reader that the main character Jürka, owner of the farm, was actually the Devil himself, who had come to Earth to become blessed and then continue running his Hell. Jürka explains all that to the local pastor: Peter said: man has sinned and cannot be blessed, as he has sinned badly; he wants to but cannot, but maybe he does not even want to. Heaven needs to know whether he wants to or not, whether he can or cannot. Therefore Peter said to me when I turned up for souls: no more. If you want more, you must go and live as a man on Earth and see if you can become blessed. If you can, so can man, but must not want to, but if you can’t, neither can man, although he might want to. And if he can but doesn’t want to, we will send him to Hell to you, and if he can’t but wants to, he will come to Heaven to me, and you will have no more souls, not one. Thus spoke Peter. And then I came to Earth to become blessed.
Whether or not Jürka the Devil achieved blessedness has been a topic of dispute for a long time. However, as seen from the epilogue, even Heaven had not made its final decision. They were still gathering information about the Devil’s life on Earth.
Põrgupõhja Jürka hoped to achieve blessedness through work. He toiled and sweated in order to become blessed. At the same time it is clear that Jürka did not labour only for the salvation of his soul. He enjoyed hard work; he was strong. Through work, he also reached pleasure, bliss and blessedness: the same sensations as Juku experienced after he had tossed down his first morning drink of cheap alcohol. Juku who hated work of any kind nevertheless understood those who slaved all day: Every man should live as he sees fit. Some might feel blessed when they work so hard. There was no way Juku could know about that. (43)
It requires some speculation to presume that after the Devil’s life on Earth some doubts emerged in Heaven, that perhaps the creation of man had actually been a failure. We could further think that He could have tried once again, and this time God himself came down as a man, but not as a prophet (this would raise unfounded suspicions in people), but instead as a simple unassuming man – Juku from a small village. He came quietly, without anyone noticing, maybe not even Valton: When Juku woke up, bright light was staring him in the face. Juku blinked and turned his head. This is how the story starts.
Juku is the opposite of Põrgupõhja’s Jürka – God and Satan. Jürka wanted to be blessed through work. Juku used the opposite method – achieve bliss with as little effort as possible.
There are some nice parallels between Põrgupõhja... and A Day Into …
On the one hand the above-quoted sentence about work turning man into a monkey or an ox. And on the other, in Põrgupõhja the doctor was especially keen on the evolution theory, but soon enough he was disappointed in it, because he found an endless number of unexplained questions and disagreements. Thinking about them, he finally reached a decision about them, via theology, that the whole thing was backwards: the monkey did not evolve into a human being, but man became a monkey. God created man in his own image and this truth will not change. But the more man’s soul retreats from his creator, the more his body retreats from its initial divine appearance and he turns into a creature with a tail and horns, a centipede or a beetle, swimmer or reptile, flower or tree.
Both works draw the same conclusion: work turns man into a monkey or an ox, and it is not possible to remain a human being.
The simple life philosophy of Põrgupõhja Jürka emerges in his long dialogues with the pastor. After his morning moment of bliss brought about by drinking ether valerian, Juku remembers the pastor: After a brief spell in paradise the pastor was the first person Juku thought of (---) (28). Juku duly sets off to visit him, and what else would they talk about besides blessing and being blessed. Juku dismounted and leaned his bike beside the vicarage door. He had just been in bliss, and the pastor was the master of blessedness and knew what to say and what to do (30).
This is a significant sentence, where the blessedness of the soul and blissful happiness meet. Seligkeit and Glückseligkeit. In the end it might all be the same enjoyment people strive for. Peace of mind.
Tongue-tied and hesitant, Juku turns to the pastor: ‘Tell me, Jaagu, ... why do we exist in the world? (---)’
‘See here, Juku,’ said Jaagu slowly and placed his hand on a small black book, ‘you exist, and this is a great chance and good fortune, so you’d better not ask why in fact you are here (---)’.
‘Or are you sad that you are?’ asked Jaagu, and Juku shook his head vigorously.
‘I am… I am all right... I am stupid and blessed, stupid and blessed… almost all the time....’
The pastor’s eyes moved to the ceiling, He was pondering Juku’s words, but in the end could not help voicing his doubts:
‘Who could recognise another’s blessedness? Can we recognise our own?’ (31-32).
However, God is merciful, more merciful than Satan, and he has no objections if man achieves his moments of bliss in a more mundane manner. God is probably somewhat shrewder than the simple-minded Devil. Both Heaven and Hell are, after all, keen on man becoming blessed in his mortal life, so that Paradise and Hell will last forever. The Devil as the farmer at Põrgupõhja sweated and slaved to achieve blessedness, which in the end seemed unlikely to happen. God, on the other hand, as the simpleton Juku, gained bliss quite easily. All he needed was a mouthful of fierce vodka or four gulps of sour-tasting wine or a small bottle of some valerian in ether. The world at once started to spin. At first it was simply spinning, which was not yet bliss. Bliss arrived as a great buzzing (24). Maybe it is indeed as simple as that? None of us knows. We toil in the name of a better life, but maybe we are merely deceiving ourselves and tormenting our dearest and nearest because we never have any time for them.
All in all, however, the village drunk Juku’s heavenly nature is not expressed in the rather doubtful experiment that tests man’s ability to become blessed in our mortal life.
Juku’s heavenly nature in the short novel A Day into Blessedness is primarily expressed by the language, in the poetic quality of the text, which gathers momentum during the novel and finally slides into eternal music.
Besides blessedness, music was another important thing in Juku’s life. Sometimes these two occurred together. And even if there were no musical instrument, Juku would let a piece of music resound inside him, as if the instrument really existed (---) (23). There could be nothing more permanent in this world than a melody, a piece of music that momentarily resonates in the air.
Through the long exhausting afternoon, Juku finally makes it to the Metro in the early evening. The Metro is the village pub, a familiar place and shelter, which promises the easiest road to bliss: He was on his way to the pub and it seemed as if his whole life had been one incessant journey towards the Metro; on his return, he was always blissfully dizzy and the surrounding visible village seemed to have vanished, replaced by another world, different, better, like a dream. (---)This is how his life had been, from the very beginning, a tireless journey towards the source of bliss, the wine cellar of paradise, and he started off every morning, again and again (58).
The Metro is also Juku’s destination on his last day. The congregation seemed to be all there. The Metro was indeed Juku’s congregation, whom he served most faithfully. He spent his last boozy evening there and there he delivered a speech to his disciples:
‘Men,’ he said quietly.
No-one heard him in the midst of all the commotion. Juku’s unusual behaviour was nevertheless noticed. Käru-Volli said in a thundering voice:
‘Juku wants to make a speech.’
Juku felt his hand that was gripping the glass tremble.
Even old Viiber raised his head and muttered: ‘Well, well.’
And the tractor-driver Valdeko, quite red in the face, shouted:
‘Shut up, all of you! Juku wants a word.’
All of a sudden it became alarmingly quiet, but not totally silent, and Juku said in his low voice:
‘Men... Juku has not... Juku has never... wished anyone ill... If, when I have... done... I did not mean it...’
Here Juku ran out of steam, made a vague hand gesture, sat down abruptly, and twisted his glass round a few moments, intent on quickly knocking back his drink. (67)
After that Juku grabbed his musical instrument, an old accordion, and played his last tune, in order to say everything that had accumulated during his fifty years of existence.
In the last pages of the novel, Valton’s text blends with sounds. Flesh becomes word and word becomes music. The sun had sunk low above the forest, almost touching it, and one sharp spruce top reaching beyond the others shrivelled against all that light. The end of the sun was the end of Juku, peace and the descending damp fog embraced his happiness, stretched it as long as life, as long as eternity, at that very moment, forever (75).
The village drunk Juku will be blessed.