Views of Freedom. Mats Traat

by Livia Viitol

Mats Traat can be regarded as a panoramic describer of Estonian history, as well as a researcher of the Estonian soul. Having started as a poet in the 1950s, he became a highly original prose-writer by the 1970s, and his novel Tants aurukatla ümber (Dance around the Steam Boiler, 1971) is one of the seminal works in Estonian literature. Traat's works are, indeed, characterised by a singular feature: they do not age. In fact, they gain significance as time passes. Although Mats Traat has been considered a representative of realism, the entire body of his prose cannot be tackled in the usual key of realism. Many layers, the subconscious made audible, a lack of boundaries between the characters’ inner and outer speech and the speech of the narrator, together with a visionary approach and closeness to nature, allow us to speak of Traat as a representative of mystical-magical literature. Regarding the world with the eye of a philosopher, Traat’s poetry is also dominated by intuitiveness and the pictorial.

In the 1970s, after publishing the novel Dance around the Steam Boiler, Traat wrote several works that had considerable significance at a later time: a teacher’s novel set against the background of the 19th century Russification process, Pommeri aed (The Garden of Pommer, 1973), the collection of epitaphs Harala elulood (Histories from Harala, 1976) and the novel Puud olid, puud olid hellad velled (Trees Were, Trees Were Tender Brothers, 1979). The latter initiated one of the most powerful outlets of Traat’s oeuvre, the Palanumäe-epic, currently containing 11 parts that examine the identity of Estonians. Traat’s work has not proceeded smoothly from one topic to the other, but constitutes a constant search for existential questions set by life itself.

In 1982, Traat surprised readers with his novel depicting the life and fate of Livonian people, Karukell, kurvameelsuse rohi (Pasqueflower, Antidote for Sadness). In its mystical manner, it can be compared with the novel Trees Were… The novel Üksi rändan (I Travel Alone, 1985) takes the reader back to the 1950s and its circumstances. This novel became the harbinger of the new awakening period and an ‘exit’ from the entire Soviet era.

In the 1980s, the author returned to the topic of farm and village life in southern Estonia. The first volume of the novel Minge üles mägedele (Over the Mountains) focuses on the period between 1885 and 1905; the second part (1994) tackles the restless start of the century – the Japanese War, the unrest of 1905, World War I and the birth of the Republic of Estonia. Palanumäe's novels have been continued: the 11th part was published by the magazine Looming in 2006. With the Palanumäe epic, Traat created a precedent: there is no other historical novel in Estonian literature that covers such a long period of time, one hundred years. The epic is the story of Estonians aspiring to freedom and (both in a concrete and abstract sense) living as masters of their own fate.

Traat’s territory is southern Estonia, the hilly area of Otepää, with the highest hills in the country. The clouds are closer here, the landscape more diverse, the soil more fertile and man more idealistic than in the North. People are different as well. A significant impact was caused by the long-lasting Catholic faith and equally long-lasting pagan customs. People in southern Estonia favoured an animistic view of life and mystical perception of the world. The dead ancestors “keep an eye” on the living, and their souls stay near their homes. They also frequently appear in dreams. (“The lost generations watched him, kept an eye on him, he was under their scrutiny – bound hand and foot. /---/ Their spirit floated everywhere. There was no escape from them, nor from himself.” (Traat 1979:87)).

Even myths had a different meaning in southern parts of the country. The very name of the Palanumäe farm is significant (‘palama’ –‘ põlema’ means to burn), and its fate is to perish in fire. As it is rebuilt, this may be seen as a symbol of the culture of disruptions that is so typical of Estonia.
Traat’s reconstruction of an Estonian village is genuine and effective: the reader, who is transported into the past as if by time-machine, becomes a kind of ghost himself, marvelling at the intensity of the depiction of past times. The novel Trees Were … covers a psychologically intense epoch – religious conversion and the beginning of the emigration movement from Estonia to Russia, reaching a huge scale in the 1860s. The Estonians converting to the Orthodox faith during the years of devastating crop failure hoped to get their own piece of land in distant parts of Russia. However, the conversion created an atmosphere of intolerance in the community. It should be noted that the publication time of the novel, the 1970s, coincided in several aspects with the 1840s: in the late 1970s large numbers of Estonians joined the Communist Party and went to work in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

Traat is interested in the soul of the Estonian people, its relationship to the spirit of time and place, and the freedom of the soul. For Traat, man and nature work in tandem. The level of things ‘alive’ is very high in Traat’s works: wind, trees, hills and the few machines all seem like living creatures. Another key word is ‘tension’, something we perceive in abundance in his first novel Trees Were…
The protagonist of this novel with its peculiar rhythm is an 18-year-old man, the sole survivor of a family struck down in an epidemic. However, he is not keen on running the farm, which at that time was the dream of many people in the village. The community’s attitude towards him as the son of a religious convert is negative. His search for identity is made more difficult by his spiritual uncertainty. His soul dreams of leaving everything behind. Trees as ‘arbiters’ between the two worlds invite him to join them – in another reality; the dead father talks to his son from his grave, but he has no advice to offer. The young man Hind’s desire to go away can be seen as an attempt to escape from responsibility and the fear of the pagan god who lives in his yard at the foot of a hill. However, when Hind decides to settle down and get married, the house at Palanumäe farm mysteriously catches fire and burns down. The court sentences the innocent Hind to hard labour in Siberia.
In his novel, Traat also describes the darker side of the human soul – evil, envy and fear. The protagonist finds it hard to tolerate evil, but it is equally difficult to fight it.

Nature is always a character in Traat’s novels: each detail has its own meaning, and each dialogue and inner monologue of the characters is significant. The picture at the end of the novel of handcuffed Hind, sharing his last meal with his farmhand and forgiving all evil, seems Biblical. The young man is like the Son of God who has to face the road to Calvary. There are more allusions to Biblical myths in the epic.

Christianity and paganism exist side by side in Traat’s characters, or are intertwined. Word is the conveyer of might. The might of Traat’s characters also lies in their language, i.e. the Tartu dialect spoken at the time. Using the dialect affords the text an additional dimension: we not only see the time and people brought to life by the author, but we can also hear them.

Together with a panoramic treatment of history, Traat created a panoramic set of southern Estonian characters, including archetypal men and women running their farms (the first are amiable and the second are forceful), sons at university, idealistic schoolmasters, bohemian parish clerks and other characters. Traat’s historical prose presents characters who proceed from one part of the novel to another – quite a few episodic secondary character move from a novel to a short story, and the other way round. People circulating on the ‘stage of time’ produce a peculiar context. Nobody is forgotten, and maybe here lies Traat’s biggest phenomenon. His characters are present all the time, as though in history or the continuing past.
In a wider sense, people at Palanumäe struggle  in the name of ideals and the freedom of their nation, while in the narrower sense with their own destiny. They fight against poverty and horse-thieves. They struggle to become owners of their farms and to keep them. They fight against God and their sons.

Traat’s novels give a good overview of an Estonian understanding of God. The people of Palanumäe recognise two divinities at the same time: the heavenly and the earthly. The master of the lower world is thought to have more power. Fear of revenge by the pagan god is greater than fear of the Heavenly father. Some think the latter has rented out the land to others.

A sense of guilt, seeking redemption, forgiveness and the freedom of the soul torment all the owners of the Palanumäe farm. The young Hind redeems his soul by forgiving even his enemy, with whom he shares his last bit of bread, whereas another character, Kotter, seeks redemption for having destroyed the home of the pagan god by reading the Bible and cultivating land. It is Hendrik, however, who must face the most difficult struggle, as his rebelliousness seems to be tested by both gods. He, too, is punished. Hendrik’s inability to forgive drives Margret to suicide, and this will forever torment Hendrik. Redemption will come after many years, when another woman, Helmi, arrives at the farm.
The struggle between good and evil goes on in people’s souls and all around them. Evil constantly keeps an eye on people. Horse-thieving, fighting in pubs, informing against one another and revenge are inevitable parts of the village life of the time. Difficult circumstances make people alert, their senses are sharp and they seem to be expecting something to happen at any minute. The victim of such evil times acts as a warning to others. Familiar characters emerge in new parts of the epic, and old incidents and things acquire new meanings in the context of the new era. Words, thoughts, deeds and feelings repeat themselves. History repeats itself. Even souls reappear (Margret and Helmi).

The mystery of mountains runs through all parts of the epic: Hind knows that he is free only in the domain of the pagan god on top of the mountain. Traat’s mountain has a divine dimension. His characters compare the height of the mountain with that of the mountains in the Bible, and believe that the Palanumäe mountain is just as high or even higher than the mountain of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. On the other hand, a mountain for them is something like Olympus. From its top they see not only the surrounding landscape, but something known as a homeland, freedom or, if the latter is absent, a dream of their own country. In the 1930s, a tower is built on top of the mountain, where people come to admire the beauty of their country. The mountain is, thus, even taller, and the beauty of the country even more visible. A mountain is revered because it is old; a mountain remembers the past and sees into the future. Only the human beings who bustle around it, and on top of it, are temporary. Whoever has begun to climb the mountain must not halt half-way up – this is what the locals firmly believe, and teach their children as well. Time rushes across and above people, and functions in cycles: good years are followed by bad, and bad by good. Man must always worry and fret about his home and his future. Traat’s characters often have to start from scratch, poor and destitute. A dream of an exhilarating song festival on top of the mountain remains a dream.

For Traat, a mountain is the generator of dreams and ideals of freedom, a yardstick of human aspirations: “There is no new dream under the sun, but the one and only, the ancient dream of freedom and overcoming a fear of death. No dream is ever too big, even the biggest is still small when you start on your way up the mountain, because it is inevitable – the Mountain waits for people to aspire towards it, to reach its top one day” (Traat 1987:198). What is on the top? The answer is happiness and freedom.
 The topic of freedom is essential even in the prologue book of the Palanumäe epic. Hind, who does not want to be the owner of his farm and dreams of freedom, is instead imprisoned; cultivating new lands, the old man Kotter believes there will be more freedom at Palanumäe; Hendrik wants both freedom and to be the master of his farm, and recognises his father’s goals in this. 
“Have the young dreams of Hendrik and his wife about life getting better remained mere dreams?” wonders the ageing Hendrik, now master of his farm.

The topic of one’s own home and freedom, both social and personal, walk hand in hand also in Mats Traat’s historical short stories. The latter often tackle these topics through the eyes of people of other nationalities; for example the Finnish-Swedish poet Edith Södergren, who died young, dreaming in Helsinki about her home in St. Petersburg, or Svetshnikov, inspector of schools and teacher of ancient languages, or General Koltshak.
Freedom is what a serf in the field who belongs to his manor lord, and a schoolboy studying the history of his own country in a foreign language dream about. Freedom is in the mind of the schoolmaster and the farmer, the travelling salesman of books, and the tailor called Pakk, who can sew a fur coat in one night. “The wind that blows the country people free of serfdom must come”, declares the tailor, like a prophet. 

 Half a century separates the action of the first book of Minge üles mägedele (Over the Mountains) from the 1840s. In the first parts, the characters discuss freedom, which is the same as dreams. Freedom is like a word that is sent on its way.
The winds of freedom indeed start blowing in the winter of 1918. It is remarkable how Traat connects the arrival of freedom with old prophecy (i.e. the word being on its way). Freedom arrives with the Republic of Estonia. This time, it is the young student Elisabeth who most keenly talks about freedom. However, freedom does not bring immediate relief to people on the farm: the old man dies, new problems emerge, the house burns down again and everything must be started from scratch. The sons do not want to stay on the farm. At the end of the eleventh part of the epic, the ninth son is born to Hendrik’s family – and a new hope is born as well. It is remarkable that this son is not born in the house at Palanumäe, still in ruins after the fire, but in an old stable, like Jesus. He is born in a ‘lucky shirt’, a white image on his body that is believed to be a good sign. The child is a sign of hope and redemption. For Palanumäe, he is a sign of forgiveness and love. The child’s birth is not an unexpected or sudden end, but instead a hope for a new beginning.