Estonian literature in Southern Estonian

by Mart Velsker

Can a writer from Tallinn understand a writer from Võru?
Estonian literature in Southern Estonian

The question posed in the title cannot have a straightforward reply, as any understanding between people depends on the language, language skills and a wish to use the skills. The author of the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg (Kalev’s Son), Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803 – 1882), lived in the southern town of Võru for a long time, but in literature he never intended to accept the language used by the local people in their everyday speech. For the national ideology spreading in the 19th century, a common language for all, which was cultivated in written form, was regarded as one cornerstone of Estonian culture, and this idea was shared by Kreutzwald as well, although even he could not deny facts connected with geography and the history of language. And the fact was, and is, that small Estonia contains big dialectal differences.
The difference is especially marked between the language used in northern and southern Estonia – linguists call them either two major dialects or even two different languages. This diversity began when there were hardly any written sources about the Estonian language. The two versions of the language persisted largely thanks to political-geographical factors, e.g. the fact that for a long time the Estonian territory was administratively divided into North and South. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, today’s Estonian territory was divided between two provinces: the Estonian province contained northern Estonia, while the Livonian province had southern Estonia and northern Latvia. The borders of these administrative units were not drawn arbitrarily: there had been various borders between north and south before. The largest three dialects of the southern area are the Tartu, Mulgi and Võru – all have also been taken as separate languages. The three partly correspond to three counties (Tartu, Viljandi and Võru), which have existed in southern Estonia since the 18th century. Another phenomenon is the Setu dialect, which is a separate branch of the Võru dialect, but it contains more Russian influence and has a different cultural background: the predominant faith in southern Estonia is Lutheranism, but Setumaa is a territory of the Orthodox Church.
Longer Estonian texts were first printed in the 16th century, mostly for the church. Along with that, two competing languages were developed, South- and North-Estonian. The first was mainly based on the Tartu dialect, although elements from other dialect areas were included. Which of the two languages would prevail throughout Estonia remained unclear for a long time. North-Estonian became dominant during the 18th century, greatly enhanced by the publication of the full Bible in North-Estonian (1739). The unified South-Estonian language, based on the Tartu dialect, was used in written form until the beginning of the 20th century, but this occurred mostly in local church tradition, whereas secular poetry in southern Estonian was scarce, and other literary texts scarcer.
The decline of the South-Estonian language, with its Christian background, did not mean its end: Tartu, Võru and Mulgi dialects persisted into the 20th century. In poetry, South-Estonian succeeded in early 20th century; the efforts in prose and drama were haphazard, but an uninterrupted tradition emerged there too towards the end of the century. It is interesting to note that bursts of South-Estonian literature have often appeared as parallel phenomena of avant-garde experiments in (North-) Estonian literature. This parallelism contains aspirations that unite the two phenomena. The 20th century avant-garde literature also experimented with South-Estonian sounds (Henrik Visnapuu (1890–1951), but these were, nevertheless, basically parallel phenomena. The South-Estonian tradition remains essentially conservative. However, we should note that this was ‘alternative conservatism’. The alternative part increased in the 20th century, partly due to the emergence of people writing in the Võru, Setu and Mulk languages. Here, Võru dominates, which is more incomprehensible to people in Tallinn than is the language in Tartu – after all, Võrumaa is further away from Tallinn than Tartumaa. The leading authors of the 20th century literary tradition were the Võru poets Artur Adson (1889–1977) and Raimond Kolk (1924–1992) and the Mulk poet Hendrik Adamson (1891–1946). An important place on the South-Estonian Parnassus belongs to the prose work of Juhan Jaik (1899–1948) and Jaan Lattik (1878–1967). Both came from Võrumaa and partly used their home language in their fiction, but the impact of Jaik and Lattik extends beyond language to the perceptive, thematic and aesthetic aspects of South-Estonian literature. Jaik emphasised the fairy-tale and magical side of South-Estonian literature, while Lattik preferred memoirs and humorous prose. Literature dealing with memory and fairy tales goes back to the original sources of Estonian literature: in the 19th century Estonian literature was largely ‘invented’ by Kreutzwald and leaned heavily on German and Finnish literature, whereas the South-Estonian writers of the 20th century completed the circle and returned to ‘native’ and emphatically local subject matter.
Dialectal literature was not in favour during the Soviet era, but after a pause it emerged in the 1960s, introducing quite a few new writers, especially in poetry, who have now become the older generation of Estonian (and of course South-Estonian) poets: Nikolai Baturin (1936), Eha Lättemäe (1922), Mats Traat (1936), Ain Kaalep (1926), Jaan Kaplinski (1941) et al. Kaplinski has sought linguistic diversity and is currently the best known Estonian poet internationally. However, there is always something local and specific at the bottom of Kaplinski’s internationality: among other things, the fact that he grew up in Tartu and his mother tongue was Võru.
The features of South-Estonian alternative conservatism strengthened in the underground literature of the late 1960s and 1970s. Back then one of the shapers of the ideology propagating ‘back to the country’ was Kalle Istvan Eller (1940), who indeed moved from town to country and refused to accept the role of ‘real writer’ under Soviet conditions. Eller’s collection of poetry Bärsärk, containing both the North- and South- Estonian languages, appeared as late as 2001; thus, his texts written much earlier suddenly appeared in a completely new context.
The context changed radically after Estonia regained independence, although it was only indirectly connected with the 'South-Estonian renaissance'. During the struggle for freedom in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the political situation favoured a conservative approach that would bring people together, and not so much the alternative spirit expressed by the South-Estonian language in fiction. True, the situation changed at the turn of the century and, even in a political sense, South-Estonians are seen as an ‘official minority’. This recognition brought about more substantial financial support: in 2000 the state programme South-Estonian language and culture was started. Financial support and recognition, however, is afforded to something that already exists regardless of money.
Independently of any kind of support, South-Estonian literature and culture enjoyed a great boost in the second half of the 1980s – since that time, we can really talk of the renaissance of Võru literature, because the cultural movement is headed by various Võru writers who emphasise the singularity of Võru culture, not only compared with North-Estonian culture, but also with that in and around Tartu and in Mulgimaa. Local languages are used elsewhere as well. The leading writer in the Tartu language to this day is Mats Traat; other authors have used the local language only sporadically. After the debuts of Nikolai Baturin and Eha Lättemäe, Mulk-language poetry presented new voices, although the most outstanding writers are no longer young (Lembit Eelmäe (1927), Siim Kärner (1945). The aspirations of the younger generation of Mulk people seem to lie more in music, much enhanced by the annual folk music festival in Viljandi and the fact that Viljandi is home to the Culture Academy, part of the University of Tartu. Of the musicians who studied there, the most enthusiastic singer and creator of Mulk-language songs is Anu Taul (1979).
During the last few decades, it has thus been the Võru cultural movement to emerge most forcefully. From the second half of the 1980s until today, the leading light in this movement has been Kauksi Ülle (1962). She started as a poet in the 1980s, but later also became a prominent prose and drama writer. Kauksi Ülle’s novel Paat (Boat, 1998) is the first ‘full-length’ Võru-language novel in our literary history, although the Võru language had been used in short prose before. Boat is not only significant in its historical meaning, it is a remarkable psychological novel that closely follows the life of a woman from Võrumaa. Female psychology and woman’s role in society have been the main topics in Kauksi Ülle’s prose and drama. Her approach is not exactly feminist, but it certainly tackles the problems connected with being a woman. Of her more recent works, the play Taarka (2004) has been very well received. It tells the story of the Setu folk singer Hilana Taarka. The play was staged in 2005 as a summer production of the Tartu theatre Vanemuine in Setumaa. There are plans to make a film based on the play.
The continuing vitality of Võru poetry is something to be expected, as the history is longer and the background more secure. A bit surprising, however, have been the signs of vitality also in prose and drama of the late 20th century and early 21st century. Here the most prominent figure is undoubtedly Madis Kõiv (1929), who moved in Tartu literary circles in the 1960s, but who became known as a writer only a few decades later. Unlike Kauksi Ülle, who has constantly only used the Võru language, Kõiv’s texts are either in Estonian or Võru, depending on the topic. This kind of linguistic and cultural double identity is nothing extraordinary in today’s South-Estonian literature but, despite that, Kõiv is still a most extraordinary writer, difficult to label or place in a literary and aesthetic framework. Kõiv has become the best-known playwright in today’s Estonia, although his plays are never realistic or popularly entertaining. One reason for Kõiv’s singularity is that he often realises his philosophical pursuits in literary form. His most radical ‘philosopher-plays’ are in Estonian, whereas his Võru-language work contains more memoirs and historical topics, although it is not always possible to separate these two poles. Together with Aivo Lõhmus (1950–2005), in 1987 he published the first totally Võru-language play, Põud ja vihm Põlva kihelkonnan nelätõistkümnendämä aasta suvõl (Drought and Rain in Põlva Parish in the Summer of Nineteen Fourteen), inspired by Kõiv’s family legends. This play is still one of the best-known texts in the Võru language: it has been staged, and in 1994 a TV film was made on the basis of the theatre production. Kõiv’s other Võru-language play, Omavahelisi jutuajamisi tädi Elliga (Conversations with Aunt Elli, 1998), was also well received and staged at the Vanemuine Theatre. Kõiv has also used the Võru language in his prose, for example the second part of his series of memoirs Studia memoriae is in the Võru language.
Unlike earlier literary efforts, the increase in Võru-language literature in the late 1980s remained more than a brief surge; instead, new phenomena and texts developed. The new development has two important sides: the external conditions have been better than ever before, and new writers have emerged, fluent in Võru, who wish to use it in their work. Considering earlier history, it seems only natural that most South-Estonian writers start with poems and only later turn to other fields of literature. The wave of poetry débuts is also connected with music: several writers have written lyrics or performed as singers and musicians. Among the singing poets, mention should be made of Pulga Jaan (1947), Aapo Ilves (1970) and Jan Rahman (1975). Besides verse, they have all written prose in Võru too. All three represent the authorial position that unites the roles of writer and folk singer. Pulga Jaan is closest to folklore; his texts are more frequent on CDs than in books. The most ‘literary’ of the three is Jan Rahman; he has written popular lyrics, but at the same time part of his work is free verse. In both fields he is humorous and skilfully conveys fine nuances. Rahman has worked together with the prominent Finnish poet Heli Laaksonen, who writes in the language of south-western Finnish. They have translated each other’s work and published a joint collection of poems, Maapuupäiv (2000).
Aapo Ilves has experimented with various languages and areas, e.g. music and design. He took part in the Võru-language band Lõkõriq, where the South-Estonian writers Kauksi Ülle and Merca (Merle Jääger, 1965) were also members. Ilves wrote Võru-language lyrics to the song Tii, which represented Estonia at the Eurovision song contest in 2004. Three plays, a trilogy, stand out in his drama so far, tackling the history of his area.
A manifestation of masculine and popular literature was the joint book of five Võru poets Viie pääle (Five Together, 2005), including work by Rahman, Ilves, Pulga Jaan, Contra (Margus Konnula; 1974) and Olavi Ruitlane (1969). In accordance with the style of the book, it came with a CD. Contra and Ruitlane have also cultivated ‘audio-poetry’, although their role as popular singers is not quite as straightforward as Pulga Jaan’s or Ilves’s. Or maybe their role is somehow different – for instance Contra has become quite well-known for his singing, but partly because he cannot carry a tune. Contra debuted as an Estonian-language poet in the mid-1990s, and introduced into poetry a kind of ‘intentional and sincere lack of aptitude’, an unprofessionally ‘rough’ sound that refers to folklore, but which also relies on punk and grunge music. Contra’s amateurish posture should, however, not be taken too seriously: as a writer of humorous lyrics he is currently one of the most talented in the field, both in the North- and South- Estonian languages. Ruitlane has cultivated more or less the same style as Contra, but recently has made his mark in prose. His half-Võru language novel Kroonu (The Army, 2005), about soldiers of South-Estonian origin in the Soviet army, has attracted quite a bit of attention. 
The above-mentioned ‘male quintet’ dominates in today’s South-Estonian literature largely because of their collectivism, the similarity in the manner of writing and because they are interesting. Still, there are other interesting writers, for example women poets writing in Võru such as Milvi Panga (1945) and Leila Holts of the younger generation whose first collection of poetry appeared in 2005. Panga mostly writes children’s poetry, whereas Holts represents modern romantic poetry where flavour is added by a linguistic-cultural shift, because the author lives in England and writes in the Võru language.
Setu-language poets are rather active as well. Due to linguistic similarities, their work is fairly closely connected with Võru literature and quite often it is difficult to make clear distinctions. Merca and Andreas Kalkun (1977) are two outstanding poets with Setu backgrounds. Their starting points are rather different but their work is still similar in a synthesis in which the tradition of European style classical poetry and ‘something else’ come together. For Merca, ‘something else’ means punk music and bohemian romanticism, while for Kalkun it is the folklore that he professionally researches.

The situation in today’s South-Estonian literature is thus quite hopeful, although the question mark in the title of the article remains – it remains there because there can be no straightforward answer. The question mark raises new issues: does the Tallinn-centred Estonian cultural life take any notice of South-Estonian literature? Is the latter understandable? We could answer diplomatically: more notice is taken and understanding is improving. But there is never enough understanding. What is the main problem here? It is the difference between the languages, but it could equally be the North-Estonians’ attitude as a bigger nation; in a small country this surely seems quite ridiculous. In a sense, this could be an example of the attitude inherited from Kreutzwald, i.e. all differences within a nation are mainly negative and, when they occur, the smaller should be subjugated to the bigger, south to north. With this kind of attitude, a Tallinner wants to read Võru-language books if they are understandable to a North-Estonian mentality – but this will not work. There would be more success if Tallinners perceived South-Estonia as an equal ‘other’ and were willing to regard South-Estonian literature at least partly in the same way they regard the literature of the neighbouring Finns: there should be less colonial mentality and more friendly co-existence. This approach would make it possible to discover something in the southern ‘other’ that resembles the familiar northern. Such discoveries are being made, and we just have to hope that this trend continues.