Walking the literary tighrope - Jaan Kross

by Christian Braw

“Honest artisans, dandies and bumpkins! Ernveste hern und frawn von der adell! Förärade och nådigaste borgare! Make haste, make haste, make haste! Here you will see something the like of which you have never before seen in your life, and never will see again in your life!”  This is how Jaan Kross begins his longest and most personal novel, Kolme katku vahel (Between Three Plagues) originally published in four volumes (1970-80). It is the town crier, using Estonian, Low German and Swedish, who is calling together the burghers of Tallinn to a performance by a troupe of Italian acrobats and tightrope walkers. They are going to perform on a rope stretched from the enormous tower of St Olaf’s to a circle of sand outside the town walls where the rope was attached to a low stake driven into the ground. The Estonian schoolboy, Balthasar – the protagonist of the novel – sneaks up into the church tower and sees the goblet from which the acrobats drink before they go out to their highly dangerous performance. He hears the older acrobat say to a young boy:

    “Bevi – che non caschi!” [Drink, so you won’t fall!]

    Balthasar sees the boy walk out on the rope, sees him do somersaults, and is filled with a desire to partake of a risky venture, to challenge fate – and he stretches out his hand, takes the goblet and puts it to his lips. It is a cold drink with a sharp taste of peppermint, and he is filled with such a desire to walk on the rope that his knees shake.

    The image of the acrobats and their drink is a powerful summary of Jaan Kross’ own life. His writing is, for him, precisely a question of walking a tightrope, where you risk falling any moment. That was absolutely true during the Soviet period when the KGB took an intimate interest in his person, for example during the Gothenburg Book Fair in 1988. He, himself, once said:
    “The thing about walking a tightrope is that you easily forget how dangerous it is.”
    But in literature – just as in walking a tightrope – there is a superb freedom, a triumph of one’s own life over all probabilities. Jaan Kross has often described this solemnity of creation, for example in his short story about the Estonian renaissance painter Michael Sittow, Neli monoloogi Püha Jüri asjus (Four Monologues on the Subject of St George).
    This theme is connected with another: the task and conditions of a person with superior gifts. His life can end in tragedy, as with the privy councillor Friedrich von Martens. Jaan Kross has described him in Professor Martensi ärasõit (Professor Martens’ Departure). Martens was the talented, poor and hardworking boy from Pärnu who became a privy councillor in the ministry of foreign affairs. He succeeded in life – but at what price? Despite his ambition to be im Innersten unbeteiligt, he was nevertheless a servant of oppression. We catch a glimpse of the same tragedy with regard to the war hero Ivan Ivanovich Michelson, the peasant boy who became Catherine II’s general and saviour during the Pugachev revolt. Jaan Kross has portrayed this in his short story Michelsoni immatrikuleerimine (Michelson’s Elevation).
    Jaan Kross also describes another choice than becoming a servant of those in power. It is to do the only correct thing, without compromise, as he depicts in his most famous novel Keisri hull (The Czar’s Madman). The main character, colonel and landowner Timotheus von Bock has made a promise to Czar Alexander to always tell him the truth. Timotheus von Bock keeps his promise, which gives him a passage to the Czars’ bastille, the sombre fortress of Schlüssenburg. It is all of course embarrassing for the Czar, who solves the dilemma by explaining that von Bock is mad, upon which he is sent back to Estonia and house arrest, until he is murdered by a police agent, by mistake. His life is a tragedy, as is that of his immediate family. Perhaps he is indeed mad in his insistence upon the truth. But at the same time, his life is a symbol of hope, and with the story of Timotheus von Bock, Jaan Kross managed to say more about oppression than the Soviet censors realised. He became a master at writing between the lines. At the same time that he restored the historical truth, he became an established author in the Soviet Union. That was indeed a question of walking the tightrope, a performance the like of which we have not seen before and never will see again.
    It is precisely this re-establishing of the historical truth that became Jaan Kross’ path between the tragedies of betrayal and a refusal to compromise. He once said with a twinkle in his eye: “I have wanted to enlarge the waxworks of history.”
    This was also Balthasar Rüssow’s path. He never became the servant of the German nobility or the burgher class. He managed to worm his way out of the first Estonian peasant uprising. Instead he wrote his Livonian Chronicle (1578), the first history of Estonia.
    Jaan Kross’ life is a summary of Estonia’s dramatic history during the twentieth century. He was born in the young Estonian republic in 1920, studied Law in Tartu and avoided being arrested during the first Soviet occupation. During the subsequent German occupation, the Germans mobilised all fit men, either in the Estonian Legion or to do fatigue duty at the front. In the end it was impossible for a young man to escape this. So Jaan Kross went to the recruitment office of the Estonian Legion. There sat a Major Rodhe and spoke in a loud voice on the telephone to Riga. In his excellent German, Jaan Kross said: “You don’t need a telephone, it is enough that you shout.”
    Then he was sent to the office for fatigue duty in the German army. There, they discovered his language skills and placed him as translator for the Estonian civil administration. One day he met a friend who asked him whether they couldn’t do something for this poor people. His friend was a member of the Estonian resistance, the National Committee. Balthasar Rüssow is asked a similar question during the Estonian uprising. When Jaan Kross later told of this, he said:
    “There was only one answer: yes!”
    Now he started making extra copies of all the documents he translated. They were sent via Finnish contacts out to the Estonian legations, which were still in operation in the allied countries. The Germans got wise to him, he ended up in prison but the investigation proceeded at a remarkably slow pace, and when the Germans withdrew from Estonia, the prisoners were released by a man from the National Committee. He said:
    “The filthy business is over – for the time being.”
    In the latest novel to be translated into English, Paigallend (Treading Air), Jaan Kross has portrayed the short interregnum that followed the German withdrawal and lasted until the new Soviet occupation. He himself was then imprisoned again, and this time they didn’t need either an investigation or a trial. The principle of terror is after all to create fear and subservience by punishing the innocent. He got the decision written on a scrap of paper: Siberia. He was then 25 years old. Later, he said himself:
    “It was just the right age to survive. If you were younger, you died. If you were older you died too.”
    He survived the work camp. In some short stories, he has portrayed life there. The most famous of these is Halleluja! (Hallelujah!). In 1954, he returned to Estonia. The experience inspired him to write the novel Väljakaevamised (Excavations) in 1990. Back in Estonia, he married poet Ellen Niit. Slowly he built up a position as an author. He wrote between the lines with the supreme freedom of the tightrope walker. He once said: “Why should one write at all, if one can’t say more than one knows oneself?”
    The short story Halleluja! is based upon an event he experienced in the camp. A German director of archives, Dr Ulrich, from Berlin came to the camp as a prisoner. He had been a convinced anti-Nazi, and in the final phase of the war he had carried out a sublime demonstration against the oppression. He had a good friend, a Swedish diplomat, and on that man’s car he attached a signal horn that played the first bars of Händel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. He and the diplomat then drove through the bombed-out Berlin and signalled hope with the tones of ‘Hallelujah’. The diplomat was transferred from Berlin and took his car with him, and the director of the archives was arrested by the Russians and taken to Moscow. There, in the prison van, on his way to a prison, he heard the car horn’s signal once again: ‘Hallelujah!’ That is a summary of what Jaan Kross himself has presented us with his writing: a jubilant signal of gratitude for life, and of hope.
    Against all odds, Dr Ulrich survived Siberia. Jaan Kross tells of how he was once in Bonn and there read the story to his audience. Afterwards, a lady came forward and told him that Dr Ulrich had survived. He had been bought out of his imprisonment by Konrad Adenauer, returned to Germany and re-appointed to his position as director of the archives at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In Bonn, he married, but he had died before Jaan Kross came there. In the short story we read of how the camp doctor takes Dr Ulrich under his wing, and has him transferred to the kitchen so that he will have a chance to eat more. His job is to cut cheese up into little cubes. He cuts up thousands of cheese cubes – but doesn’t take a single one for himself. In the end the cook tires of him and sends him back to the forest labour teams. If he doesn’t want to survive, then it is his own fault.
    Ellen Niit says:
    “The audience sat in great suspense and waited to find out whether Dr Ulrich would take any cheese.”
    But Dr Ulrich didn’t take any. That was German decency in the work camp.
    Something that several translators have had in common is that they have not been familiar with Jaan Kross at first, but through reading his work they have developed an inner compulsion to translate him. Ivo Iliste, the Swedish translator, has told of how when he got his first Kross book he read for ten hours at a stretch. He couldn’t stop, and he realised: “It must be translated!” Merike Beecher-Lepasaar, an American translator, had the same experience with the enormous novel about Balthasar Rüssow. She says: “He could even describe newly-baked bread so vividly that I could smell it.”
    Jaan Kross’ literary style does however present translators with difficulties. Eeva Lille, one of his Finnish translators, has described it as a Baroque style with innovative, antiquated and contemporary words altogether. The novel Väljakaevamised, for example, works with words and phrases from the language of the independent Estonian Republic between the wars.
    At an early stage, Jaan Kross was translated into Hungarian and there met with an extremely positive reception. His translator, Gábor Bereczki has told how Kross’ plays have been performed at Hungary’s most important theatres by the foremost actors, and he is still seen as one of Europe’s very best authors.
    The Norwegian translator, Turid Farbregd, and the Russian Vera Ruber have both noted the decisive importance that Jaan Kross’ wife Ellen Niit – herself a famous poet – has had for his writing. Vera Ruber once told how Ellen on her fiftieth birthday was given a diamond ring by her husband. Vera Ruber asked her: “What did you give Jaan on his fiftieth birthday?” Ellen Niit answered: “I gave him twenty years of my life.” She had seen that all too many years had been lost for writing because of the time he spent in the GULAG, so she took it upon herself to give him all the support he needed to make up for those lost years.
    The impression that Jaan Kross’ writings have made does not have any equivalent in Scandinavia. The only comparable case is Kaj Munk’s plays and poetry. Kross’ Lithuanian translator says: “He helped people to survive during the Soviet era.”
    Jaan Kross is no longer with us. He was Estonia’s national author. And he became – as his British publisher Christopher MacLehose says – a world author. His writing is much more than an extension of the waxworks of history. It depicts the decisive choices and possibilities that each and every one of us is faced with.
    On the last pages of the novel about Balthasar Rüssow, we get to follow the final moments of the main character. He closes his eyes and prays: “Forgive me my sins, now I’m on my deathbed... that I was so blind, so self-centred, that I, in this terrible world in which you have let me live... have had the arrogance to be happy.”


Translated from the Swedish by Rod Bradbury