Short Overviews of Books by estonian Authors
Vahur Afanasjev: Kosmos Tallinn: Jutulind, 2008. 138 pp. ISBN 978-9949-15-571-2
One model for the second prose work of young writer Vahur Afanasjev (1979) is probably Jack Kerouac, though Kosmos crosses the borders of what has been written in Estonian literature to date, and probably also the boundaries of ‘beatnik literature’. The text resembles a road-movie, fragmentary and with rapidly moving frames similar to videoclips. Two strange companions in rental cars are racing south from Brussels, through the small nations created in the ruins of the former Yugoslavia, and finally back home by way of Poland to Estonia. Most likely at the inducement of the author himself, critics have referred to the book as gay science fiction, but besides conjuring various hallucinatory states the book does not seem to have much to do with science fiction, at least not in the first instance. Most of the action takes place in the Balkans, a dark, violent, unwashed and sexual place, in addition to being war-torn, and thus a very fitting place for the characters to gad about.
Two young men, onetime classmates happen to land in Europe together, one of whom is driven by paranoia and homosexual attraction toward the other, a macho type who has served time in prisons at home and in Belgium, but who is more drawn to women. One murder, motivated by lack of money, is followed by another, triggered by memories of a tough east European childhood, and the constant need to keep moving. The pair’s first victim is a cheerful American backpack tourist, who is enthusiastically making the discovery of eastern Europe. Then they rob a Serb in Novi Zad, leaving him only with a bomb, which he detonates right there in the same hostel, killing himself in the process, as our wanderers later read in the newspaper. After that the steal a car in Austria, and kill a perverted priest in Poland, who threatens them with a sawed-off shotgun and forces them to have sex in front of a film camera. And these are but some excerpts from the list of escapades of our pair of characters. Of course it is useful to point out the allusion in the text to the film Thelma and Louise, a reference that is also retracted, since the object of the crime is not so clearly defined, and only those are killed from whom there is something to be had. Also, the book is charged with generalized sarcastic rage for any and all representatives of humankind: „Life is not a film. Life is not a performance staged for others to watch. It has to be exciting for you. On the move, all the time. I hate boredom. Cemeteries without live visitors are horribly boring places.“
The absurdity of the situations created by Afanasjev somewhat relieves the indignation that might lower the tolerance of a sensitive reader. On the one hand this is a story of serial murder, on the other a tale of homosexual love, reminiscent of Tõnu Õnnepalu, alias Emil Tode`s 1993 novel Border State (Piiririik), which has been translated into most of the major European language. Aestheticism and embellishment of all kinds is strictly avoided. The reader, following the text, finds himself on the last page in the same paranoid state as the narrator-protagonist, having been treated to empty dialogue and a love story, in which variety is brought to the limited gay plot is by travel companion Ubin`s adventures laying young girls by the roadside. There is plenty of parody and irony, and all manner of things disgusting to irritate the weaknerved reader; these exaggerations, however, are absurd, and comic rather than dramatic. The protagonist, who has yet to emerge from an uninterrupted hangover and drug trip, finally thinks he is a visitor from outer space, which is called East Europe. In the end things get so confused that one can no longer figure out whether this is real science fiction or the imaginations of someone whose brain is permanently distorted by alcohol. The protagonist also comes to feel that as a visitor from outer space shackled to the routine of Earth, he is the object of a prohibition in matters of love. Love is like a mistake in the program: for this reason the protagonist also kills his companion, with whom he has become intimate, just as he killed his parents in his childhood, staging the murder as an accident. Since the impulse to do these things comes from within, his act resembles that of a schizophrenic.
Bob Dylan’s lyrics from the song Death is not the end are repeated like a refrain. At times it seems that these Estonians, wandering and lounging about Europe paranoid and goalless, fleeing from something or someone are indeed living in a state of life after death. Hopeless East Europe and the success stories of those who have fled from there to more prosperous countries: the ironic treatment of these matters needs no justification besides allusions to robbers and Belgian prisons. Besides, these are hopeless characters, evidence enough to consider the book hopeless, at least from a literary point of view.
If it were not for one promising sentence from the interior monologue of the protagonist, stumbling around in the bushes in Slovenia somewhere, having lost his wine bottle: „Opportunities were open, but no-one knew precisely which ones.“
Andrei Hvostov, Foreign Tales (Võõrad lood), 2008. 173. pp.156. ISBN 978-9985-62-640-5
Andrei Hvostov (1963) was born and raised in the area of Estonia populated primarily by Russian speakers. Educated as an historian, he has worked for many years as a journalist, attracting attention for his original approach to Estonian history and his essayistic treatments of contemporary world politics. In recent years he has also published fiction—a novel, a play, and stories, in which he has not been able to bypass historical material.
Foreign Tales, a collection of four novellas, one of which has appeared in a periodical and been awarded the prestigious Fr. Tuglas short story prize, surprises the reader with its innovative angle of approach. First, the book is dedicated to the current president of the Estonian republic, who grew up abroad, and the author admits that he was provoked to write these stories by the riots in Tallinn in April 2007, the so-called Bronze Night. There is no mention of these events in the book itself, though the common thread in the novellas is that there are no Estonians among the characters. This almost seems to emphasize the domination of ideology over the literary word, though things are not really as they seem. Above all, Hvostov is pointing to how weighty a role Germans, Swedes, and Russians—‘foreigners’, have played throughout the history of Estonia, and how, if we forget this fact, it becomes impossible to understand the past of this land as well as the conflicts breaking out in the present. The author has plenty of irony, even overt sarcasm in store in the representation of his characters, but he does not lack for empathy: his basic sentiments are humanistic.
The stories are connected by their setting—the landscape of the author’s childhood—the city of Sillamäe and its surroundings. Located on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, it was a closed city in the Soviet era, filled with Russian-speaking workers. The Blue Hills (Sinimäed) nearby are of iconic significance for Estonians, because of the fierce battles that took place there in 1944 between the retreating German forces and the advancing Russian army. In this novella collection, which moves backwards in time, there are realistically accurate, convincingly described episodes of battle activities seen through the eyes of a German tankist as well as of Russian war veterans partying in the cemetery and the one-time battlefield; for a girl watching them, the shades of the dead rise up from the graves in front of her eyes. What is important is the author’s ability in every novella to communicate details and milieu believably, whether this is based on his personal experience, memories, or reconstruction based on good instinct and feeling for history. Most striking among the characters is Muza, the protagonist of the first novella, Communist, daughter of a Russian submarine commander who comes to live in Estonia. When representing Muza’s brainwashing, Hvostov does not skimp on irony and colour—this is a fast-paced and humorous upbringing story about an unsuspecting victim of Soviet ideology, whose life falls apart and descends into madness together with the fall of the empire. She becomes a bitter, hostile, and dirty outcast, who never retreats an inch from her one-time ideals; waving her Young Communist membership card, she swears long strings of profanities in public places. Hvostov’s ability to communicate Soviet rhetoric in vivid slang can be seen here in maximum intensity. It might be added that in this novella one finds the only Estonian character in the book—in the role of lecturer of Party history! As if to symbolize that collaborationism of a clever people, a trap that so many educated folk fell into in the Soviet years.
Black River, a historical reconstruction of the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, when one foreign power traded places with another on Estonian soil has a brutal, bloody ending. The time period is presented as a narrative with several viewpoints, and leaves a trustworthy impression. The novella culminates in the destruction of the village of a religious sect by the Cossacks; the villagers are suspected of espionage: their peacefulness and customs differing from the official Orthodox faith are alien even to their own people. The Russian Cossack who has been ravaging the land throughout the Great Northern War tells of the slaughter with obvious pleasure, but with the same obvious horror about the Swedes who gave the Russians such a headache, and the „fish-eyed and angular-faces aboriginal people, whose warm, red blood steams beautifully as it sprays onto the white church walls.“
The greatest virtue and innovativeness of the book is the occultation of the prevalent point-of-view of Estonian literature, as well as some provocative assertions around the question: who in this land is ‘own’ and who is ‘foreign’? Even though the very posing of this question is coherent with the author’s ideological intention, what prevail are well wrought tales in a riveting language. This book will have a permanent place in Estonian literature, and through translations will doubtless find many readers elsewhere.
Olli Lauli The Pupils of Niguliste. (Niguliste õpilased). Tallinn: Verb, 535 pp. ISBN 978-9985-9840-1-7.
In 1927 the tradition of novel competitions got started in Estonia, which after several longer interruptions, has gathered new strength since the 1990s. Even though some recognized writers submit their manuscripts to novel competitions from time to time, their distinguishing feature has been the emergence of new talent, authors who might otherwise find it difficult to find a publisher. Competitions generate excitement, and the winners of novel competitions have indeed gotten almost as much attention from the media and from readers as have the annual literary prizes.
The author behind the pseudonym Olli Lauli, whose manuscript The Pupils of Niguliste won second prize in the novel competition for 2006, astutely avoids attention and recognition, and has managed to remain a secret to even those readers who keep up to date with literature. The work is unusually large-sized for a hit seller, even for a contemporary novel, but at the same time it is well written and riveting. The author is skilled in telling a story, and has excellent ability in both composition and dialogue, mixing up fabula and sujet, and situating the prologue, which is most of the text, between much shorter epilogues. In the introduction we immediately witness the protagonist’s deep depression, and his nervous, inept attempt at suicide, to which he has been driven by the plot of the main text. And there is not much to this plot, either. The action focuses around the aimless hanging about of facilitators of leadership training workshops, whose life is mostly made up of earning easy money, deepening alcoholism, and degeneration. The intrigue is sparked by a halfwitted Russian girl, who attaches herself to the main characters at the marketplace; caring for her gives chivalric meaning to the life of at least one character for some time, and in the end becomes the reason for his existence. That is, until the guardian of the orphaned girl, a giantess who sells fish at the market and functions both as the girl’s aunt and procuress, beats the man up and renders him crippled and impotent: the love affair has deprived her of her supplementary income. The brutal, naturalistic beating scene, which continues for many pages, is the climax of the work, after which the man is left to a long convalescence in the hospital. Later it turns out that the man’s comrade has slept with the girl, since he himself no longer can.
In some respect, of course, this is a trivial story, especially if one considers the fact that near the Niguliste church in Tallinn, which has given the novel its title, the man is struck several times by a state resembling religious awakening. Indeed, God is referred to as the hidden character in the novel, but no-one actually ever gets around to serving him. Rather, the rejected and impotent character sinks into the same half-witted state in the end as the girl at the market. The novel offers no hope or redemption; all of the male characters are degenerate ‘sellers of air’, whose motivations for acting and behaving often remain in the dark, and who seem to have no escape from the empty forward motion of their lives. At least no-one makes use of the available escape routes, even when fate offers a straw to grasp in the form of an illumination. This does not happen often, though: mostly fate deals out extra blows, and does so mercilessly. The weaker ones cannot stand the pressure of constant drinking and hangovers—the woman boss, for example, who commits suicide.
The world in Lauli’s novel is bleak and empty, but its virtues are striking descriptions and good knowledge of the material. Apparently the author has had dealings with people involved in leadership training workshops, particularly with those who have become fed up with this line of work. His convincing realistic perception of what happens in the world of today’s white-collar workers deserves praise and recognition, as does the language of the text, which is vividly contemporary, especially in direct discourse. The texture of the spoken language is rich, a slang filled with Russicisms and Anglicisms. Complete with its fair measure of overt obscenity, the text is evidence of the author’s natural talent. Younger generation critics, who tend to value vivid carnality and wanton vocabulary, rather than aesthetic polish have praised this novel highly, even indulgently, while also acknowledging the weight of its social criticism. An accurate assessment indeed. Whoever has gone to the bottom and back again while reading this novel returns from the trip seeing the surrounding world in brighter, better colours.
Jürgen Rooste Tavaline eesti idioot (Ordinary Estonian Idiot), ji 2008. 127 pp. ISBN 978-9985-9787-6-4.
The latest collection of poetry by Jürgen Rooste, the most recognized poet of Estonia’s younger generation, is an anthology of unpublished longer poetic pieces from 1999-2007. The span of Rooste’s often wordy free verse is broad, ranging from manifestations of nationalism and local colour to the cosmos, broad enough to include a poetic travelogue about Russia Tallinn-Moscow-Sõktõvkar, modern, dynamic poetry of the city, and existential reflections about being a poet from a small people. There is both beauty and ugliness here, sentiment, aesthetics, and ethics. Rooste has articulated his own original vision of the relationship of these latter two terms, and this becomes his point of departure for the collection: metrics and ethics should add up to/ethrics/something spanning the whole land something which/deals with the boil on the skin of society and a man and/his rejected wife and with their love/which was young like a freshly cut willow stick/still oozing its bitter juice. The poet’s credo calls out forcefully in these verses; without shutting out social problems, he can find hopeful and sublime moments even in depression. The outcome is sometimes grotesque and ironically cutting, but at the same time humane and understandable, expressed as it is through a sequence of images combining contradictory feelings and positions. The poet, who is more of a spontaneous medium than a conscious composer of words is not afraid of these contradictions and paradoxes that appear in the stream of consciousness of these poems; rather, he encourages and intensifies them. He does not have to invent the surreal and the strange, but sees it in around him in everyday life; in this respect Rooste’s verse might even be considered realistic, taking recognizable root in those places where the poet himself has strolled around. He has more than generous helpings of spirit and dynamism to express this experience, as well as a rich capacity to generate images.
Rooste, who is living in Helsinki at the moment, promoting Estonian culture, is a poet who fits with the present day; he is vivid, direct, and fearless, dealing it out to everyone equally, yet not afraid of being naive and idealistic. He does not hide the fact that he himself can be deemed that ‘ordinary Estonian idiot’, a free and happy animal, who lives according to his own druthers without wishing anyone any harm, yet who behaves contradictorily and strangely just like most of the world around him. Thus, with acute self-irony, the poet is not afraid of exposing himself, while at the same time admonishing himself to listen to the voice of reason. As a popular media figure, a productive poet, who does not restrain himself even in the most angry newspaper columns, and who has belted out his own verse to music, Jürgen Rooste knows how to make himself heard. He is an institution in himself, expanding over the edges of poetry, a phenomenon unto himself in contemporary Estonian literature.
The collection is accompanied by a brief afterword from the scandalous poet Kivisildnik, who published the book, and who in his inappropriate comments always positions himself on the side of the oppressed, never tiring of defamiliarizing the deep stupidity that is taking over the world. Among other things, we find out in the afterword that Rooste`s poetry collection is the first part of the Soft Landing Trilogy planned by the publisher. It goes without saying that in keeping with Kivisildnik’s other performances, this afterword is boundlessly yet justifiably full of praise, carrying with it the irrepressible power of the rhetoric of rock stars.
Jüri Talvet Silmad peksavad une seinu (Eyes Beating the Walls of Sleep). Seventh collection of poetry. Tartu: Ilmamaa, 2008. 80 pp. ISBN 978-9985-77-294-2.
Jüri Talvet is Professor of World and Comparative Literature at Tartu University, founder and leader of the Estonian Comparative Literature Association, and a renowned Hispanist and translator, whose activities in recent years have focused on promoting Estonian poetry abroad. Talvet is an international man in the best sense of the word, and this is immediately apparent upon opening his latest poetry collection. In the first cycle of the book, Poet in New York, the reader immediately feels the pulse of the big city, while sensing in the same verses the influence of Garcia Lorca and Walt Whitman. The author himself has directly admitted to the pertinence of this influence; while composing his own book, he was putting together an anthology of American poetry. In this latest volume of poetry there is a meeting of experience and erudition, taste and technical mastery. The verses are generally long, and there has been no parsimony with words, though the images have a fresh impact and the texts are dense. The poet articulates striking observations from a multilingual and multicultural metropolis; when broaching the common opposition of the familiar and the strange, he foregrounds not conflict, but tolerance; while remaining oneself, there is an appreciation for the unique value of each people and individual. Jew or Lebanese/ Estonian or Spaniard it makes no difference The same/ trembling poplar crowns everywhere if only/you open your eyes window/nothing but wounds wounds. This picture is the background for cursing heard from the window against the Zioists; the end of the phrase has a double meaning through a word play in Estonian: haab is the aspen tree, the tree with shaking leaves, while haav means wound. Both have the same plural. This example also illustrates the point of view of Talvet’s verse, which reflect the religious, racial, and ethnic conflicts of this world, but where social criticism is held back, and tension is reduced by means of poetics.
If poetry written by scholars is often menaced by tendencies toward cool intellectualism or overmanneredness, there is no such danger in Talvet`s poetry. Sensual observation of people on the street, allusiveness, and quotations meet in flowing symbiosis. How could it be otherwise, if in the next cycles, Write a Footprint on the Wind and Come into the snow of my memory more tender poetry, veiled by sadness comes to stand alongside impressions of being abroad? These more intimate poems were born either out of reflection on the memory of the poet’ mother, or his departed friends. Somewhere in the background is the tragic shadow of Juhan Liiv, legendary Estonian poet from the turn of the last century. Yet this remains a shadow: sorrow and tragedy do not take the upper hand; rather, more space is reserved for the poet’s own children.
In a recent interview, Jüri Talvet has said that new ideas can come only from communication with ‘others’, and the attempt to overcome one’s own limiting boundaries; likewise, reflection about literature can never be an activity confined to one culture. His newly published poetry collection confirms these beliefs, playing as it does on the borders of cultures, and generating combinations of ‘own’ and ‘other’, thought and feeling with consummate ease. That Talvet writes poetry seems altogether natural, for what this means is the existential act of living in language.
Aimée Beekman. Proovielu. (Trial Life)
Tallinn, Varrak, 2008. 200pp
Aimée Beekman (1933) published her début novel, Small People (Väikesed inimesed), in 1964. With her 15 published novels, she is now one of the most prolific prose writers and the most productive woman author in Estonia. Many of her books have been translated into other languages, especially Russian and other Eastern European languages.
Beekman’s books usually begin with a problem that the author analyses through different behavioural models, getting the best results with the help of the grotesque. Trial Life came out after a couple of decades of silence after 1989, when she published her 15th novel Shelter (Peavari).
The protagonist of this book, who describes the life of contemporary times, is the retired man Ervin, whose inner monologues the author mediates. Ervin’s life is good and he is well provided for; he is not a grumbling old geezer. But this vital old man, adequate in his dealings with the world, is still deeply depressed. His adult son Karl (or Karlutt) has recently died. Most probably he has committed suicide, but the matter is still not very clear. His son lived fast: he was a gambler, deeply in debt, and a womaniser with a number of untidy relationships. Ervin’s wife is suffering from Alzheimer’s; she is a living ghost, taken care of by her sister. Her death is, therefore, rather a relief for all.
Ervin sells his former dwelling in order to forget the past, and settles into a new modern flat. The last sentence of the novel declares: 'He did not want anybody to come close to his soul any more.' The problems of the protagonist are caused by alienated human relationships. Why could his son not cope with his life any more? Why do many people strive to obtain only material things and why are they satisfied with only surface appearances? How should Ervin live in the new, capitalist world, so different from the previous one? The title of the novel refers to a trial life; has Ervin’s life so far really only been a trial life? Is there any REAL life at all? Or to put it differently, if there is no real life for Ervin, where has he made his mistake?
Compared to Beekman’s other novels, this new book is much more psychological. It proceeds from the characters rather than from problems; it asks important questions that all thinking people have to face sooner or later in their lives.
Aita Kivi. Lähedal. (Near)
Tallinn. Ajakirjade Kirjastus, 2008. 240 pp
Estonian literature (similarly to Estonian society as a whole) does not have enough resources to cover the whole range of genres, but science fiction and romance are, nevertheless, quite well represented today. Genre-conscious romances – women’s books, as they are referred to – are mainly written by women themselves. In addition to true romances, there are books that can't be classified fully as romances and are located somewhere in the intermediate zone of the literary field.
Near is one such book. It is its author Aita Kivi’s (1954) fourth novel; she has also published four collections of poetry and two collections of short stories. She is probably the favourite author of many (women) readers. Working as a journalist for women’s magazines, she has mostly written stories about relationships, and these also form the subject matter of all her novels.
The narrator of the novel Near is Annika, a mature woman whose retrospective view is conveyed in the novel. At her father’s funeral, she meets her half-sisters, one of whom is a successful businesswoman, the other a home-maker and mother of four.
One of the plot lines of the novel centres on Annika’s relationships with men: she is looking for her “Mr. Right” and finally finds him. Another plot line tells us about the relationship between Annika and her half-sister Marin. This is the richer and more promising part of the novel; in a more thorough approach, it could have been developed into a separate society-sensitive romance or even something else, where the role of the romance could even have been overshadowed by other questions of existence facing human beings.
Annika’s relationship with her half-sister, whom she deeply loved in her youth, has changed. Now, the material side has become predominant in their relationship. But the question is, how much help should be given to a person who is doing nothing to help herself? Does the half-sister really have an irresponsible attitude towards life, is she simply skilfully using her sister, and can her behaviour be called acquired helplessness or is it something else? The story also touches upon some painful sores in present-day society – the homeless and the ways in which they have lost their homes.
Annika’s childhood memories form the best part of the book: there are elaborate smells, colours and feelings. Not as many true feelings can be found in her relationships with men. The erotic feelings found in the novel are rather weak, considering how strong they could have been. Kivi’s previous novels were more centred on the erotic, but Near is more ambitious and the result is not as clear-cut. Among the romances published in Estonia in recent years, this is clearly one of the best, due to the complicated relations between the half-sisters.
Vladimir Beekman. Alles see oli. (It Was Just Like Yesterday)
Tallinn, Tänapäev, 2008. 207 pp
The fact that Vladimir Beekman’s (1929) memoirs have been published is remarkable. Their author has been active in the literary scene for more than 55 years, starting with the publication of his first collection of poetry in 1952. Beekman was a deputy of the Supreme Soviets of the ESSR and USSR; in 1971-1976 and 1983-1992, he was the chairman of the Estonian Writers’ Union. He has written in almost all genres of literature – about a dozen poetry books were followed, starting in 1967, by six novels. All of his novels discussed themes new at the time of their publication, or added some new angles to traditional subjects. Beekman was also the most prolific author of travel books in the Soviet Estonia, having written seven of them. He has also written books for young adults and some plays; he is a prolific translator and continues this work even now.
The number of memoirs published in Estonia in recent years is quite large, and all of them find grateful readers among different target groups, but a common resonance has been created only by a few of them. Most popular and widely read among them is Jaan Kross’ Dear Co-travellers, the second part of which was recently posthumously published. The charm, experience and mastery of the words of Jaan Kross have no rivals, even among his colleagues. Compared with Kross' artistic fireworks, others’ books seem to be ascetic. The same can be said of Beekman, who moves along his memory lanes, following a chronological path and examining different subjects as they come along.
The story of Beekman's own family is of primary importance here. The family tried to escape WWII by fleeing to their relatives in Leningrad, where the author’s father was conscripted and disappeared without a trace. His mother was arrested but, miraculously, was later able to come back. Their son – the future writer – survived this awful period because he had been taken to an orphanage. The mother and son didn't return to Estonia until 13 months after the end of the war. Beekman sums it up: “In general, I don’t think that our family had it worse than countless others, despite the choices they had made. The civilians did not win in this war; all of them were losers.”
Beekman also recalls numerous incidents and details of the literary life of the post-war years, describing many grotesque instances of banning books and of party leadership in literature. It is quite natural that he includes an explanation of his relations with the KGB, stating that attempts were made to recruit him during Stalin’s lifetime and even later. Quite often, his reminiscences are answers to collective questions. His readers do not learn anything stunningly new, but they do get certain answers to questions that have arisen at certain times. Surely many readers of Beekman’s travel books of the time had questions about how Vladimis Beekman, together with his wife Aimée, had been able to travel abroad while almost all other people had no such opportunities, or had to wait for their opportunities for many years. The circumstances of these events are made clearer as well.
Naturally, much is told about Estonian writers, as well as Soviet writers and politicians whom Beekman has met or known. He recalls the stories of the origin of his books as well, and describes in great detail the genesis of his novel The Corridor (Koridor), which deals with the relocation of Baltic-Germans from Estonia to the Polish Corridor in 1939.
What can we learn about the author of these memoirs? He is a proper and industrious person whose memoirs seem to be messages from a lost world: cultural decades in Moscow, campaigns of uncovering revisionists, etc. This book explains things, recalls things and shows us the chasms separating different times.
Elo Viiding, Püha Maama (Saint Mama)
Tallinn, Tuum, 2008. 144 pp
Elo Viiding (also Elo Vee, (1974), see ELM 20, Spring 2005 ) published her début collection of poetry in 1990. Saint Mama is her ninth book and her second collection of short stories.
Viiding is from a literary family: her father was the poet and actor Juhan Viiding, her grandfather was the poet and prose author Paul Viiding, her grandmother was the translator Linda Viiding, etc. She has been immersed in literature and theatre since her very first breath.
Elo Viiding has been called a defiant and enigmatic person with a protesting spirit, and people are surprised that this young woman is prepared to present voices oppressed by society. Her texts are characterised by a feminist viewpoint and critical social attitude. Her interviews in the press very often try to explain her uncompromising texts and comment on her disdain and resistance. Her word is like a knife that she uses to scrape and scratch at our modern times. Still, Viiding does not fight on barricades; rather, she is an observer, more of a hermit and ascetic, and she prefers to continue to search than to be content with things already found. Her books seem to be composed of fragments; with talent and promise, she moves her texts on the borders of poetry and prose. Viiding’s prose and poetry remain close together: pieces of her prose carry on the themes started in her verse. Her text flows; she has even confirmed that associative writing is her method. Many of her works look like slices of a whole, characterised by a quality of being unfinished, conveying the sense of being on the road, in an irresistible search for something.
Viiding is reluctant to give in to any kind of pressure or the opinions of the crowd. In an interview in Postimees (31.05.2008) she says, “Fortunately, I am not under pressure and, for this, I am very grateful to the environment that I live in. Right now, I am a person who believes that the only right way of living is the way that one lives, and that one always has to have an enthusiastic and positive outlook on life; ceaseless activity is an ultimate value. Besides, I have received from my environment such a reflective and silent introversion and a certain amount of meditative pessimism, or pessimistic meditativeness, essential for creative work”.
Saint Mama opens with reminiscences, where the main role is played by the author’s father. The stories that follow, depicting the present day, are partly based on reality and partly on abstract fantasy images; the plot is often dream-like. Quite often, Viiding includes some kind of psychoanalytical key for the reader in her stories. She does not hide this key, but encourages her readers to find it. Such a key can also be found at the beginning of the book, in the novelette “Pietro”, written on Freud’s birthday. Viiding's stories are usually written from a woman’s standpoint, or tell about women. In the story “Toomas and Elsa”, only Elsa’s voice can be heard, “since the only thing that Elsa fully and completely understands in this world, and somehow she understands only this, is stubborn and defiant selfishness”. The selfish voice of her short stories despises general curiosity and gossip, uniformity and the all-devouring mainstream. Opposition to the pressure applied by society on individuals can especially be seen in her attitude towards reproduction. “Who would need these traumatised people”, reflects Elsa in “Toomas and Elsa”, because society requires only obedient servants of the state.
Like a neophyte who has to live fully each moment, Viiding opposes herself, in meditative protest, to the pressure of society and moving along with the masses. A woman with a child is seen as a victim of everyday routine, but also as a product of society who is unable to reflect it, as well as the symbol of the same society. Saint Mama is, just as Elo Viiding states in the above-mentioned interview, a woman saint of the present day /---/: she is special through and through. Already the fact that she exists makes her special. She is a mystified being who delivers humankind from its stupidity, evil and other vices. Saint Mama, together with her mother Ljuda and her little boy, is as natural as nature, genuine in her vulgarity and her attempts to overcome vulgarity through vulgarity. She is the most ordinary woman, for example, a suburban working woman, a woman who raises her children alone, not a virginal Mary, but a sinful Mary Magdalene. Irony pales before her; she is to be admired, but only from afar, because it is worthwhile to love, both inside oneself and through oneself, only a child, not the future of the child deviating into parenthood.
Helga Nõu. Peaaegu geenius ehk Schrödingeri kassi otsimas (Almost a Genius or In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat)
Tallinn, Atlex, 2008. 240 pp
“When Aapo reached the schoolhouse with his father, the lessons had already begun...” These words open Helga Nõu’s novel Almost a Genius... It continues, “But why Aapo? Wasn’t it Arno? It was, but what’s the difference.”
The latest, eighth novel by Helga Nõu (1934), an Estonian novelist living in Sweden, could be called a cover of the all-time most popular books for all Estonians, Spring and Summer by Oskar Luts. Luts’s Spring is set in the early 20th century. Nõu’s novel opens a hundred years later in another country – in Sweden. At the beginning of the book, the author indicates that her work is an inter-textual role play, but also more than that. One of the characters of the novel is time, which repeats again and again, but the plot of the book is, of course, centred on people and their relationships.
At the beginning of the book, the main character, Aapo Einsten, is a schoolboy. Among his classmates are the mischievous and unruly Josef Totz, the capricious Raija Telemar, the red-head Heinrich Georg Aadniel Strahle, the slightly odd music lover Jaan Veider and the stout and serious Tönnesson. In their ‘previous lives’ in Luts’s book, these characters were named Arno, Joosep Toots, Raja Teele, Kiir, Imelik and Tõnisson. Some scenes familiar to Estonian readers are also repeated, although in an altered way. Here, too, the teacher says, “If a person has nothing inside his coat, his coat should hang straight”, but Aapo has a cat wriggling inside his coat. The book contains several other scenes and details well known from Spring. Still, Nõu does not borrow much from Luts – a few situations, a few universal characters and, above all, Arno as a characteristic type of a young man. Aapo is also similar to other young men in the throes of growing up that recur in Nõu’s many other novels.
Aapo Einsten’s name differs from that of the famous physicist only by one missing letter. Therefore, he is only almost a genius. School is over and Aapo’s adulthood is about to begin. Having been not much of an achiever at school, he cannot enter the university to study the specialities he would have preferred, but at a recently opened school he becomes a lawyer. A large part of the novel is devoted to funny incidents at Aapo’s first job after his graduation. We should say that Arno, the main character of Luts’s book, did not share this weakness. In Nõu’s book, we can find an unhappy love story that, actually, is not so unhappy at all, semi-mystery stories that eventually find solutions, almost supernatural incidents that, still, most probably occurred in dreams, and many cats. One of them can even talk, before it goes missing.
The novel is an homage to the immortal Oskar Luts (Aapo is even once taken to the museum devoted to the writer), an inter-textual game and a sad and funny story of a young man growing up. Nõu warns us not to believe in fixed ideas and to not set limits on our reason. This is symbolised by the leitmotif of the novel – Schrödiger’s cat, invented by the founder of quantum mechanics.
The plot of Nõu’s humorous novel can easily be followed; the book is playful, and its message is edifying, but not intrusive: believe your own eyes, doubt things, think for yourself and forgive people their shortcomings. Readers of Helga Nõu’s novel do not necessarily have to read Luts’s book to understand her story, but Luts’s Spring can certainly add dimensions to the appreciation of Nõu’s work.
Ivar Sild. Tantsiv linn. (A Dancing City)
Tallinn, Tuum, 2007.133 pp
A Dancing City is significant in that it is the first Estonian gay novel. Actually, it is probably the second, after Emil Tode’s (Tõnu Õnnepalu’s) much acclaimed Border State, but we must admit that the gay theme has never before been so openly examined in Estonian culture. A Dancing City is the début novel of a relatively young author. The book is devoted to club culture (referred to in the title) and lessons provided by life. The plot is quite banal: at first, the protagonist visits clubs to enjoy movement in dance, glamour and his own popularity. Later, he goes for sex, but especially to enjoy the money that is paid for sex, as eventually he becomes a prostitute. He is quite satisfied with his wealthy life. We can find numerous descriptions of nights spent with different partners. The dream of the protagonist is to find a Finnish or Swedish man with whom he can build up a permanent relationship.
The first lesson comes when he is so badly beaten up that he loses his angelic looks and has to make do with cheap work in order to survive. In the end, he has to re-evaluate several things in his life in order to better distinguish between good and evil. Having paid the full penalties for his mistakes, the protagonist ultimately finds his true love.
The author is an attentive observer and a fluent writer. The sex scenes of the protagonist are ambivalent and detailed: the author seems to take a kind of sado-masochist approach to them, and the inter-text of the novel is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Ivar Sild (1977) is a poet and a journalist who has also written some literary criticism. In a period of ten years (1996-2006), he has published seven collections of poetry, four of them in printed form and three on the Internet. Besides the erotic, his works contain a healthy dose of social criticism. He has a way with words and he writes about feelings that are essentially universal, no matter who might be their object. Sexual preference is among the themes that many people have their own opinion of. Making the writing about them his trademark is both the strength and weakness of Sild.
Lii Unt Parim näitleja linnas. Varanasi päevaraamat (The Best Actor in Town. The Varanasi Diary)
Tallinn, Eesti Ekspressi kirjastus AS, 2007. 152 pp
Plenty of travel stories are being published in all kinds of magazines right now, but the number of new travel books is quite small, although Estonians travel all over the world more than ever before. Yet, recently, several travel books have earned serious attention.
Journalist Lii Unt’s (1960) book about India has been reviewed in several publications, perhaps because it was written by a fellow journalist. Or maybe because it was written by the widow of a literary classic of the 1960s generation, Mati Unt. Lii Unt, an editor of a women’s magazine, went on a vacation trip to India last November and decided not to return. Her book, written as a diary, is a mixture of different styles. Unt is good with self-irony, but she is also not afraid of a sincere expression of pain. “Now I want to meet God,” she writes. “If I do not meet him here, then he can be found nowhere. At least for me. Then I can press my hands firmly together and fall down the high riverbank at Kash into the Ganges”. Unt went to India to deal with her mourning for her husband. Still, this book, based on her personal experience, is no self-help manual. The author is too concrete, and probably too honest and too practical for that.
Unt is very skilful in recording her surroundings, noticing details and linking them together in a peculiar way. The reader is exposed to a strange and exotic world: city streets full of naked sadhus who do tricks with their penises, monkeys who steal from hotel rooms, children selling candles of hope... While turning the pages of the Varanasi diary, the reader becomes familiar with a kaleidoscope of smells and tastes, where words and pictures become symbols. Descriptions and impressions are Unt’s strongest area, with story development following after them. She catches the charm of India, with pilgrims pissing behind temples and children pissing into the sacred river, from whose waters the pilgrims draw the three most important and blessed mouthfuls of water with their hands. “A calf’s drool and a child’s shit should be quite clean things. Why should milk be better?” reflects Lii.
One night in Sri Lanka she is awakened by a song. The song is different from any other she had heard in daytime, but at the same time felt strangely familiar. “And then I realised – it was runosong! Unfortunately, I was too sleepy to get up and find out whether the singers were also drinking vodka in an Estonian way.” This incident gave her inspiration to start to study singing.
Unt believes that in a society where people’s welfare is measured by their consumption, the natural dignity of people will suffer. They are made to spend more and more, and work even more to be able to spend still even more. India teaches people to have an entirely different outlook on life.
When Lii Unt was asked about the greatest difference between the Lii of today and the Lii who went to India about a year and a half earlier, she answered that she had grown up. This book shows us the India seen by a grown-up and wise woman.