Younger Estonian Prose

by Peeter Helme

The emergence of young prose authors in literature is, to a certain extent, quite a cyclical phenomenon in Estonia. This is determined by the novel competition that takes place every two years. There are, naturally, young people who appear before the literary public via completely different routes. Many attempt to make their entry into the literary world through various literary magazines, which however usually have a relatively high level and established standard.

The oldest Estonian literary magazine, Looming (Creation), for example, certainly does not provide a gateway for new writers into literature, mostly publishing the works of authors who have already proved their worth. Another magazine, Vikerkaar (Rainbow), founded in 1986 and a bit more ‘youthful’ — and recently increasingly left-wing — is not exactly the place where newcomers can be published for the first time, although the authors are on the whole younger than those published in Looming.

Now, luckily we have had Värske Rõhk (Fresh Pressure) for three years. Its aim is to publish the work of authors ranging in age from 17 to 27 years. Most of the authors prefer poetry. Each issue of Värske Rõhk also contains prose. We can easily say today that, besides the novel competition, Värske Rõhk, initiated by the Estonian Literary Society and now an independent institution, is currently the second essential pillar of support for the development of young Estonian prose.

*    *    *

But let us start with the novel competition, which has played an important role primarily in promoting longer prose and encouraging people to try it. The last competition took place in 2006 and the next one is this year. The results are always announced in the spring of the following year. Publishers are sufficiently interested so that the three winning entries plus the seven shortlisted get printed. Thus more than an average number of books by new writers appeared in 2007, as the successful participants of the novel competition were published one after the other. Quite obviously, it is going to happen again next year — after announcing the results of the novel competition, the winning entries will go to print in the course of 2009.

The last competition in 2006 was won by a new writer and the second place award also went to a new writer. As mentioned above, seven works receive honourable mention, in addition to the three winning entries.

Six authors were under 35 (Kristjan Sander, Marion Andra, Siim Veskimees, Jaan Aps and Joonas Sildre, who wrote a book together, Angela Hofberg and the undersigned) and three were new writers (Marion Andra, Angela Hofberg and the undersigned).
The last novel competition thus constituted the arrival of quite a few young writers or an attempt of already published ones to consolidate their position. Even if all five new writers and seven young authors do not continue to write and do not publish any more books, a considerable amount of new domestic literature has, nevertheless, found its way to Estonian readers.

*    *    *

So what did the young authors write about? Three shortlisted manuscripts were science fiction. This fact is quite interesting because science fiction has never been very strong in Estonia. Since the 1960s, some books have appeared, such as The Last Hermit (1960) by Rein Sepp, who later became known as a translator of Germanic epics, and Henn-Kaarel Hellat’s two-volume Women’s World (1976-78). During a period of several decades, a number of science fiction books were naturally published in Estonia, but before the 1990s there was really no reason to talk about continuity or a school of Estonian science fiction. The authors experimented with various trends, planted criticism of the Soviet regime between the lines and were largely inspired by the Russian science fiction of the mid-20th century and their own time.

The beginning of the 1990s witnessed radical changes in all walks of life in Estonia, both quantitative and qualitative. In the conditions of the stagnation of the 1980s, very few young authors came to literature. At the end of the decade, the situation changed and a kind of explosion occurred ten years later as well — in the second half of the 1990s when a pleiad of young authors emerged. In the physical sense, these people, who are mostly approaching 30, are by no means old even now, but there are a few whose writing career stretches to more than ten years (e.g. Jürgen Rooste), and it is a bit difficult to call them young authors compared to those who only appeared in literature in the 21st century.

It is not only the people who come to literature that are important, but ideas as well. Thanks to political factors and the parallel communication revolution, the world in the 1990s expanded beyond belief. Primarily, young Estonian authors began experimenting in styles and genres that had previously been unknown, alien or slightly suspicious, if not downright forbidden during the Soviet regime. One such phenomenon was naturally science fiction – describing material or spiritual situations that differ from the surrounding reality. The first uncertain steps in the 1990s were followed by more assured attempts at the beginning of the current millennium, with the appearance of Indrek Hargla (1970), who has written science fiction, pseudo-historical fantasy and humour smacking of steam punk. Still, Hargla is by no means the only outstanding young science fiction writer in Estonia.

In 2005, shortly before his untimely death, Lew R. Berg (Leho Raie, b. 1968) published his fourth novel. His Black Guard introduced military science fiction in Estonia. The same year saw the publication of Meelis Friedenthal’s (1973) debut novel The Golden Era. Educated as a theologian, Friedenthal had attracted attention before with his remarkably imaginative short stories, which could be classified as philosophical science fiction. The Golden Era became quite a hit and received the 3rd place award at the competition in 2004.

By the last two novel competitions, Estonian science fiction (plus fantasy) had developed enough to attract the interest of not just the small group of science fiction aficionados, but also of the wider literary audience.

Young Estonian science fiction indeed tries to be as expansive as possible, observing the world with a global and international eye. The locations where the plots unravel are often exotic, as are the names of the characters: the authors are obviously trying to seem experienced and free of parochial patriotism. A successful example of such attempts is Spiritual Blaze by Jaan Aps and Joonas Sildre, which received honourable mention at the 2006 novel competition.

*    *    *

However, science fiction forms only a part, and not exactly the largest part, of the submitted works. Instead, the long-time dream of some critics that psychological realism is about to return to Estonian literature seems to be coming true.

On the whole, psychological realism has been the dominant style during the short history – less than one hundred and fifty years – of Estonian literature. The reasons are plentiful, but one very important reason is that for a considerable part of its history, Estonian literature has existed under conditions of censorship from various regimes. Still, social and political circumstances find expression in literature for other reasons as well.

As at any other time, young people who arrive in literature today feel the need to map the rapidly changing environment around them. Technological and relevant social changes are swift, and writers need to capture and record them and understand what the altering world is doing to mankind.
The changing world is of course mostly a world where young authors actually live. They primarily describe their own problems and their surroundings. An example here is Diana Leesalu (1982), who has already published two novels. Both books, 2 Grams until Dusk and Games are for Real, are about the life of young people. They are a bit over-dramatised and emphatically grim, but written with the best intentions and from the young to the young. In addition to novels, Diana Leesalu has published short stories and essays in the magazine Fresh Pressure.

Quite a similar author to Leesalu is Marion Andra, whose At Least… is also a morbid tale of the life of young subcultures, of life’s dullness and indifference. In order to achieve a personal viewpoint that would really get under the reader’s skin, the writer has chosen the form of diary for her novel.
The winning entry of the novel competition was Little Old Men by the journalist Tiina Laanem (1974). Both by intention and realisation, this novel has a much wider power of generalisation (see ELM no 25, 2007). This debut novel is an ironic glance at Estonian society: the characters are not real people but caricatures of creatures as they are described in modern lifestyle and women’s magazines. Little Old Men can, of course, be classified as humorous literature but, nevertheless, the ambition to understand the human spirit and nature is very much present in the book and it certainly reaches readers.

The same aims are expressed even more lucidly — and also more grimly — in the novel that received second prize. The age of the author writing under the pseudonym Olle Lauli is not known. People who have had contact with the author claim this to be his debut novel.

This is quite an exceptional work in Estonian literature. Most importantly, it marks the arrival of the Anglo-American form of the novel in Estonia. The story is quite plot driven, using spoken language, occasionally coarse dialogue and — typically of American authors — the book is extraordinarily bulky, 535 pages. Pupils of St Nicholas is a grim and naturalistic tale about the decline of a successful yuppie and about hopelessly tangled human relations at the beginning of the 21st century in Tallinn. It is very disturbing and, as such, a convincing reading experience.
Pupils of St Nicholas is quite a singular work of literature at the moment. Whether it will have a longer-lasting effect on young Estonian authors is another matter. Pupils of St Nicholas clearly reveals the impact of Bret Easton Ellis’s best-known work, American Psycho. This fact, however, is not that singular in Estonia.

The famous American’s dashing style, boldness of describing violence and intensive inner monologue have also influenced another debut work, similarly written under a pseudonym. The author is Chaneldior, and his thin but suggestive novel of passage Out of Control.
The book appeared last winter and was noticed and criticised in a variety of ways — from total lambasting to praise and understanding. Although Out of Control’s problems seem similar to those of Pupils of St Nicholas, describing the life of a yuppie who is lost and at loggerheads with the world, the book’s construction, style and tonality are totally different. On the one hand, the book tries to give an overview of the disappearance of the yuppie as a social layer in the increasingly levelling society. On the other hand, it takes the reader on a blood-dripping, and simultaneously a kind of comic, trip, which proceeds alternately along Estonian roads and streets and the protagonist’s messed-up neural canals.

Chaneldior’s work rather resembles that of Vahur Afanasjev, whose writing career stretches to over ten years (his first poems appeared in the magazine Vikerkaar in 1998), although his debut novel, Castrate from Ontario, was only published in 2005. Like Chaneldior’s debut, Castrate shows a distorted world and its degenerate characters. Through the haze of a drug trip and a conscience verging on madness, Chaneldior tries to focus the reader’s attention on action that occurs here and now, in the real world, whereas Afanasjev prefers to create his own world. True, this world is obviously Estonia. Afanasjev hides the mud-grey silhouette of the Estonian province behind a strange label rather than creating something totally new. Giving his locations and heroes freaky names, the author produces the necessary distance from the real world, and makes the reader laugh out loud on every page of his book, which is adorned with pink covers.

This was only the start for Afanasjev. In 2007, he published a pastiche on the basis of the popular children’s book Karius and Bactus, where the characters experience somewhat lewd adventures in the world of the Estonian tabloids; this year saw the publication of his short novel Cosmos. This is a peculiar tale that could be characterised as Brokeback Mountain meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

*    *    *

Besides quite classical realism, science fiction and fantasy, characterised predominantly by realistic descriptions and the absurd, young Estonian authors have also written in a style which might be called magical realism. The greatest success, both with critics and readers, was achieved by Mehis Heinsaar. He has twice won the Friedebert Tuglas short story award. Heinsaar’s novel Artur Sandman’s Story or a Voyage to the Other End of Yourself was acknowledged at the 2004 novel competition.

Elements of magical realism can also be seen in works where the authors’ interest focuses on the research of the mechanism of text production and the impact of text on the reader. This is evident in the joint collection of Mart Kangur, Ivar Ravi and Jaak Rand, Jaak Rand and Other Stories.
Still, it is not at all clear at the moment how Heinsaar, as well as the above-mentioned authors’ trio, are located in the wider Estonian literary scene. Maybe this question is superfluous, as Estonian young prose is a rather diverse phenomenon.

On the one hand, this is guaranteed by strong and new outside impacts. In the 19th century, Estonian literature was mostly influenced by German literature, and in the 20th century by Russian, German, and to a lesser extent French and Nordic literature, whereas now Anglo-American literature, with its focus on narrative and relatively neutral language, is making its powerful entry into Estonian literature.

On the other hand, the impressive standard of semiotics and literary research in Estonia have seen to it that we always have authors who occasionally write books called ‘minority literature’, which actually deal with literature itself (Kangur, Ravi, Rand, and the group 14NÜ: Mait Laas, Maarja Vaino, Paavo Matsin and Marianne Ravi). For many readers, such works probably remain mere textual experiments which can hardly be compared with traditional literature.

As demonstrated by their keen interest in foreign literatures, young authors writing in a more traditional key are not sitting around idly either. They are clearly attempting to expand their circle of topics and are not staying in their respective niche. The same has probably been true of young writers of other generations, and it is too early to say what impact this could have. It is only natural that experimenting with styles and topics is part of each author’s personal development.
On the whole, it is not easy for young writers to find their own language and style, and they often try to hide this by introducing original topics. The representatives of the older and middle-aged generations in Estonian literature mainly tackle themselves and the past of their homeland, whereas younger writers tend to discuss modern phenomena, or rather phenomena regarded as modern.

For some reason, sex, alcohol and drugs often have a flavour of something ‘new’ about them. This is not meant solely as criticism: the young discover the good and the bad things in the surrounding world and write about them. The fact that they try to understand their characters and themselves, and make them speak realistically is another sign of the new Estonian literature, connected with the radical changes during the last twenty or so years in Estonian society: after the stagnated and thoroughly conservative Soviet regime and its standards, people adopted the principle that what is not forbidden is permitted. The boundaries of what is permitted have been expanded in literature as well. At the moment, we seem to be facing the problem of how to help young authors to differentiate between good and bad literature, and not let them assume that the fact that everything is permitted means that any writing is automatically literature.