The Dedalus Book of Estonian Literature
Upheavals in the borderland:
A very short introduction to Estonian prose
When I was born in 1971, Brezhnev was still alive and the facade of the monster called the Soviet Union more or less intact. When my adulthood started to take shape, the monster was finally gasping for air and starting to disintegrate, sinking into the depths of history. This meant, that the course of history shaped my consciousness directly – but I am not the only Estonian to have this kind of experience. So let me share some thoughts about the connections between the Estonian literature and national consciousness.
Our history, especially our recent history, consists of several drastic and often sudden upheavals, which have all influenced literary expression. One can even say that these upheavals form a certain historical continuity. With regard to the 20th Century, the most serious upheaval, which has still not been properly understood (and which has been one of the central themes for our most internationally known novelist Jaan Kross), was the violent and still very traumatic end of the independent Estonian government in 1940. In fact, this peculiar upheaval masks other upheavals (the first Soviet occupation 1940 1941; the Nazi occupation 1941 1944; and the second and much much longer period of the Soviet occupation). The final large upheaval came with and as the renewed independence at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s. This upheaval has led to several smaller upheavals as well. One very rapid, unexpected and still evolving upheaval is the entering of the Western mass culture into Estonian society, the birth and the childhood of the dream of continuous consumption.
So, the meaning of the book as such, especially a book of literature, has to endure the upheavals as well. Changes in society are firstly changes in the meanings and states of mind. In Soviet society, literature played an important role in bringing and holding the Estonian identity together, which apparently was not the main goal for the Soviet Estonian government. Quite the reverse, the government was ordered to propagate the Russian language in Estonia. Any national feeling was considered to be dangerous nationalism, an expression of anti popular tension. Maybe this is the main reason, why Estonian literature created the ability to talk ‘between the lines’, as the readers of the same nationality acquired the skill to read between the same lines. This all served the purpose to maintain the consciousness of the Estonian identity inside the everyday of the Soviet reality. The writers from my generation often have great difficulties in imagining the significance of the Soviet Estonian Writers` Union, the role of publishers, editors and, of course, the all-powerful, but mostly narrow minded, censors during that period. This was a totally different reality, which required a totally different language – or system of languages. As only one Estonian language existed, it had to have different meanings for the censor and for the common Estonian reader. The literature from that epoch was full of hidden meanings. This practice made it possible to achieve beautiful and poetic results and should be remembered, when reading, for example, the short story of Arvo Valton, where the ugliness of the machinery, which in every day life was accompanied by the rhetoric of the industrial heaven on earth, is in deep contrast with the pure clothing of the fairy like creatures from the ‘outside’ world. The public compulsion to form a homogeneous mass was quietly resisted in the writings of that era, thus the loneliness of the individual was simultaneously perceived as inevitable (Mati Unt) and desirable (Rein Saluri).
Nowadays, in the aftermath of the latest upheaval to date – the end of the Soviet state and hopefully, Soviet way of thinking - the need for the hidden meanings has vanished. Nowadays, everything is in the open. Art is everywhere, artistic expression can be even brutally sincere – this is the aesthetic method of several writers who started to publish during the final years of the Soviet Union – Eeva Park and Peeter Sauter, among others. Nowadays, a contemporary writer can say anything and the only censor that he or she has to deal with is the inner censor of the individual or literary circle.
Strange times are connected to strange places. In terms of Soviet time and space, Estonia was considered almost the Western world; interesting, but an also strange, almost foreign, place. In the streets of Tallinn or Pärnu one could have found a vanishing whiff of the ‘Golden’ epoch of the interwar years, when Estonia tried to be a part of a ‘free’ Europe. And, during the last two decades, the borderland of what was once the Soviet Union has been turned instead into the borderland of the European Union. Therefore the concept of space is always quite problematic for an Estonian.
But what can one say about the feeling of time and history? This is the story of a nation of peasants, whose ‘national awakening’ did not take place not until at the end of the 19th Century. One of the most important Estonian poets Juhan Liiv wrote also stories and his book Ten Stories, published in 1893, is considered to be the first Estonian collection of short stories. So, long after Shakespeare and Milton, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Villon and Rabelais, this tiny nation discovered its western identity (with the help of Baltic German culture). Eduard Vilde, who wrote his classical novels and plays at the end of the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th Century, was actually the first Estonian writer to travel constantly around Europe and have personal experiences of the European way of life. But at the same time it is almost unbelievable, that approximately one hundred years later, in the beginning of the 21st Century, the German literary scholar Cornelius Hasselblatt has written a 900 page long history of the Estonian literature, which still is waiting to be translated into Estonian (and English). Furthermore, before the destruction of the Estonian state in 1940, Anton Hansen Tammsaare created the poetical cornerstone of the nation, an epic description of the human life behind the back of God, Truth and Justice – a five volume novel about the Estonian state of mind, about the eternally unattainable and unjust truth, plus the almost always unobtainable justice. And if some of Tammsaare’s contemporaries could not appreciate the absence of metaphysical truth in his work, they could easily find the mysterious, romantic and playful worlds of August Gailit, or the gentle childhood memories of Friedebert Tuglas, or continue to travel around the world with Karl August Hindrey, a truly international gentleman. And this multitude continues in present-day – some reflect the harsh conditions of reality, others create fantasy worlds full of unlikely possibilities (Mehis Heinsaar) and some are walking the lanes of memory and history (Madis Kõiv), and, of course, some may try to reflect, create and walk in the same story (Maimu Berg). The upheavals of our history have of course divided our literature – the protagonist of a brilliant novelist Karl Ristikivi, an author who had to escape to Sweden during the Second World War, strayed from his homeland – and therefore his feeling of space is suffered. But he nonetheless describes these feelings in the Estonian language. This endurance of the language through the literature is the success story of a nation that quite often portrays itself as a suffering greatly.
Estonia is still a country heading towards the West, but has many of its roots situated in the East – maybe not only in the Soviet sense, but also in the Finno Ugric sense. Let me remind the reader that the Eastern border of Estonia was marked by Samuel Huntington as a part of the line between the East and West. So, the identity of the modern Estonian is a controversial one, a difficult one, and the same time, one of members of an enormously enterprising and active people – and this identity is maybe manifest in the inability to shake off the collective ghosts of the (recent) past and the need to act and react actively in contemporary life. And, of course, literature always reflects identity, giving the latter its mirror – the world of words.
Translator’s comments - An International Nation
As Jan Kaus has already intimated, Estonia has undergone quite a few what he terms ‘upheavals’ over the past century or so, in stark contrast to countries such as the United Kingdom and Sweden, which are also located in Northern Europe, but have enjoyed centuries of sovereign life, uninterrupted by invasion and occupation however often they have been threatened by such. Nor has such a small country as Estonia ever been a colonial power.
I would like to pick up on Jan’s comment that many Estonian authors had an international outlook. The authors represented here are mostly ones that have looked outward, beyond the borders of a country of only around one million native-speakers of the Estonian language even today. Especially Friedebert Tuglas, a volume of whose stories I translated a number of years ago under the title The Poet and the Idiot, travelled to a large number of European countries, lived for longer periods in Finland and Paris when fleeing the Russian Tsarist police as a dissident, and even visited the Maghreb. Another author who was outward-looking in a different way Mati Unt, whose novella An Empty Beach is published here. Even in Soviet times Unt staged many modern plays from abroad for the Estonian theatre including ones by Pinter, Genet, Weiss, and Gombrowicz, plus the classics. Several Estonian authors, including Eduard Vilde, Jaan Kross and Maimu Berg, and have all either lived for some time in Germany, or had a good grounding in the German language. Even Anton Hansen Tammsaare, who hardly ever left Estonia, was influenced by the German language on account of being married to a native-speaker of German. Eduard Vilde lived for a longish time in Copenhagen, as well as Berlin. While Karl Hindrey even visited the Congo in the 1920s.
There were also, sadly, those whose sojourn abroad lasted for the latter part of their lives, like Karl Ristikivi and August Gailit, who could never return to Estonia. While Tuglas and Kross finally did return - Tuglas from his wanderings through Europe, Kross from almost a decade in Siberia, the feeling of never being able to go back to the land of one’s birth was especially strong in the work of perhaps the most accomplished Estonian author in exile, Karl Ristikivi. Once Ristikivi realised he would never see Estonia again, he moved on from his existentialist novel Night of Souls, an excerpt of which is published here, to write a whole series of historical novels, nearly all of which are set in Europe, medieval or modern, including, Catalonia, Flanders, Siena, Florence, and Rome.
Which brings me on to another point. Although only represented by a story or an excerpt here, several of the authors in this anthology wrote a large number of novels, most of which are, sadly, not yet available in English. Tammsaare, Ristikivi and Kross wrote more than a dozen novels each. And several of the other authors including Vilde, Hindrey, Tuglas, and Valton wrote large numbers of short stories.
The reason for the relatively small number of women authors here is because until recently, Estonian women wrote for more poetry than prose for publication.
Finally, it must be stressed that those wishing to delve deeper into Estonian literature, from the turn of the 20th century to the present day and using this anthology as a springboard, may find their task easier if they have a reading knowledge of one or two other languages, especially the Scandinavian ones, or German. Some of the key Estonian novel trilogies or tetralogies are available in those languages, but not yet in English. An anthology remains a sampler, but hopefully an inspirational one.
Eric Dickens, Amersfoort, Netherlands, 2010
Apart from Jan Kaus who compiled the anthology and wrote the introduction, I would also like to thank Ilvi Liive of the Estonian Literature Centre (ELIC) who provided photocopies of texts I did not have to hand, and thank my checkers Tiina Randviir and Inna Feldbach who drew my attention to shortcomings in my translations, not least where I had simply misinterpreted the original. Literary translation is teamwork, so the translator does not deserve all of the credit for a successful rendering.