Family Tale in the Era of Miniatures

by Jürgen Rooste
translated by Jürgen Rooste

Family Tale in the Era of Miniatures
Wimberg, Pille-Riin. Jutulind, 2009. pp. 144

Short prose forms suit the era; they are fitting and acceptable to our world that speed has made strong and dense. It’s not surprising then that 2009 saw the publication of three remarkable collections of miniatures: Jan Kaus’s Miniatures, Kalev Keskküla’s Mellowness of Life, and Asta Põldmäe’s Letters to the Swallows - all poetically delicious, carefully composed, with slight substance, but succinct – to be read quickly and with enjoyment. The ease and speed of reading are by no means insignificant, although, unfortunately, they never made it onto the bestseller lists. They could have and should have.
Let us take a look at Wimberg’s Pille-Riin. Twenty-one Tales in a Girl’s Life. Through its main character, it refers to Ellen Niit’s book for children published in 1963, Stories of Pille-Riin, familiar to almost every Estonian. Instead of Niit’s very young girl, Wimberg presents a teenager and looks at the world not by following a child’s activities, but rather by taking a peek into the ‘world of adults’, opening it fragment by layer.
Let me point out the genre specification: 21 tales! The word ‘tale’ is perhaps the most neutral in the Estonian language, and the most precise in describing this book. These tales are too brief to be short stories; they are ‘prose sonnets’, and are often left without a clear final point. At the same time, they drag on a bit too long for miniatures, creating more narrative. So, all in all, it’s a collection of short prose without a genre. What about the depth, precision and poetic aspect that we see in the books of Kaus, Kesküla and Põldmäe?
Wimberg creates: weaving a tender, highly vulnerable world, picture by picture. The fairy-tale and the other weird worlds of three family members meet here, blending with the totally mundane, realistic life of an ordinary Estonian family. Occasionally, Pille-Riin seems to turn into Alice in Wonderland, able to step out of reality. The same goes for the mother and father too – they have their own ‘moments of visions’ and escapes. Such mystical and, at the same time, basically simple moments, perhaps familiar to the attentive reader from Wimberg’s first novel Lipamäe (he has not lost his faith in mundane mysticism, the existence of a magical world existing within ours), serve to capture the most essential aspects of our era. For example, the author mentions, with realistic frequency, various television series and the TV-watching habit; apparently, even when Pille-Riin’s family members read a book or eat, the telly, the sacred perpetuum mobile picture of Estonians, is on ‘just in case’. Adults go about their ‘adult things’ and discuss human relations, and that language and that world gradually become familiar to the girl. In addition, this is a story of how two people – mother and father – grow apart. The author does not spring this on us all at once, but instead allows us to see the process of alienation through the eyes of a not very precise or focused child.
It’s true that feminists might detect some criticism directed at women, a tiny but perceptible bit of chauvinism. The tales reveal that the mother is more nervous and highly strung, her outings with her girlfriends are somewhat suspicious, she reads fewer books and watches more sappy soaps on TV, her relationship with the child is more superficial/insincere, etc. It also transpires that she has less time for herself, more worries, more hassles and more work. In summary, if we do not presume that the author has intentionally shown the female character in a more negative light, such a situation might well be familiar in many a home. Should we start arguing about the parameters of realism and gender-politics attitudes in this book, with its touch of fairy-tale and fantastic realism?
In the last two stories, the writer, the poet, unexpectedly assumes the main role and becomes the narrator. The last but one tale describes the emergence of a romantic relationship; there is a childishly enthusiastic depiction of the nature and courage of a poet who is unconcerned about minor social conventions – ‘damn it, I am a poet!’ At the same time, the romantic-erotic relationship is described almost programmatically, as is an ideal woman.
The last tale brings together the narrator-writer and the schoolgirl Pille-Riin, by chance and fleetingly. Quite a few parameters, typical of Wimberg’s work, are actually formulated there; the topics include the relationship between the writer and time, ‘collecting’, the recording aspect of thought and life, and the position of culture.
Thus, in addition to the tale of a family falling apart and the spiritual development of a young girl, we also see here Wimberg’s aesthetic credo.
However, for me, the book contains some irritating elements. Besides Wimberg’s own orthography, already mentioned by nearly all critics, which does not contribute at all to the book’s simplicity and well-maintained emotional tone, I am also annoyed by his version of the Christian world-view, expressed by Pille-Riin’s friend Karl-Johan, who keeps saying such things as ‘the child of God doesn’t eat sweets’, or ‘the child of God doesn’t laugh’, or ‘the child of God doesn’t watch television’, or that he or she ends up in hell. First, this attitude is not very realistic in Estonian society (although such conservative, closed communities might well exist, they certainly do not seek attention, keeping to themselves), and secondly – it does not serve the ‘bigger story’, does not help create a mystical-poetic atmosphere in our mundane world.
The writer finally admits, looking back at Pille-Riin ten years later: ‘She will certainly become a pretty and clever woman.’ In short, this is the ideal sought by the author as well, the ideal child who must grow up in spite of her broken home and her parents who are inept in love, although assiduous and good-natured. Yes, Wimberg’s Pille-Riin fits nicely on the 2009 list of books of miniatures, although it is longer and contains more narrative. It adds a significant piece to the puzzle of today’s Estonia. The style and the manner, a peculiar mixture of the childish and the deadly serious, might not be to everybody’s taste, but Pille-Riin is an outstanding book in any case.