The Historian Who Came in from the Cold
The Historian Who Came in from the Cold
Tiit Aleksejev, The Pilgrimage (Palveränd) Tallinn: Varrak, 2008. 308 pp.
Tiit Aleksejev, The White Kingdom (Valge kuningriik) Tallinn: Varrak, 2006. 194 pp.
Tiit Aleksejev (b. 1968) is a writer who is exceptionally difficult to categorise in Estonian literature. This is not to say that the genres he uses are exceptional in world literature; quite to the contrary, they are prominent and well established. Tõnu Õnnepalu has, in his review for Aleksejev’s first novel, The White Kingdom (Valge kuningriik), phrased this even more strongly: the context of Estonian literature is not relevant for appraising this book, which quintessentially follows other examples. His first book, in particular, an espionage story that takes place in the diplomatic circles in Paris, was rather unprecedented in Estonian literature. Aleksejev then moved on to a historical novel, The Pilgrimage (Palveränd). Historical fiction, of course, is not rare in Estonian literature. Yet, The Pilgrimage has brought something new to the local uses of the genre: the book mixes it with elements from espionage and suspense novels and, more importantly, adapts a particular style of intellectual historical novel which has especially flourished in the footsteps of Umberto Eco’s success.
The local context has added one other important element to the reception of Aleksejev’s books: small literatures tend to be very anxious when it comes to finding successors for their geniuses. The passing of Jaan Kross in 2007 has made many seek an heir to this great author of historical novels. And, indeed, even if at the moment it is too early to speak of a new rise of the Estonian historical novel, in recent years the genre has considerably revitalised. Skipping the fantasy writers (for instance, Indrek Hargla), one could mention Andrei Hvostov, an historian and journalist who recently debuted with historical short stories. While the quest for ‘a new Kross’ is still ongoing, however, one should also take notice of the voices that have called Aleksejev ‘a new Ristikivi’. Karl Ristikivi (1912–1977), a promising young author of realist novels in the 1930s, switched to historical novels after emigrating to Sweden after World War II. Indeed, Aleksejev, like Ristikivi, prefers to deal not with Estonian but with European history, to play inter-textual games, as well as to construct and examine characters with subtle (modern) psychologies. Quite tellingly, the interest in European perspectives has not been common among the authors who have written in Estonia but, rather, characterises only the historical fiction created in the post World War II exile. Thus, it is tempting to draw even more comparisons: Aleksejev’s second novel, The Pilgrimage also calls to mind a novel by another prominent exiled Estonian author, Bernard Kangro's Six Days. The Diary and Confessions of Andreas Sunesen (Kuus päeva: Andreas Sunepoja päevaraamat ja pihtimused, 1980), which is the fictional diary of Andreas Sunesen, Archbishop of Lund (1201–28) and the leader of the Danish crusade to Estonia in the early thirteenth century. The novel’s central themes are quite close to those of Aleksejev: the possibilities of remembrance and (history) writing, and life as a journey and (armed) pilgrimage.
Before taking a closer look at the texts, the author himself deserves a brief introduction. Aleksejev was trained as a historian, specialised in medieval studies and started his academic career at the history department of Tartu University. Soon, however, he began to work as a diplomat in Paris and Brussels. Currently, he lives in Tallinn, yet the professional background of an historian turned diplomat seems to have had a decisive impact on his literary fiction. As a writer, Aleksejev debuted with the short story The Peace of Tartu (Tartu rahu), which won the annual award from the literary magazine Looming in 1999. He has also published a little poetry.
Nevertheless, it was The White Kingdom (2006) that established him as a writer. The novel was awarded the Betti Alver Prize for the best debut in 2006, yet received mixed reviews. The plot follows Estonian diplomats and spies, and their affairs with their French and Russian colleagues in Paris. Among its main characters, one meets a trio of three Estonian spies: Rein, the main protagonist (and the character closest to being the author’s alter ego), the hard-boiled female character Kaja, and the macho Karl (the opposite of the intellectual Rein). Among the agents they play with and run up against, there emerge a (retired?) colonel from the French counter-intelligence, and Leonov, a Russian diplomat ‘with some background in intelligence’.
Indeed, the French metropolis should also be listed among the main characters: The White Kingdom has been praised most often for its minute depictions of the Parisian cityscape and the author’s ability to grasp the genius loci. Indeed, also knowing that Aleksejev himself has been a diplomat in Paris, this feature of his debut novel immediately calls to mind another recent literary work that was likewise born out of the first-hand experience of representing Estonia in Paris, Anton Nigov’s semi-diary Practicing (Harjutused) (2002). Nigov is a pseudonym for the above-mentioned author Tõnu Õnnepalu, who served as the director of the Estonian Institute in Paris.
However, in The White Kingdom, one of its narrative threads unfolds retrospectively on the battlefields of the Soviet-Afghan war. On the whole, the plot itself is ambiguous. It leaves unclear both the motives and outcomes of Estonian diplomacy and espionage in Paris, as well as seeming to suggest the performative and essentially empty nature of diplomatic games. The emphasis on dull office work contributes to a deconstruction of the glamour of spy games. On the other hand, the novel shows that espionage still remains attractive for the characters – despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that they are representing such a small country as Estonia.
The ambiguities of the plot, furthermore, are not limited to espionage. They also include a mysterious eighteenth-century Hebraic book, entitled The White Kingdom, which first Rein buys from a Parisian antique bookshop, but which shortly the other characters also come across. The secret of this book remains unsolved but, as shall be argued shortly, one could perhaps hope for an answer from the author’s next novel. Before considering the novel further, it is important to add that The White Kingdom introduced yet another of Aleksejev’s big themes, war (or, in this case the memories of past wars): Karl is a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, and the French colonel a veteran of the Algerian war, and their war memories play a crucial role in the novel.
Even though, at first glance, Aleksejev’s second novel, The Pilgrimage (Palveränd) seems to head in a different direction, with its crusading topic, one could also plausibly argue that this piece of literature also, primarily, tells about books, wars and espionage – to mention just the most prominent links. Furthermore, one should also immediately say that The Pilgrimage relates to a kingdom – Jerusalem. And it is this Heavenly Kingdom which the title of the previous novel The White Kingdom refers to (even though it can also be interpreted as a reference to the north, where the main (Estonian) characters come from). What is more, the old book around which the mysterious plot of The White Kingdom revolves seems to refer to the crusades. And this book-within-a-book even seems to have a small clue to offer the readers of The Pilgrimage, as it suggests keeping an eye on the link between the war, the spiritual journey and the crusades. ‘White kingdom is what people create in their souls when they pass through the wasteland. And then, in one moment the kingdom becomes a reality and is created according to people's faces …. the war brings out the relevant and this is the only reason that one should write about the war …. when the crusaders went to liberate Jerusalem, they believed that they would bring the Heavenly Kingdom down to Earth. And, in reality, the opposite happened’ (p. 52).
Taking a closer look at the plot, The Pilgrimage was marketed as a historical suspense novel about the First Crusade (1096–1099). Its protagonist is a young warrior who, together with the army of the Count of Toulouse, goes to liberate the Holy Land from the Moslems. Turning to the crusades is by no means surprising for an author who has been trained as a medievalist. It might even be tempting to say the plan might be a rather old one: after The Pilgrimage was published, a vague memory made me check an old copy of the literary magazine Looming (no 7, 2000), where a set of poems by Aleksejev had been published. And, indeed, the title of one poem corresponded rather well with the framing narrative of The Pilgrimage: ‘An old crusader tells a young girl his story’
The Estonian reader is familiar with the tradition of representing the crusaders as a purely negative force: from the national romanticist epic Kalevipoeg (1862) onwards, they are the iron men, the dark antagonists of the Estonian national history. This image was confirmed by the nineteenth-century national histories and historical novels (by Eduard Bornhöhe, Andrus Saal and others), which are still read widely. The traditional Estonian historical novel primarily deals not with the Holy Land but with the Baltic crusades (that is, the Danish and German campaigns in Livonia and Estonia in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries). As the beginning of The Pilgrimage hints, the main character of this novel might also come from Estonia, or in any case he comes from a country that he later is unable to find in manuscripts or on maps, and that has not been mentioned in travel stories. At the beginning of the novel, he explains his sense of belonging in a way that is very much reminiscent of the early poetry of Jaan Kaplinski: ‘The country from where I come is not the same any more, and the people who remember me have passed away’ (p. 5). The story of a boy who is kidnapped and sent ‘to Europe’ is rather common in Estonian historical novels, yet the typical plot includes the return home (to continue the fight against foreign invasion), as well as the manifest abandoning of foreign cultural influences. But even though Aleksejev’s protagonist is eager to seek his identity, he does not feel the urge to find and return to the lost home – it seems like the main function of this far away homeland is to represent the loss of origin. One could add that, in Estonian literature, there is another recent character who is kidnapped during the crusades and does not show the slightest intention of returning home: an anonymous monk, the narrator figure in a piece of historical fiction which frames Tõnu Õnnepalu’s The Diary of Flanders (Flandria päevik, 2007). Whether these are the telling signs of a rather significant change in pattern remains to be seen, but surely there are not many such characters in the Estonian tradition.
Similarly, the novel mirrors some new tendencies in crusading historiography. The Pilgrimage gives a good and professional overview of the First Crusade, as it describes in quite some detail the practices and rhetoric of the campaign: the proclamation, recruitment, planning and course of the expedition; and it pays special attention to the military details (weaponry, strategy etc.). It would be difficult to find fault with the historical world the novel has created – not to mention that the genre of (fictive) memories makes it difficult to seriously offer any criticism regarding accuracy. The novel once again shows the writer’s talent for describing places, as it vividly presents the environment the crusading army (or, ‘the armoured serpent’, as it is called in the novel) passes through during its journey. What about the crusading phenomenon itself? In the tradition of contemporary crusading studies, The Pilgrimage has abandoned the idea that crusaders were primarily motivated by greed; by showing the considerable costs of going on a campaign, it emphasises the spiritual motivation of the participants, as well as the social prestige of joining the expedition.
In the Middle Ages, there was never a universal term for the phenomenon (quite often they were referred to as ‘pilgrimages’), so it is only the modern tradition that has defined and shaped the understanding of what we nowadays know as the crusades. Later, the authors of romantic historicism (primarily Walter Scott and his epigones) considerably re-designed and re-promoted the image of the crusade(r)s. Even though the colonial nineteenth century is often regarded as a period that praised the crusades excessively, the attitudes were not that clear-cut. The cult of (medieval) knights played an important role in the development of the ideals of the nineteenth-century gentleman. At the same time, the crusades were often regarded as dark and uncivilised incidents in European history, which propagators merely took advantage of the heroism of knights. In The Pilgrimage, both small and great agents devote themselves to the expedition wholeheartedly. Yet, the novel does not seem to make any judgements about the crusades themselves.
Even more than with the details of the crusades, the author-historian concerns himself with the possibility of history writing and authenticity. To a great extent, ‘the memories’ of the main protagonist (who is also the narrator of the novel) rely on the chronicles written by the authors who took part in the First Crusade. As there are a number of them, several different versions of the First Crusade have also been preserved. This can provoke the reader to seek the 'right Ur-text': for instance, Ilmar Raag has suggested that the alter ego of the main character is the anonymous author of Gesta Francorum. One of the best-known chroniclers of the First Crusade is even included among the characters of the novel, i.e. Raymond of Aguilers, the chronicler of one of the leaders of the First Crusade, Count Raymond IV of Toulouse (c. 1041/2–1105), and the author of Historia Francorum qui ceperunt Iherusalem. In this novel, the chronicler often ponders which of the events are worth recording, and when he finally reads out the result to the main protagonist, the latter only laughs, saying, 'well, it was almost like that’ (p. 245). Thus, the novel tells the reader not only how the First Crusade came into being as a military campaign, but also how it was created as a text, or a narrative. On the one hand, it opposes the truth of the lived experience with the truth of the parchment. On the other hand, it seems to sympathize with Raymond’s rhetorical question: why could not all this 'leave behind more than a memory of scared men?’ (p. 244) Indeed, one cannot escape the brutal fact that, in our days, those events exist only via the mediation of texts that always seek to represent ‘something more’. Also, the main character (and narrator) concludes that history is a text more than anything else, and we know of it ‘just so much as the chroniclers wrote about it’ (p. 37).
Yet, it could also be possible that The Pilgrimage is a classic historical novel that aims to narrate the true story, which tells of the great deeds of small men that have been overshadowed by the small deeds of great men. The novel refers to this possibility several times: the protagonist-narrator steadily contrasts his (his)story with the chronicles, which narrate past events quite differently from the way he remembers them; and he even tries to assure his reader that the chroniclers’ records are ‘all lies’.
However, it seems to me that The Pilgrimage is profoundly interested not only in the possibilities of history writing, but also in remembering and writing lived experience. In this novel, even the material world is turned into a text: the footsteps of the crusaders-pilgrims become ‘letters on parchment’. Even at the beginning, the narrator realizes that, finally, the parchment scrolls are the strongest factor, the one that will remain (p. 18), and that ‘the deed often gains its true meaning only after it has been written down’ (p. 37). Yet, throughout the whole novel, he continues struggling with the possibilities of remembering the past and writing it down; and one might add that the tension in the novel is greatly based not only on following military and espionage games, but also the protagonist’s identity-creating and life-writing project.
In this framework, one of the most prominent questions is how to record war experiences; this is also a topic that links The Pilgrimage closely to The White Kingdom. Even though the novel admits, on several occasions, that ‘the word and the sword are two different things’ (e.g. p. 196), it seems to attempt to test the limits of the authentic representation of war experiences, and also of the ways they turn into a way of life for its participants. Both of Aleksejev’s novels are keen on the psychology of war, the history of war-related emotions and violence. The author’s interest in these issues is further evidenced in his empathetic essays on novels about the Russian Civil War. Typically of contemporary war fiction, one finds almost no traits of heroism in The Pilgrimage: above all, battles consist of a constant struggle between fear, exhaustion and survival. Even though the novel depicts, in great detail, the campaigns of the First Crusade, the narrator does not provide any panoramic views or strategic descriptions of the battles, but sticks to close-up pictures representing personal battle experience. As we were reminded already in the The White Kingdom, first and foremost going to war means opening up to the possibility of finding oneself.
Life writing is closely bound to the key words ‘story’ and ‘secret’, which are strongly thematized in this novel. Together with the closely linked themes of betrayal and espionage, they are again topics already familiar from The White Kingdom. In The Pilgrimage, the narrator believes that everyone is made of stories – which, in turn, he or she conceals from others. Finding ‘his own story’ could also be the main aim of this narration – or even of going on a crusade in the first place. Nevertheless, first he also asks all the other characters that enter the novel to tell their stories. And, on all occasions, each story is part and parcel of a secret. Or, as the narrator’s Greek friend says, ‘a person is what he conceals’ (p. 265). In addition to what we might call the theme of secrecy, there are also many spies and secret missions (familiar already from The White Kingdom). However, the novel does not reveal whether it is possible to uncover secrets with stories and words. Rather, this text itself is characterised by mystery and ambiguity: there are many references, hints and links, but none of them reveals a clear path.
Thus, similarly to The White Kingdom, The Pilgrimage seems to be a secret, which even the linguistically sophisticated narrator does not reveal to the reader. In the midst of all these secrets and in the turmoil of war, he is not only a sensitive observer, but his memoirs are constantly framed by his ‘past’s future’ – visions that foresee the future. Soon it becomes evident that the future of this character is made of the same material that his dreams consist of: we even learn of the upcoming crusade through the protagonist’s vision of the heavenly meeting of armies (p. 13). In addition, both the protagonist’s visions and ‘real’ experiences are characterized by a sharpness of perceptions, especially when it comes to smells and voices, but also his own emotions. We bear witness to an almost Romantic cult of sensibility where perceptions and emotions swing from one extreme to the other, and they cut to the bone: ‘In the beginning, there is nothing, and then there is everything’ (p. 9).
This inner journey into a mind is framed by the metaphor of life as a journey, which is intensified by the crusade setting. The crusader movement borrowed much from the pilgrimage tradition, which encompassed the idea of finding truth and salvation via the via dolorosa. One could even consider the crusade a quintessential pilgrimage that plunged its participants into previously unknown troubles and perils in foreign, yet symbolically rich, environments (the sea, the desert and the mountains). In The Pilgrimage the journey becomes more and more difficult, and ‘life burns’. As the journey proceeds, it turns more and more into a kind of state-of-mind novel: it focuses on being on a journey as a state of mind, and even has one of the characters pray to heaven that ‘all this will not end yet’ (p. 171).
Therefore, on the one hand, The Pilgrimage stays true to its title: it is indeed very much a pilgrimage novel. Yet, differently from the age of the crusades, there is only meagre dialogue with God (who at the end of the novel has turned ash-dark). This suggests that the main character has gone on a journey that differs considerably from the crusading ideals: he seeks himself, not the grace of God or Salvation. Nevertheless, whether one looks at his journey from the perspective of medieval social norms or, say, the criteria of the modern Bildungsroman (which could otherwise offer one possible model for it), it remains equally unusual: the character does not find (nor seek) his place in society. Quite to the contrary, he seems to enjoy liminality and the blurring of social roles, the disappearance of norms and borders, going back and forth between different worlds. Indeed, he is not that far from being an exemplary Romantic hero who rejects established social conventions and has the self as the centre of his own existence; driven equally by alienation, wanderlust and melancholy. During the course of the campaign, he does receive a role, as he becomes a knight, but also this pattern remains alien and seems to be only forced upon him by others.
Thus, The Pilgrimage could also be an apotheosis of the slogan ‘to live is to be somebody else’ – at least at this (liminal) stage of the pilgrimage-journey. We do not learn the ‘real’ name of the main character, yet in the middle of the novel he takes a new name: Tancred. At the same time, gaining the new name and role are closely connected to betrayal, guilt and shame: it is by not helping his wounded comrade and escaping from the fight that the main character accidentally achieves victory in the battle and is knighted; and as he, as a knight, needs a name, he takes the name of his fallen comrade. Moreover, the two greatest ideals of the novel are closely related to betrayal, guilt and shame: namely the winning of a beloved lady and the conquest of cities. The comparisons between the two are, of course, a widespread motif in medieval literature, and in this novel cities and ladies are inseparably bound together. Eventually they are also fatally bound: for the protagonist, the conquest of Antioch is his only chance to win Maria, a Norman noblewoman. Yet, to achieve this, he has to betray his lord, and to conquer the city the price is the lives of his friends, who have taught him that most precious in war are your comrades.
In conclusion, one should not forget that the pilgrimage does not come to an end in this novel – and this means that the liminal phase ought to also persist, according to the rules of the crusading game. The Pilgrimage is only the first part of what will be at least a two-part series. There is one much greater city, Jerusalem, waiting for the crusaders and characters of this novel. The reader should look forward to the sequel, which promises new adventures and perhaps also some explanations of the unsolved secrets – and most likely also new explorations in how to write about war, time and writing.
Some parts of this piece are vaguely based on my article ‘Vähemalt kahekordne mäng’ published in Sirp 20.02.2009.