Short outlines of books by Estonian authors

by Rutt Hinrikus, Janika Kronberg

Helga Nõu, In the Eye of the Wolf (Hundi silmas)
Tartu: Ilmamaa, 1999.  238 pp

After WWII, Estonian literature was split into two branches, one of which tried to grow, as best it could, under the oppressive dictatorship in the homeland; the other branch, exile literature, could grow in the free world. In the 1960s, both of these branches underwent rapid and radical renewal. The condition for such renewal in exile was the arrival of a younger generation of authors, who were more open to influences from outside. The attitudes of this generation differed from the national-conservative worldview of their elders; they were more straightforward about sexual problems and conflicts between different generations.

 Helga Nõu (1934), who lives in Sweden, is one of those authors, whose first books initiated lively discussions: reviews ranged from destroying to laudatory. They culminated in her being accused of “psychoanalytical sensationalism” and of producing pulp fiction. Having described the biological and physiological realities of human life without false modesty, Helga Nõu is one of the most important predecessors of present-day literature.

She surprises us again with her new novel In the Eye of the Wolf, but this time by her masterful use of literary motifs, and the witty merging of the categories of high and low. This is seen at once with the name of the main character Tiina Valker referring to two literary prototypes: the main hero of a popular Estonian drama of the early 20th century was called Tiina; the real name of the hero of a well-known comic, ‘Phantom’, is Kit Walker. Tiina, who escaped to Sweden as a child, embodies the identity crisis - exile neuroses and complexes - inherited from her parents, all of which derive from the overstressing of patriotism. She is opposed to the older generation, comparing their experience of exile to phantom pain in an amputated limb. She is alone, deserted in a strange country, and having not been able to adapt to Swedish society, she takes mankind to be like a pack of wolves.

The novel consists mainly of Tiina’s associations and fantasies on the documental background of the sinking of the Estonia in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The linear narrative is interrupted by glimpses into the past and the change of attitudes. The most important specific feature of Helga Nõu’s poetics is her overstressing of conditionality. She emphasises the role of chance in human life, and offers a number of different possibilities of solving the characters’ problems. Such a way of describing gives the reader the impression of there being a hypertext with a number of links, between which he himself can choose.

Peep Ilmet: Weather-beaten Poetry (Tuuldunud luule)
Tallinn. Varrak, 1998. 180 pp

It was in 1887, when for the first time one anonymous versemaker used the word "Tuulemaa" (a Land of Winds) as a synonym for Estonia in one of his poems. For more than a century, a number of outstanding poets have been using and further developing the motif of Tuulemaa. On the one hand, the motif has taken roots in patriotic poetry, on the other hand, the motif is confirmed by the geopolitical reality of Estonia. It is situated on the boundary of the different cultures of East and West; it is open to winds from all points of the compass, which could either mark progressive influences or hostile invading forces.

Peep Ilmet (1948), who published his second selected collection Weather-beaten Poetry last year, has made wind the dominating motif of his poetry. In his poems this wind motif can be found in every possible aspect and shade of meaning, giving his texts the impression of constant billowing, moving, and blowing. Another keyword,  significantly often repeated, is "mind", which in the present-day context is often "cracked" or deformed in some way. We can guess at the attempts here to restore an archaic Finno-Ugric way of perceiving the world in his poems. There are attempts to unveil some kind of primeval revelation, which also give specific meaning to Ilmet's motifs of wind. According to Estonian folk belief, the movement of ancestors’ spirits raises wind. Ilmet's poetry is therefore, like any mythology, an attempt to restore the original order of the world, to find harmony with the spirits of ancestors, and to overcome the "cracked mind", if we cite the title of one of his earlier collection of poetry. His ecological motifs, which reach epigram-like sharpness in a few poems about every-day politics, stem from the same ethical and nature-conscious worldview of ancestors.

The form of Ilmet's poetry also helps to evoke this archaic picture of the world. His poems do not imitate Finno-Ugric folk songs, but their suggestive ways are not very different from the incantations of the shamans of primitive peoples. On the other hand, Ilmet is well familiar with modern music, his texts have been sung by a rhythm'n blues group "Ultima Thule". These songs evoke the sadness and gloom over the centuries of retreat before destroyers and conquerors.

 

Jaan Undusk: Magical Mystical Language (Maagiline müstiline keel)
Tallinn: Virgela, 1998. 348 pp

When Jaan Undusk (1958) published his novel Hot (Kuum) in 1990, full of interdisciplinary connections and links, it became a landmark in Estonian literature. Its importance has only grown during the passing years. As promising a future seems to await Undusk's book Magical Mystical Language in Estonian literary criticism.

This collection brings together ten texts, six of which have been published earlier. In his preface, the author suggests that the book could be read as a novel consisting of short stories. Each part of the book is an entity by itself, but they have been put together according to a certain composition. Comparison with fiction is quite obvious, as the first thing that strikes the reader of Undusk's book is his exceptionally expressive and passionate language, full of images and sometimes, unusually for a critical text, even full of metaphors.

Magical Mystical Language is not so much a discussion of singular literary problems, but taken as a whole, it is rather an expression of a theoretical worldview. The central terms of this theory are substance, substantiality, magical word, mystical figure, magical/mystical principle of creation, silence, proper name, etc. Undusk's treatment of literature, as clarified by his texts, is ontological, substantial, derived from the mystics of European culture and Spinoza, going deep, and undisturbed by current trends. Of course, he does not ignore current trends: the introductory chapter "Substance and Deconstruction" embodies excellent polemics with Derrida - Undusk takes his doctrine as a theoretical mutation of the legend of the Wandering Jew. The greater part of the book discusses well-known subjects from world culture, Goethe's, Hamann's, Herder's and the mystics' use of language, Friedrich Nietzsche’s rhetorics and his need for confession, etc.

In its most important parts Undusk's book expresses the striving towards mystical reality that is beyond language, but it also examines the scope of the magical capability of language. The witty article "Mystical and Magical Signs of Stalinism" is based on concrete linguistic material. It discusses "A Poem to Stalin", written by Estonian poet Juhan Smuul, and discovers in it deep religiousness, which is hidden behind the system of Stalinist signs.

Undusk's book of literary philosophy is a monument to the substantial word, and being located on the border of fiction and metaliterature, it enriches both.

 

Viivi Luik:  The Sky of the Earth (Maa taevas)
Tallinn: Varrak, 1998. 228 pp

In recent decades Viivi Luik (1946) has won recognition mainly with her novels The Seventh Spring of Peace and The Beauty of History, which have been translated into many languages. Last year she published a collection of essays A Locker of One's Own (See ELM 1998, Autumn), which mainly contains her commentaries and explanations of her own work. At present Viivi Luik resides in Rome, being as she is the wife of the Ambassador of the Republic of Estonia in Italy. From there she sends letters on cultural topics and essays about earthly and eternal matters to Estonian newspapers.

But at first Luik became known as a prodigy poet, who published her first collection of poems A Holiday of Clouds in 1965. All in all she has published nine collections, a selection of her best poems has now appeared under the title The Sky of the Earth. Her earlier poems were dominated by an alert and fresh sense of nature; she used rather minimalist ways of expression, which often reminded the reader of Japanese poetry. Step by step her poetry developed to depict urban landscapes and everyday life, it contained hints of alienation and anxiety in urban environment. But even cityscapes are punctured by spires, churches and other symbols of hierarchy, which refer to sacrality, a hint of which can also be found in the title of the collection.

The chronological composition of the collection reveals the development of Luik's poetry as a constant movement from nature towards culture and man-made environment. It culminates in the poetical space full of northern ice, snow and stars, where sounds, movements of the hands of clocks, and the pounding of blood in veins add tension. With the approaching turn of the century, more and more apocalyptic breath filters into Luik's poetry, such as dark angels and other expressive images. All this coincides with the firm belief of the poet that the new art can be born out of kitsch. The newest poem of Viivi Luik, which closes the collection, is pointedly dated at 01.01.1990, and it also has a touch of the joyful and eager expectation of the new millennium.

 

Kalev Kesküla: The Songs of the Republic (Vabariigi laulud)
Tallinn; Tuum, 1998. 67 pp

Kalev Kesküla (1959), a literary critic and the cultural editor of the most popular Estonian weekly “Eesti Ekspress”, published his fourth collection of poems The Songs of the Republic in 1998. The poet who had acquired the role of a self-ironical lover in his previous collection, has now chosen his country as the subject of his merciless scrutiny; using all possible means of expression, he now describes its vices and absurdities.

The composition of the book resembles a sociological study, consisting of three parts: “The Character of the Republic”, “The Emotional Life of the Republic” and “The Face and Manners of the Republic”. The “main character” under analysis stands in front of the reader in a personified shape. He has retained his atavistic drives of the age of barbarism, which have not yet been wholly covered by a shallow layer of culture. Similarly, he still keeps the relicts of the Soviet reality, although he strives to be accepted by Europe and he works in the city as an Euro-repairman. The Republic which originates from his past and bears its many scars, is depicted as a sexual hero, a macho, with whom any woman can be only once in her life, and who will never forget the orgasm she achieved.

The Songs of the Republic is written in free verse, it is an integral collection, dealing with our contemporary time, made enjoyable by many allusions and intertextual connections with classical works of Estonian literature. For the same reason, it has been appreciated as an extremely language-centred, but unfortunately an almost untranslatable book. All the criticism and ridicule, hurled at the Republic, is within good style and it never slips into vulgarity or derision. The abundance of metaphors in the book gives every detail connected with everyday Estonian life and literary classics a special idea and reason, and convinces the reader that Kesküla's contribution to our patriotic poetry can be taken seriously.

 

Jaan Kaplinski: Öölinnud. Öömõtted. Yölintuja. Yöajatuksia. Night Birds. Night Thoughts
Tallinn: Vagabund, 1998. 99 pp

A number of texts in Kaplinski’s collection Night Birds. Night Thoughts have been born in dynamic situations - during travels or moving from one point in space to another. In poetry depicting different states of mind, it reminds the reader of an arrow, stopped in mid-air. The poems are often very specifically dated, rather resembling poetical diary entries; the similarity is further stressed by their contents. The title of the collection on the cover of the book is given in three different languages, the poems are also originally written in three languages - Estonian, Finnish and English.

Kaplinski’s images very often derive from some specific landscape, and develop into deliberations over the meaning of human life in this world towards the end of the poem. Or they may express a craving for the original virginal state and a wish to return to nature. Returning or staying at home are the most often occurring motifs in Kaplinski’s poetry, to which he links, contrary to European tradition, a special appreciation of lightness and a state of being light.

Night Birds. Night Thoughts is a quiet and reflective book, which seems to have come into being from those borderline states of mind between sleep and being awake, standstill and movement, being contained in oneself and searching for ways of escaping oneself. Or maybe searching for ways of escaping the paradoxes: All is stuck/ into itself,/ into reflections of itself./ You cannot get into anything./ You cannot escape anything.

 

Toomas Vint: The Novel of an Artist (Kunstnikuromaan)
Tallinn: Varrak, 1998. 336 pp

Toomas Vint has (1944) always some matters to settle. The critics considered his previous novel A Neverending Landscape one of the best Estonian prose books in 1997. The Novel of an Artist has already received favourable reviews. Although the artists who appreciate the works of a writer and an artist Toomas Vint, also talk about his “creative crisis”.

The Novel of an Artist is a many-layered novel. The first-person hero, writer Paul, is preparing to write a novel about a friend of his childhood, an artist Paul, using his notes written several decades ago, and trying to enfold his own personal experiences and emotions into literature. Therefore, a diametrically different approach to the plot is also possible: the writer Paul is actually preparing to write his own story and he only camouflages it with artist Paul’s biography. At the end of the novel the fates of the two different heroes of the same name are almost totally merged into one. The depicted material is at the same time a development and a final goal, a process and a result, movement towards a strange fate.

At the same time, the plot of the novel is not simple and linear, many things remain intentionally hidden and no unambiguous solutions are possible. The central line is interrupted by continuous elusions and by novelette-like independent stories with surprising twists. The central theme of the book is art and related problems, so the essay-like discussions about the triangle of art-life-death suit the book very well. One of the main questions of the novel is, how much does the death of an artist influence the reception, evaluation and fate of his work.

No doubt Vint’s novel has also an angle concerning the problem of generations, it describes the background for the development of the artists, who are now about sixty years old. There are some hints about the books people read at that time, such as Albert Camus and others, and some colourful details of the life of the period.

 

Olev Remsu   A Tragedy in Haapsalu (Haapsalu tragöödia) Vol. 1, Erik Norrman’s Diary
Virgela: Tallinn, 1998.  358 pp

Olev Remsu (1947) is a well-known and colourful figure on the Estonian literary scene, who began his career as a writer of short novels about university and student life in the 1970s. He has also written screenplays, plays, and a lavish baroque anti-utopia A Tragedy in Babel. So far, his most successful works have been grotesque and to a large extent autobiographical, Life in Moscow and Memoirs from Tartu and Prague. Remsu’s latest novel, A Tragedy in Haapsalu, is the first volume of a planned three-volume book. This volume has been written in the form of a diary and it tells us about the events on a small Estonian island, populated with Estonian Swedes, in 1939-1944.

The title of the novel also gives an evaluation of the events. A tragedy occurs on the island. The reader is aware that at the same time a tragedy occurs in most of Europe. Much has been written about that fatal time, but Remsu has found a fresh angle to events, the key of which is the first-person perspective of main character, Erik Norrman. The book has been written as the diary of the main character. Erik is a young man in his twenties, a trusting, hard-working and extremely naïve person, who secretly lusts after his friend’s wife and his own sister. The book opens with his arrival on the island to assume the duties of the local parson. The diary entries describe the atmosphere, events and landscapes of the island, and highlight the diarist’s extreme assiduity in fulfilling his tasks. Barely one year passes, however, the island is occupied, and Erik has as eagerly as before, adapted to an entirely different role. He has become the executive of the Soviet power on the island. Everything has been turned upside down. Earlier, Erik had been worried about his obligation of being dignified, as he had been the representative of God, but now he has to be concerned about his dignity as a representative of the Soviet power.

The question, whether Erik is merely stupid, or something else, keeps tension high throughout the book. Is he able to differentiate between good and evil? Events occurring on mainland do not pass the island society by: here, too, people are deported to Siberia, monuments are erected and torn down, graves are filled and dug open again. Erik fully participates in all events; his irresponsibility gives a special undertone to everything he describes. Love, bloodguilt and incest have been wrought into the story. From his own point of view, Erik is pure and innocent. The point of view of the villagers is that he deserves contempt and rejection, although finally he is forgiven as people think he is a simpleton. The small island of Kohatu is the model of the Fall in Paradise, as well as a model of the tragedy of the 20th century, which is enacted on the ‘large island’ of history. Erik is not driven out of this paradise; he is left behind, alone, on the island, when all the other inhabitants flee to Sweden at the end of the war.   

This novel is as equally outstanding as Remsu’s other works, and among Estonian novels of the 1990s.

Kaur Kender  Independence Day (Iseseisvuspäev)
Tallinn: Täht, 1998, 132 pp

Kaur Kender is a newcomer in Estonian literature, whose first, recently published novel surprised and irritated the reading public. The composition of this short novel has been carried out in style, the author having mastered words to precision. The book is, intentionally, of low style. Its characters are really repulsive and disgusting. Quick, film-like action reminds the reader of Tarantino’s films, like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. The title of the book ironically refers to the title of the block-busting film Independence Day. The subtitle - When Estonia Had Not Yet Become a Border State - in its turn, refers to the  best-selling Estonian novel of the decade - Emil Tode’s Border State. Critics have already called Independence Day a Border State rewritten in low style.

The action of the novel takes place in Estonia, and elsewhere, in the immediate pre-independence period. The main characters are two big wheeling business sharks, Karl and his friend Marks. To achieve their desired lifestyle (expensive women, expensive cars, expensive alcohol, much money) they are ready for anything. They pimp prostitutes, steal, and in the end, kill. Hoping that they can get all the things they crave for far more easily elsewhere, they flee to Sweden at the turn of the 1990s. Much to their disappointment, it isn’t easy anywhere and they have to steal from the shops to survive. Later they are successful robbers in Finland. Besides heavy drinking, their lifestyle demands a continuous flow of obscene language. The author is really masterful in slang. In the end Karl and Marks amuse themselves with target shooting, using the homeless, who live in a dump, as their targets: “I know you have to live, like, with your hand in gold and your ass in dirt/---/And you can get your hand into gold only when you press asses into dirt with your other hand. Other’s asses.” There is a happy end. Karl and Marks have heaps of money and a villa. They make plans on how to furnish their own shopping centre. Besides the title, in the ironic symbolism of names there can also be found a hint that Karl might have sunk a ship - the Estonia.

The novel is a professionally made product, outstanding for its skilful dialogue. Towards the end the author really steps on it, and the novel becomes almost a feuilleton. Independence Day is a borderland phenomenon between trivial literature and real literature, a sign of changing times - times on the borderline - which extends brutally and powerfully out of trivial literature. Will it remain there, or will it sink?

Andres Ehin: She Floored A Hundred Men (Seljatas sada meest)
Tallinn: Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 1998.  143 pp

Andres Ehin (1940) is known as a translator and a surrealist poet. His prose texts have been parodies and mystifications; he has found his subject matter in the lives of Estonian popular heroes. His previous novel Memoirs of Rummu Jüri (See ELM Spring 1997) told the story of a famous horse thief, Jüri Rumm, who had been romanticised by popular tradition.

The present novel is about the colourful lives of the Estonian women wrestlers Maria Loorberg (1881-1922) and Anette Busch (1882-1969). Their glorious competition tours began in 1907; they competed all over Tsarist Russia, reaching to Siberia and even to Japan and China. Maria Loorberg was named the best woman athlete of the Russian Empire; Annette Bush was victorious in Japan and China. There is no sexual discrimination in the history of Estonian wrestling. At the turn of the century women athletes were as well known as men. Georg Lurich was the best-known Estonian wrestler, whose fame has withstood time and whose name is almost a common noun in Estonian. The less remembered women wrestlers are again brought to attention by Ehin’s novel, but he has called them Mari Loormägi and Anni Pensas. The scene is mostly set in the circus environment. The novel is constructed in the form of 36 letters, written in turn by the women, their coach, and Aleksander Müller, who held the world record of lifting horses with his teeth. The novel opens with Anni Pensas’s love letters to Georg Lurich and ends with her letter to her half-Japanese and half-Chinese husband.

This novel in letters is remarkable for its original style and stylised form, which is true to the era it depicts.

Peeter Sauter: All the Stuff (Kogu moos)
Tallinn: Tuum, 1997.  206 pp

Many younger Estonian writers have taken pains to establish themselves, thus obtaining a certain identity: Kauksi Ülle is the writer who uses a South-Estonian dialect, Emil Tode is the ‘Eurowriter’, Sven Kivisildnik and Peeter Sauter are the writers who use obscene language. If we deconstruct the obscenity of those two, we can find at least two different ways how they do this.

To make it simple, we could say that the heroes of Peeter Sauter are of the kind who hide a sensitive soul behind their outward roughness and obscenity. Sauter very remarkably avoids romanticism, pathos, big and empty words, and beautiful things of all kinds. The so-called obscene language means, in his case, using the words of low style in the position of neutral style. Some critics have said that he uses the words of pornographic (i.e. masculine) discourse in a neutral position.

All the Stuff is a collection of short stories, containing Sauter’s best texts so far, and continues to express the same ideas as his novel Loafing. Loafing (See ELM 1998, Spring) drew together short stories to form a novel. Some of the texts of the present book would have fitted into the novel as well, but the author decided to publish them separately.

All the Stuff consists of six stories of equal length (about 30 pages). They are a kind of travel story, which can not be woven into a continuous text, as each story has different characters. Sauter’s main hero is a man, the city his environment. He isn’t active in achieving any certain goal, his course runs the trajectory of everyday life: office, shop, bar, hospital, etc. The scenes describing everyday activities are accompanied by meditations that are often centred on the absurdity of being.

The most controversial story of the collection is ‘Stomach-ache’, which tells about a man and a woman who go to a maternity hospital, taking their other child with them. The birth of the child is described as seen by the dispassionate eye of the man. This intimate, private, physiological act, which is traditionally considered ennobling, is depicted in a harsh and naturalistic way. The woman giving birth is deaf, she only moans in pain. The man notes anatomical changes using vulgar words. The child is born with blood and shit.

Sauter vulgarises the process, but his hero keeps close, he participates and tries as much as he can to familiarise himself with this otherness (being a woman). He is caring and attentive, and tries to use as exact words as possible to describe all he can.

Sauter’s prose describes his fellow human beings. Its strong points are its directness and exactness, and its disillusioning effect. He knows and depicts the often described world of the so-called small people much better than many other authors. His disillusion and non-poetical world is never hostile or cold, on the contrary, it is as comfortable and homely as everyday life.

 

Mait Raun: Wake Up. Naive Memories from the History 1987-1988. (Naiivseid mälestusi ajaloost. 1987 - 1988)
Tallinn: SE & JS, 1998.  406 pp

Mait Raun (1963) has written eight books and his prose mostly explains the experiences of his own generation.

Wake Up (the original title of the book is in English, rendering a slightly ironical effect of alienation to the whole story) is a documentary novel. It begins on the 24th birthday of the hero, on Sept. 11, 1987, and ends on the same day exactly a year later. In this way, it chronicles the events which took place ten years ago, mixing documentary materials, diary-like descriptions, and memories. At the beginning of the book, the first person hero is pronouncedly a naive youth who has grown up within the Soviet regime and is being re-educated by history. In the whirl of rapidly moving events he starts to re-evaluate many of his standpoints, and ‘wakes up’ to find an altered awareness of history.

Mait Raun himself has been quite active in politics as a convinced patriot, so the first person hero cannot be treated as a self-portrait, rather it could represent a kind of portrait of a generation. The reader can especially enjoy his comments on about four hundred public figures who have participated in the events of recent history. The naivety of the narrator puts him into a position which enables him to render everything that was in the air at that time. The book gives much information about the attitudes, opinions and prejudices of the time. People and things are irresponsibly spelled out the way they were then spoken of only in their circle of friends. The author himself has said that he got the impulse for writing this book from the understanding that he had lived through that historical year, and his aim is to show how the mentality of Estonians changed. In his own case it was often the history of disappointment over the idols. The importance of the novel will most probably still grow, as it renders the events without any distance - from the viewpoint of a young person - and without hindsight. As a literary chronicle of the restoration of the Republic of Estonia, Wake Up will become a book that will always be cited when writing about these events.