Estonian prose 1998

by Mihkel Nummert



Estonian Prose 1998

Imaginary Triangle

A.A. So…an overview of Estonian prose for ‘Estonian Literature Magazine’. It probably goes without saying that the notions ‘Estonian’, ‘prose’ and even ‘1998’ are rather vague; they may or may not refer to a book. Hopefully, we’ll at least manage to mention all of the books that are definitely Estonian, prose or published in 1998, in addition to those which meet all three criteria. Let’s start with those which are considered to be the most interesting and significant.

E.E. Independence Day, written by Kaur&Kender,  is undoubtedly at the top of the list.

A.A. It’s a surprising book indeed; a powerful debut in every sense. Firstly, the subject of the world as depicted during the years of regaining our independence has been tackled in 2-3 quite readable novels so far. Kender, however, writes about that period with originality, bringing a fresh perspective to Estonian literature.
It’s well written too. An occasional sentence or allusion carries a whole story or gives meaning to what was described on the previous few dozen pages; rapid and precise recollections, anecdotes etc. make the laconic text even more compact.


Independence Day is full of crude, banal humour, abundant alcohol, sex and violence. The central action, the characters’ primal pursuit of earthly pleasures, is reminiscent of Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis’ works. If these Americans can be regarded as carrying the traditions of Beat literature into the 1990s, then one could say that in capitalist Estonia, which aspires towards western values, Kender is a new Sauter.

I.I. I’m listening to you and I have no idea whether you are serious or just joking. I wouldn’t even have placed Independence Day among the top ten! It’s a pointlessly obscene and vulgar book, lacking in overall content, with the exception of describing the author’s own life as a lout. Olev Remsu’s A Tragedy in Haapsalu is a far more remarkable book.

A.A. Now that was a surprise. Remsu is of course a well-known writer, but if A Tragedy in Haapsalu had been released under a pseudonym, nobody would have attributed it to him. On this occasion, Remsu has managed to restrain his manic desire to leave nothing unsaid; the result is a truly enjoyable historical novel.

E.E. Tragedy is a largely documentary novel; Erik Normann actually did live on the Ruhnu Island. When all the islanders left their homes to escape the Russians, he was the only one left behind. Only a few years ago, his son worked as the Ruhnu lighthouse keeper.

I.I. What makes A Tragedy in Haapsalu powerful, even entrancing, is the dissonance between history, well-known events and the main character (an ‘idiotic person à la Moshkin) who lives amidst these events.

A.A. The third outstanding book of this year, and there’s no surprise here, is Jaan Kross’s Treading Air.  Kross recounts the life story of Ullo Paerand, describing the last years of the previous Republic of Estonia, war-time Tallinn, and finally the 1980s. The most fascinating part of the novel tells about life in the Toompea palace during the late 1930s, the days of Otto Tief’s government.
Although both classify as historical novels, Treading Air and Remsu’s Tragedy are essentially different works of fiction; even the time periods they describe partly coincide. Remsu tells the story of an insignificant ‘village idiot’; he invents an island, uses local village chiefs, party activists and standartenführers as characters. Kross’s characters, on the other hand, walk around in the corridors of power on the Toompea Hill, and advise ministers. Remsu’s perspective is marginal and exotic, while Kross speaks from the position of History itself in his usual masterfully mesmerising manner. There is no author of Estonian literature as timeless as Jaan Kross.  

I.I. Speaking of Kross, he’s not only popular with avid readers, but among his colleagues as well. While reading Estonian prose of 1998, Kross’s influence was apparent in every third or fourth book.

E.E. History, unfortunately, remains the most popular topic; it’s getting rather tedious to read time and time again about the horrible deeds committed by alien armies on our beloved Estonian soil.

A.A. Now then, I think we‘ve just briefly dealt with last year’s top books. We’ll only mention the remaining books, however, to respect the guidelines of this commentary.

E.E. For the record, I am, and will remain against listing books in order of their ‘significance’ or ‘worth’. But it seems, this time at least, that there’s no way to avoid it.

I.I. Besides those already mentioned, the 19 following novels correspond to the classical features of a genre (prose) and were published last year.


Toomas Vint’s imaginative The Novel of an Artist (Kunstnikuromaan) investigates the problems concerning the life and work of an artist; the novel relies heavily on the classics of existentialism. Kauksi Ülle’s Boat (Paat) is a powerful, visionary book about Estonian village life during the last half century as seen through the eyes of a rather unusual woman. This book, written in the Võru language and at times crudely pornographic, is inevitably appeals to a narrow audience; it may have been more appropriately included in the annual prose overview of Võru literature. An Uneventful Summer (Üks sündmusteta suvi) is actually Bernard Kangro’s diary of how another one of his novels, The Emajõgi, came about. People of the Cross II (Risti rahvas II), the second part of a wonderfully pathos-free story by Enn Vetemaa, is about the Jüriöö uprising in 1343; it’s a truly fascinating read. Eeva Park’s Student of Laughter (Naeru õpilane) is an expressive, slightly modernistic story of a woman, her family and peculiar human relations. The Commonplace Bear (Olmekaru), written by the Swedish-Estonian computer engineer Kaarel Kallak, is a story about one hundred exiled Estonians visiting Soviet Estonia.  What makes it distinctive is that it unfolds like a road movie. Within the 600 pages of Land of the Whitebird (Valgelinnu maa), author Markus Vetemaa recounts the travels of souls, visions and experiences of death. He also expounds upon top-level science, the clashes between mystical and rational worlds, love and weariness of a cynical world. Another allegorical novel, Rein Põder’s She-Devil (Äiatar), is about women in various historical contexts. In her well-written thriller A Jester of one’s own (Oma koja narr), Herta Laipaik reveals the sordid sides of human relations in the early capitalist Estonia of the 1990s. Lee Savikruus’s Love in Estonian Style (Armastus eesti moodi) is a mystification, a kind of pastiche of the kolkhoz life of the 1960s; it’s presented as an authentic diary. One of the wittiest novels of last year was certainly Andres Ehin’s She Floored a Hundred Men (Seljatas sada meest), which tells about the heroic deeds of Estonian female wrestlers at the turn of the century. Suffer (Kannata), on the other hand, is no laughing matter. It’s a grim, onerous work by Ustav Mikelsaar, which is based on precise factual data. The novel presents a highly personal view of the War of Independence. Heljo Mänd depicts everyday life in A Visitor at Home (Külaline kodus).  In Paper Wedding (Paberipulm), by the same author, a retired woman looks back on her life and reflects on contemporary behavioural habits. Ira Lember’s A Little House of Cards (Kaardimajake) was a surprisingly well-composed and thrilling ‘ladies novel’. Realistic village prose is written by Albert Uustulnd in his Dangerous Currents. Playground of the Winds. Part 5 (Tuulte tallermaa 5.osa). Two quite different novels by Mait Ago Raun were published last year: Wake up and Horses (Hobused). The first can’t really be called a novel at all; it contains lots of documentary material and personal recollections of the ‘Singing Revolution’ days. The second book focuses on the complex-ridden sexual life of the neurotic main character. Finally, there is Martin Paan’s Message to Egypt (Läkitus Egiptusesse), a symbolist-allegorical story à la Kahlil Gibran.

E.E. More novels than shorter prose were published last year. The first to come to mind is Peeter Sauter’s All the Stuff (Kogu moos), the Greatest Hits of the younger generation’s cult writer. The stories in this collection and in Valentin Kuik’s Geisha had been published previously. The quality of Kuik’s book, however, is more inconsistent than in Sauter’s. The grand old master Andres Vanapa presents 13 stories in The Baker’s Dozen (Vanapaganatosin) which tackle most different topics. Toomas Raudam’s A Living Suicide (Elus enesetapja) consists of one play in addition to one long and three shorter prose texts. They all superbly represent Raudam’s original style, which abounds in nuances. It’s a laborious, but enjoyable read. Recollections of Previous Lives (Mälestusi eelmistest eludest), Oskar Kruus’s collection of short stories based on Estonia’s cultural history, was published last year. It includes impressions a few-pages in length in addition to longer stories. The Carthago Express (Kartaago kiirrong), written by Mats Traat, also explores our cultural history. These stories are perhaps more lively and filigree than those of Kruus, but at the same time they are certainly more sombre.
Other short prose books provide sheer entertainment. Aarne Biin’s Casanova and the Courtesan (Casanova ja kurtisaan), Peep Pillak’s The Tattoo Course (Tätoveerimiskursus) and Ain Särje’s Shameless Stories (Riivatud jutud) are all unpretentious, simple books; a careful reader might find some humour in them.


It’s difficult to determine the genre of Madis Kõiv’s Fish and books. Studia memoriae. IV (Kalad ja raamatud. Studia memoriae. IV), but it is a genuinely enjoyable book. The author explores his own memory, trying to recall everything significant about fish and books. Harri Jõgisalu’s On the Wrong Side (Valel poolel), intended for younger readers, is a well-written book of memoirs about time spent in Soviet concentration camps. Alfred Käärmann’s The Maiden of Udumäe (Udumäe kodutütar) is about the all-consuming love of a guerilla soldier hiding in the forest. Ingvar Luhaäär, an outstanding figure in Estonian Tantrist-erotic literature, reveals his childhood recollections in  …wishing you happiness (…ja õnne eluks), co-written by Armilde  Luhäär. There are still more memoirs. S.K.Richardson has written a whimsical adventure story entitled The Adventures of a Wimp (Ühe nohiku seiklused). The work of younger writers are presented in the collections Kruogan and A Good Book (Hea raamat). Arvo Valton’s Me. Me. Me (Mina. Mina. Mina.) and Andres Langemets’s Lyroepics (Lüroeepika) are works of fiction which border on poetry and prose; they both contain brief aphoristic meditations and rambling ideas. The reader is likely to find some bits and pieces almost worthy of a genius.

A.A. In conclusion, 1998 was a relatively good year. The average writing level was higher than in previous years. Several excellent and significant works of fiction emerged; naturally, no objective criterion exists (evaluating literature by objective criteria would mean, at best, compiling a bestseller list).
Only recently, the majority of literary works emerged in the field of translations. In 1998, however, original fiction attracted the most attention. This kind of development is probably derived from the continuing stabilisation of Estonian society. The uncertainty, caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, has by now almost vanished. The Estonian people, including writers, have had time to adapt to a new way of life and a new set of values.
As already mentioned, these changes are primarily expressed in the rise in average literary standard. Very few good books were published in the early 1990s. The amount of low quality literature in the bookshops has diminished considerably.

E.E. What are people writing about? One of the topics closest to Estonian writers’ hearts is our history and the present day. In only a few works of fiction the action takes place abroad. Special attention is still paid to the War of Independence and the Second World War.  Books which do not directly deal with events of war, nevertheless, often allude to them. The third, or rather the most significant era is the years of regaining our independence. Quite a lot is being written about the 1990s – especially in the field of ‘entertaining, light-weight  literature. Fascination with history and social topics has always been characteristic of Estonian writers, unlike for instance Finnish writers.


In comparison with earlier years, there has been an increase in the number of books where the world is seen through the eyes of a woman, even among male authors. This could indicate the spreading of feminist ideology in Estonia.
Estonian writers, on the whole, like to write about suicide. Approximately one third of last year’s prose books portray a character who is contemplating or actually committing suicide. Other popular topics are money, sex, quality wines, and overwhelming stupidity in general. Russians and politicians are scorned the most. Although popular elsewhere, there were no detective stories or science fiction published in Estonia last year.

I.I. It seems as though Estonian literature is becoming more European all the time. This is, of course, an unmeasurable quality, but while reading a couple of the new books, I was haunted by the idea that they could have been written by a German or a Swede; this can probably be explained by the gradual integration of Estonia into Europe, a development which some writers will never support.

E.E. In closing, I would hereby like to paraphrase Stalin: Books have become better. Books have become more interesting.


Mihkel  Nummert