A foreigner interested in Estonian literature is usually able – despite all the changes that have occurred in Estonian life over the recent years – to name only three Estonian writers: Jaan Kross, Jaan Kaplinski and Viivi Luik. Some might have heard of Emil Tode. The inertia of people with literary interests and cultural journalists in the West is perfectly understandable. Although many have tried, only Kross, Kaplinski and Luik have actually crossed the border of international recognition, and this primarily on account of  works published in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet, these world names of Estonian literature are fully active still today. Jaan Kaplinski recently celebrated his 60th birthday, and on that occasion a huge, 700-page collection of his poetry was published. His essays, scattered in both the domestic and foreign press, were issued in separate collections, as were his innovative novels Silm (The Eye) and Hektor.

Jaan Kross who was 80 last year, has switched over to the present day – the literary magazine Looming recently published an excerpt from a new novel (as yet unpublished) that depicts the turbulent changes in Estonian life in the 1990s. Dreams of the Nobel prize have probably been buried by now, both by Kross himself and the Estonian people in general. An individual’s resistance to totalitarian society and the possibility of retaining the essentials of an honest human being – the main topic of Kross – are not quite as ‘hot’ as they were in the early 1990s. Back then, Kross’s name cropped up a few times among the nominees for the most prestigious literary award in the world.

Emil Tode (aka Tõnu Õnnepalu) whose novel Piiririik (The Border State) made him one of the most widely translated Estonian authors in the mid-1990s, recently published a collection of Baudelaire’s poems in Estonian translation. His latest novel Printsess (Princess) that appeared a few years ago, received only a lukewarm reception from readers and critics alike. Tode/Õnnepalu, obviously tired of the intense expectations, has not yet attempted anything more substantial.

Readers have been expecting another novel from Viivi Luik, a continuation of the high standard set by her novels Seitsmes rahukevad (Seventh Spring of Peace, 1985) and Ajaloo ilu (The Beauty of History, 1991). A new novel was indeed said to be ready, and then the author left it in a Berlin underground train, and that was the end of that.

Literary experts/critics still detect movements in the Estonian literature of the 1990s, which could be interesting also outside the local context. Although Estonia regained independence in 1991, the Estonian literary tradition started to crumble already in the 1980s. Besides the refined allegorical way of writing that developed into a fine art in the conditions of the totalitarian regime and censorship (here Jaan Kross was unsurpassable), new styles and names emerged. Grand national topics like the destiny of the nation, relations between the individual and history, opposition to political pressure, were supplemented by new topics: first of all, matters of everyday existence and how dreary it was.

Among younger prose writers, Peeter Sauter particularly stands out here. His 1990 collection of short stories Indigo tackled completely different problems, and in a different manner too. Sauter introduced a spoken language that was decidedly banal, and wrote about everyday life ‘as it really is’. He launched a new hero, or rather an anti-hero, a loser, through whose eyes the daily events are described – in detail. The dull sequence of descriptions of everyday life and man’s choices in it, raise enormous ethical problems however, for which reason Sauter has often been considered a moralist. Growing up in Brezhnev’s time, Sauter has managed to introduce to his books the pessimistic experience from the rebellious years of today’s 35-40-year-olds – the sense of hopelessness in the society of the stagnation period created a fertile ground for the ‘pointless existence’ that he describes so well.

Sauter, who earns his daily bread in an advertising agency as a copywriter, reminds us of the authors of the American beat generation of the 1960s; he has translated Kerouac’s On the Road into Estonian.

Sauter has also provoked fierce debates in Estonian cultural life, primarily with his project Lauakõne (Dinner Table Speech, 1997). For an exhibition by Raul Meel, an artist of the older generation, he wrote a series of obscene poems that in the opinion of many were not worthy of literature. The ‘dirty’ words that, according to Meel and Sauter, expressed the might of the nation, were presented on a background of blue-black-and-white, the colours of the national flag. This caused a general uproar.

Sauter, however, thinks that obscenity lies in the eyes of the beholder, i.e. the reader, and that there was nothing improper in the names of genitalia, abounding in his work.

Peeter Sauter is also known as a journalist who often publishes articles in the Estonian press about the life of the Russian community. For that, he has received various integration awards.

The general public and the critics had to wait almost until the end of the decade for the arrival of a writer who would interpret the everyday life of the first half of the nineties, a time when the ruins of socialism were slowly being covered by the brutal society of ‘early capitalism’. Everybody experienced it at first hand, but not a single prominent writer was able to interpret it. Estonian writers who starred in the 1980s had lost contact with society’s centres of power from where the changes actually originated. It was no longer possible to understand life without leaving the seclusion of your writing desk, like it had been in the stagnation period. The world of business – and that of crime – developed at breakneck speed. New life and new characters were born at the border of these two worlds, written about in the press, but not treated of in literature. In 1998, a long-awaited explosion occurred – far brighter than anticipated – and Kaur Kender made his comet debut in literary life. His novel Iseseisvuspäev (Independence Day) depicts the first years of independence as reflected by two shady characters who force their way through life, having mercy on no-one. This novel has no trace whatsoever of the romantic pathos and national nostalgia of the revolutionary turn-of-the-decade. Cynicism and cruelty, described by Kender with utmost precision, shattered the myth with which the 50-60 year old generation of writers – primarily poets – had surrounded Estonian nationhood and the Estonian spirit as such. Kender’s debut immediately earned him the annual novel award.  

Despite that success, some critics still to this day cannot abide him, and label him a commercial (as opposed to literary) talent. To date, the 29-year-old Kender has written three novels: in addition to the one mentioned above, also Yuppiejumal (The Yuppie God) describing life in advertising agencies, and Ebanormaalne (Abnormal), a love story. Into Estonian literary life, Kaur Kender has introduced a totally new type of marketing – something he is well acquainted with as a former employee and owner of an advertising agency. He promotes himself actively, arranges critics to write about him, skilfully manipulates the press, does not despise society magazines…  yet nevertheless takes his writer’s role very seriously. As a charismatic person, he has not had any difficulty in attracting the attention of the wider public. Kender is eagerly expected at modern conferences about culture and money, marketing and the internet, where he interprets Estonian life from his cynical, but refreshing point of view.

His new novel should be ready this spring, written in collaboration with his banker friend Rain Lõhmus, one of the founders of Hansapank, the largest bank in Estonia. The novel is about money which Kender, in his own words, loves more than anything. It is thus obvious that such a writer does not fit into the national-romantic tradition of Estonian literature.

The 1998 novel competition produced a surprise – the first award went to a newcomer with the peculiar name of Hiram who had presented a well-composed novel Mõru maik (Bitter Taste). The pseudonym revealed, to the surprise of many, a young and hitherto quite unknown art historian, an  expert on comic strips, Mari Laaniste. At long last, a remarkable woman writer. Her novel, depicting the world of musicians and fashion models, signified, for many, a new epoch in Estonian literature – the cosmopolitan glamorous world, where the key concepts are hedonism and fast living. The plot unravels in a big city somewhere in the West, maybe in London, and has no connection whatsoever with Estonian life and traditions. The language, which abounds in English loan words, is almost incomprehensible to anyone without a good knowledge of English. Many critics think that the author had simply gone crazy from reading so many foreign trendy magazines, and taking them seriously. The world where the main character, a dancer, actress and model, has dedicated herself to cultivating her own body, is sometimes so obviously false and hollow. Allusions at lesbianism in Bitter Taste were also something new in Estonian literature – the topic of male homosexuality had been brought to light by Emil Tode a few years earlier. Descriptions of drug addiction convinced many readers that this indeed was the life of young people nowadays.

It has been suggested that Hiram finds inspiration in the chat sections of the internet, especially the dreams of young girls, since this characterises her image in our field of literature.

But by no means all young Estonian writers yearn for the world of the Western trendy magazines and shopping malls, nor would they prefer to live in New York like Kaur Kender. Kauksi Ülle lives and works in Võrumaa in south-eastern Estonia. Her dialectal novel Paat (Boat) is the essential example of Estonian women’s literature. Well-known as a poet as early as the 1980s, Kauksi Ülle is an outstanding figure in the Võru language and culture movement. She supports Võru cultural autonomy in Estonia.

The popular poet Contra comes from the same region. Moving on the border of folksy songs and poetry, he wittily describes the shortcomings of Estonian life. The verbally talented Contra has also performed as a musician and diligently contributes to the poetry columns of various dailies.

Alongside the newcomers, several living classics are still going strong. Mention should be made of Mati Unt who has recently devoted himself to theatre, and Mihkel Mutt who, besides editing our cultural weekly Sirp, is currently writing a novel about Estonian contemporary life.

Something new and invigorating is eagerly awaited in Estonian poetry where the staggering publishing possibilities of the 1990s caused a remarkable poetry inflation. Publishing became free of the former publishing house control, and is nowadays mainly dependant on money. Hundreds of names struggled for attention besides the recognised authors like Hasso Krull, Indrek Hirv, Rein Raud, Doris Kareva, Kalev Kesküla.

Indeed, a new noteworthy group of poets is slowly emerging from the enormous mass of poetry that has been flooding the market during the entire decade. In the 1970s and 1980s, the period of the Estonian identity crisis, poetry was vital. Nowadays, however, it has become marginal. A poet is no longer a national hero, in the style of Hando Runnel in the stagnated 1980s who poured national resistance into words. Instead of huge printings of poetry books, only a few hundred copies are printed today. Newspapers have adopted a new genre – topical news poetry – that no doubt provides dozens of wordsmiths with work, and reminds wider audiences that there is such a thing as poetry. Young poets are not afraid any more to be closer-to-life and have a say in daily matters as they were a few years ago, when a true poet only ever described his own, often hermetic feelings.

The literary world, especially that of the poets and poetry fans, still leads its own quite secluded existence. Recently, however, its members have been exhibiting signs of a breakthrough into the focus of attention of cultural life.

The most sparkling star at the moment is Jürgen Rooste, a young writer from Tallinn who emerged from the group of writers called T.N.T. – Tallinna Noored Tegijad, active a few years ago. Rooste received the most prestigious poetry prize in Estonia, the Betti Alver award. Amongst other things, the young poet vitalises the tradition of the Estonian sonnet, possessing at the same time an alert social nerve.

Alongside the young newcomers, several old-timers are clearly in top form, e.g. the surrealist Andres Ehin whose collection of poetry, Alateadvus on alatasa purjus (The Subconscious is Always Drunk) gained him the National Literature Award for the year 2000. One could also name Aleksander Suuman, a painter-poet, and Toomas Liiv who earns his daily bread as a literary historian and critic.

Estonian women’s poetry, starting with Lydia Koidula and developed by Marie Under, Debora Vaarandi and Betti Alver, is now being carried on by Triin Soomets who published her selected collection of poems last year. Her sincere intimacy and auto-eroticism have without doubt expanded the borders of Estonian refined, and occasionally overtly aesthetic, women’s poetry. The legend of a famous father (Juhan Viiding – pseudonym Jüri Üdi) continues in the person of his daughter, actress and writer Elo Vee (Viiding).

Thanks to the good publication possibilities and generous state support coming from the Estonian Cultural Endowment, Estonian literature is at present in excellent form.

Cultural life seems to have accepted the rules of the market economy, and the constant moaning and groaning about the decline of mind and spirit in Estonia has also somewhat diminished. Literature, of course, can no longer support most writers – nowadays very few manage to survive on writing only, unlike in Soviet Estonia where the state lavishly rewarded loyal writers. Nor do writers occupy a socially prestigious position any more; unlike 10-12 years ago, when the whole nation listened to a writer. Genuine talents, however, have secured their position, and the young are once again exhibiting some interest towards professional writing. The whirlwind of changes is by no means over, the publishing business is still developing and the book trade is struggling to come to terms with modern demands – but these problems have no direct impact on literature as such.

Barbi Pilvre is an editor of the cultural section of the weekly Eesti Ekspress

© ELM no 12, spring 2001