Seond wave. Young Estonian prose writers at the turn of the millennium

by Janek Kraavi


Young Estonian prose writers at the turn of the millennium

Janek Kraavi

The title was inspired by the name - and position in TV culture - of the 1990s science fiction series produced by F. F. Coppola. The most original TV series of the last century’s last decade was naturally Carter’s The X-Files, but in the wake of its popularity, various other similar treatments test the borders of the real world. Initially hidden behind the original mythology of X-Files, these are meant for a new generation of viewers, only to become classics somewhat later. Estonian prose of the 1990s as a whole could be regarded as following roughly the same scheme.

Literary culture, escaping from the clutches of censorship and other forms of intellectual and material restriction in the late 1980s, had totally changed by the mid-1990s. Supported by liberal publishing policy and a press that endlessly encouraged freshness and originality, writers turned to formerly taboo topics, interpreted the nature of man and society in a post-colonial situation and experimented with form games that had until then been frowned upon. Through the characters in their work, these prose writers - whose works had almost reached the status of classics by the second half of the 1990s - described people facing new daily challenges. Seeking for one’s identity, and the existential torments connected with being Estonian while remaining European, had to be worded and depicted by the authors of the first wave. This is a dialogue between man and culture, the familiar and the unknown, I and the Other, that occurs in changed social circumstances. The range is impressive. Emil Tode describes the tension and differences between Eastern and Western Europe in stylish, elegant and poetic language. Andrus Kivirähk, on the other hand, demolishes and deconstructs the myths and legends that embellish Estonian history in the style of parody and using the rules of absurd humour. Whereas Peeter Sauter creates his own everyday philosophy, presenting man’s existing problems in emphatically commonplace and low style, Jüri Ehlvest on the other hand is inspired by European theological and philosophical thought, and the possible relations between different texts, intertextuality and meta-fictionality. Creating new poetics is the achievement of writers of the early 1990s. Telling stories is in a way secondary: attention focuses on the act of telling and stylistics.

Such is the canon of contemporary Estonian prose, in whose shadow the prosaists of a new generation, born in the 1970s, have begun to write and publish. They had their carefree childhood in Soviet times, gaining their first social experience in the V.I. Lenin Young Pioneer organisation. The first memorable stories were told to them by way of Russian cartoons on TV. At that tender and susceptible age they perceived the allegory of ideology-free fairy tales about animals in parallel with the camp nature of Soviet everyday life. However, they achieved their mental sovereignty in a completely different era - the decade following the regaining of independence - thus they are the sons and daughters of the 1990s. They had the opportunity to simultaneously grow up during the two eras – they got their primary education solving ideological maths problems at Soviet schools, whereas university annulled for them all previous ideologies and rhetoric. Such intellectual experience might be called, in somewhat simplified terms, a perception of the relativity of the world and descriptions thereof. In their books, cultural signs perceived in their childhood and youth (e.g. Estonian pop music or Russian fairy tales of the 1980s) are associated with classical literary texts and pop culture ideologies read in the 1990s. Still, all that controversial cultural experience is no longer taken in deadly earnest: rather it is used as a material to inspire one’s own texts. This is why the generation of Estonian prose-writers at the turn of the century can be characterised in such terms as: wealth of imagination, sense of the absurd, playfulness, diversity.

Each decade cultivates its own classics. Authors of such ‘classics of a new decade’ write and think differently, their relations with the world are no longer haunting or painful. Problems tormenting the previous generation were overlooked, and other writing techniques were preferred. Identity analyses, for example, receded, and were replaced with the joy of language games and fabricating stories. Writers strove towards stories, a clearer narrative, and not only because of the critics’ demands. The start-of-the-century prose of young Estonian writers displayed more vivacity and the unexpected.

These ‘new stories’ can be divided roughly into two. Some writers aspire towards close-to-life texts, precisely describing a reality that should abandon all static and dull interior monologues and philosophical analysis. As an alternative to the usual modernist voyages taking place in the inner cosmos of consciousness, the writers offer adventures in harsh reality, accompanied by topics like sex, drugs and violence. Kaur Kender’s novels ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Checkout’ and the stories of Mihkel Samarüütel are innovative examples of precisely this new ‘critical or sceptical realism’.

Controversial and ruthless characters created by these authors represent the tough energy of a new era, but also complete disregard of and scepticism towards humanist ideologies and ethics.
Alongside these narrative techniques, various types of ‘fantastic prose’ are cultivated with immense gusto. The inspiring examples of such a way of expression are Latin-American ‘magical realism’ surrealism and J. L. Borges’ fantastic treatment of philosophy and literature, but also fantasy and horror literature that partly belong to pop culture. Mehis Heinsaar’s fantastic realism, for example, stands side by side with Matt Barker’s atmosphere of horror growing out of everyday reality. Literary and cultural publications discuss the future prospects of Estonian-language science fiction. Narratives of that type ideally strive to create two-level texts – the story contains both the images and Borgesian fantastic philosophy. A shift in relation to ordinary and familiar everyday circumstances, an exaggerated, mildly grotesque description of a situation or a milieu – all these belong among the favourite devices of writers using such narrative style (e.g. Urmas Vadi’s short stories).

Besides high literature and writers with artistic ambitions, an original Estonian entertainment literature has developed as well. Smoothly flowing words, sentimentality, and a focus on the narrative are typical features of this so-called ‘trend literature’. Topics and attitudes are dictated by the market and the opinions and interests of a particular target group of readers (Kaur Kender’s ‘Abnormal’, Kadri Kõusaar’s ‘Ego’ or Kerttu Rakke’s writings in the fashion of chick-lit).

In order to illustrate these general lines, I am going to present the following short descriptions of a few ‘classics of a new decade’.
Mehis Heinsaar (born in 1973) is the miracle man of turn-of-the-century young Estonian prose. He started publishing in various literary magazines as early as in the second half of the 1990s, but recognition arrived in 2001 when two books appeared: ‘Snatcher of Old Men’ and ‘Mr Paul’s Chronicles’. The first received the best prose debut of the year award. The critics’ opinion of Heinsaar’s writing is, somewhat uncharacteristically, almost unanimously laudatory. 

The poetry in his writings has been described as magical realism. Another obvious influence is the illogical philosophy and sense of humour of the Russian avant-garde writer Daniil Harms. The situations in his fantastic short stories are initially familiar, taken from everyday life, but in the course of the stories the possibilities of the mathematical and physical world are exceeded. Ordinary situations turn into wild fantasies and realistic characters become citizens of a new, strange world with a twist. The texts are full of images and metaphors, and that kind of world is connected with a rather special perception of nature. For the characters, animals, plants, trees and weather conditions are objects of admiration: their environment. “In Heinsaar’s book, the biological and mystical blend into one huge potency; The Snatcher is a weird sequel of evolutional and magical metamorphoses.” (Rooste 2001: 1107)

Heinsaar’s usage of language is funny and stylish in the best sense of the word. No slang or colloquial speech here; people address one another formally and mind their manners. The bowler hat and umbrella culture of the first half of last century merges in his texts with modern parodic pastiche culture. This mismatch of cultural signs and vocabulary results in soft humour, spiced with a hint of the surreal, and a mild outlook on life that inflames the imagination and makes the reader smile.

In the turmoil of the new century’s arrival, Urmas Vadi (1977) published two books: collection of stories The Great Second and a drama text based on Russian fairy tales and cartoons, The Flying Ship. Several of his plays for children, including The Flying Ship, have been staged in various Estonian theatres.

The central word of all Vadi’s short stories is the story itself. In the course of action, an absurd and reality-shifting event appears in the midst of the ordinary everyday world. Vadi's’stories do not manifest any specific worldview or philosophy. What enchants most are the naïve but witty twists and turns of the plot, plentiful word games, and the skill of providing a final unexpected ending. The opinions of the characters are naïvely materialistic, primarily associated with specific things and items, and grotesque-flavoured descriptions of food and eating habits. Or “he can depict physical states and perceptions so that the reader has no reason to feel embarrassed.” (Kull 2000) At the end of the title story of the collection, a university lecturer unties the belt of her morning gown and tells her student: “Come on, my lad, I’ll show you what the Great Second is all about.” A brilliant sentence, both in context and form.

Berk Vaher (b.1976) is one of the most remarkable new-generation writers in the Estonian intellectual landscape. His field of interest and his topics range from cutting criticism of society and culture to concert and CD reviews.

Vaher’s two collections of short stories, Clouds to Pavement (2000) and Sly Audibility could be treated as a wish to create his own style and manner of story-telling, and through these to present his unique perception of reality. “Autobiography primarily derives from the memory of sensations, perceptions, empirical truths… 90 per cent of my stories rely on dreams…” is Vaher’s own explanation of his creative method. (Tomberg 2001) Such an expression of the moods of the dreamlike and sensory world requires an original language and style. His first book especially exhibits finely stylised and playful usage of words and unusual forms of sentence. The manner of expression, abounding in epithets and metaphors, often makes reading painstaking and leaves baffled the reader who expected a clear-cut message. Indeed the critics held a somewhat ironic attitude towards this book, remarking that “a book is not for reading” (see Märka 2000). Vaher’s writing, however, has a firm aesthetic aspiration in mind, i.e. the aspiration for an expressive whole; and in that case, thought and style are inseparable.

Sly Audibility, Vaher’s second collection of stories, tries to put into words young people’s perception of the world. The background of these characters or the story-teller is the Soviet past, small-town life, and plenty of pop music. By playing around with symbols and images, the author offers realistic stories, intertextual para-detectives and mixed texts. The topic of a young person’s sexual discoveries, sometimes robust, sometimes as a timid fantasy adds a bit of excitement.

Besides writing cultural criticism and essays, Jan Kaus (b.1974) has published two prose books: in 2000, a collection of stories Above and Around, and last year a novel entitled The World and Some.
Kaus’s short stories unite the two sides of the author’s talent: existential-philosophical inner speech and the playful, exaggerated, socio-critical satire. With great affection, interest and compassion, Kaus describes the thoughts and events in the lives of people with unusual destinies. The trivial details reveal man’s complicated relations with the world, symbolised for example by his parents, job, home. Words like existence, madness, God, happiness, continually slip into the text. Death makes its appearance as well. The second half of the book ridicules the media and its superficial nature and shows politicians and their hypocrisy. Comic effect is further strengthened by a form that pretends to be a documentary.

The novel The World and Some is the story of a boy growing up. His development is punctuated by encounters with various people: from his mother and father and delinquent schoolmates through to the angry young artists. The main character remains a passive bystander who is interested rather in old historical novels than real life. The place and time of action is marked by plenty of metaphors (e.g. the head of state known as the Old Sage is probably Leonid Brezhnev). This novel presents in a most genuine and symbolic manner the story of a generation who grew up in two different societies. The form used is the mythical dimension of magical realism, and the method stream-of-consciousness, easy to follow and often humorous.
Mihkel Samarüütel’s (b.1976) first stories in magazines defied all norms of traditional Estonian prose. Many simple sentences, spoken language, no capital letters at the start of sentences, sticking English-language phrases and words from different songs into the text – all that concerned the external side of the stories. The characters were simple people without any intellectual or mental aspirations. The plot often circles around a violent situation (e.g. rape). The writer’s entire prose is characterised by a certain defiance, scepticism and cynicism.

Samarüütel’s debut book is titled ‘3’. The number has nothing mystical about it – it merely refers to the fact that the book contains three stories. There is no proper narrative, it is relatively fragmentary and of little significance. The plot is conveyed through different points of view and consciousness, at times just via pure dialogue. Vocabulary is simple, sentences read easily. The characters are vague, the author makes no attempt to delineate them in any way or find some deep psychological reason for their deeds. They are all superficial, which requires no effort on the reader’s part. Indeed, this seems to be the author’s aim. Because “we understand at once that there is no point in trying to delve into their ‘lives’. They are no literary characters. What matters is the bulk of the texts and their montage.” (Unt 2002: 143) The cynicism and the author’s occasional scepticism about human relations, the world, life and writing could well constitute the main theme of this book: acceptable to some readers, unacceptable to others.

Matt Barker (1980) studies medicine at the University of Tartu and in recent years has published three books belonging to horror literature. His first collection of short stories Sarah’s Legs (1999) is executed on a decent entertainment level. His next books, on the other hand, especially the novel The Flaming Full Moon (2001), have progressed from the typical superficiality of the horror stories to a considerably more complex and convincing portrayal of human existence. The genre of horror is here merely a form for these stories and also a commercial attraction. The author himself comments on his aims in the following manner: “It can be said that a human being may be described by his fears just as precisely as by his deeds, especially those aspects of him that are not visible to everyone in normal circumstances.” (Urmet 2002)

Why shouldn’t this quotation summarise the contextual and formal aspirations, quests and interests of the young Estonian prose-writers at the turn of the millennium - no matter whether they concern fantasy or the everyday absurd, the real world or man’s microcosm.


Kull, Aivar 2000, Urmas Vadi murdis end eesti proosasse, Tartu Postimees, 10 January
Märka, Veiko 2000, Ega raamat ole lugemiseks, Looming, no 6
Rooste, Jürgen 2001, Ja silmad olid tal kummalise läikega – nagu mõnel väljasurnud loomal, Looming, no 7
Tomberg, Jaak 2001, Kohv ja kuuldavus | Erisus ja mina, Sirp, 21 December
Unt, Mati 2002, Ajalugu koosneb juhuslikest lausetest, Looming, no 1
Urmet, Jaak  2002, Matt Barkeri hinge soojendavad skalpellid, Eesti Päevaleht, 25 January
Veidemann, Rein 2001, Käekirja proovid, Eesti Päevaleht, 26 January