Albert Kivikas: Writer of the Republic

by Toomas Haug


Albert Kivikas (1898-1978) had three quite distinct roles in Estonian literary history. I will examine them in chronological order. 
Kivikas is one of the major authors in Estonian literature to have experimented with futurism. His pieces, pranks of a verbally gifted schoolboy, were meant to irritate the petit bourgeois. The collection “Flying Pigs” (Lendavad sead, 1919), printed on the labels of beer bottles, became quite legendary. The much annoyed conservative Education Minister called all Estonian writers flying pigs, thus causing a scandal, which naturally delighted the futurists themselves. It must be said, however, that the literature of the time was much more influenced by expressionism, especially in poetry. Kivikas’ collection of short stories about war, Blood Black (Verimust, 1920) is certainly one of the most stylish examples of Estonian expressionism.   

 During that period, Estonian literature was energetically integrating into European literature. Futurism arrived from Italy, expressionism from Germany. However, important things were going on in Estonia as well, even from the point of view of Europe – an independent republic had been born. A literary trend emerged which best corresponded to the new situation – realism. In order to distinguish it from the realism of the late 19th century, it was called neo-realism. 
Albert Kivikas, a sensitive perceiver of the changes in the social and aesthetic realm, became the eager supporter of and campaigner for neo-realism. This is his second outstanding role in Estonian literature. He abandoned his bohemian convictions and devoted himself to the Republic and realism. Kivikas began sharply criticising the neo-romantic manner of writing, which prevailed in Estonian literature in the first decades of the century (for example in his novel The Forger of a Bill of Exchange, Vekslivõltsija, 1931). This was not merely a dispute over aesthetics, but a question of an important national ideology and way of life. One aim of the neo-realists (later known as the “close-to-life” movement) was to return literature that relied on foreign and symbolist topics to its own country and people. They also recommended a focus on contemporary problems. In his manifesto, “Down with Lyrical Chocolate!” (1920), Kivikas worded it very poetically: “There is a Hamlet in every contemporary potbellied businessman, speculator, pastor, coachman, layabout, the bourgeois and proletarian. He sits in all of us, in every passer-by.” This was a highly provocative and bold idea in the relatively young literature of a very young country, making the case that Estonians and Estonia could well be the playground for Shakespearean dramas and tragedies.

    The Republic of Estonia was naturally nothing like the ancient Kingdom of Denmark, but rather a country of peasants, a province where the German landowners had reigned for hundreds of years. The new state expropriated the manorial lands, which were then divided between the peasants. The biggest historical desire of the Estonian people was thus fulfilled – for the first time local people owned their own land. Thousands of new farms sprang up all over the country. At the same time, Estonian dramas and tragedies were born, described in Albert Kivikas’s “trilogy of smallholders”, novels about rural life, Jüripäev (St. George’s Day, 1921), Jaanipäev (St. John’s Day, 1924), and Mihklipäev (St. Michael’s Day, 1924). Not many read these novels today, but their historical value is indisputable.

    Kivikas was closely connected with Estonia’s independence. In late 1918, Russian troops attacked the newly born Estonian Republic. The government called upon people to fight the enemy, but there was fearful hesitation in the face of such a powerful adversary. Hence some of the first volunteers to face battle were troops of schoolboys, including Albert Kivikas, who was studying at the Tartu Commercial School. This is how the War of Independence (1918-1920) started, producing the legend of the schoolboys who encouraged people to seize weapons and who saved Estonian independence. This is a highly significant legend, a myth and tradition (to use all the essential words), which have the same significance in the Estonian identity and history as the Danes with their oldest monarchy in Europe. Estonian history provides no lasting tradition of sovereignty to construct an identity (the 86-year-old Estonian Republic has been free only 35 years). However, we have our mysterious schoolboys (angels?) who supposedly bravely faced the satanic force and managed to crush it.

    Describing this myth in his novel, and thus preserving it for future generations, is Albert Kivikas’s third role in Estonian literature, and without a doubt his most lasting. His novel Names in Marble (1936), tracking the exploits (which in reality only lasted for a few months) of the brave young soldiers, became instantly popular. The mythical aura surrounding the book was further augmented by the period of Soviet annexation, when the book was strictly prohibited. It is no wonder that the feature film based on Names (2002), made in the newly free Estonia, broke all box office records.
Kivikas’s novel is by no means a simple patriotic work of fiction. Names in Marble is a novel of war, but it is also a reflection on a better world order and on a better future for Estonia. The main character, Enn Ahas, is a doubter, a kind of Hamlet in the uniform of an Estonian soldier, who hesitates between the two great ideologies of the time – socialism and nationalism. Bravely facing the enemy, he would like to know what kind of Estonia he is fighting for. Life, however, is full of contradictions and different attitudes, so that Ahas’s contemplations and doubts continue in the second, third and even fourth novels in the series (1948-1954). The later parts were published in Sweden, where Kivikas, together with many other writers and cultural figures, escaped the Stalinist terror. The War of Independence is over, but the self-realisation of Enn Ahas, as an individual and a social being in the Estonian Republic of the 1920s, continues. The descriptions are almost like documentaries, with the novels full of valuable autobiographical recollections and chronicles of cultural history. The series of novels carries the moral: the republic Ahas fought for and regards as his own, has not yet arrived – the struggle now continues within every individual and society in an entirely different manner.

    Such persistent hesitation and doubt, the restless dissatisfaction that Ahas represents, that moving towards something ideal, is perhaps especially typical of nations with only a short experience of independence. In that sense, Kivikas examines, in his series of novels, one of the principle conditions of Estonians in the 20th century. Due to the twists and turns of destiny, after all, we have been forced to be a restless, dissatisfied nation, even racked by doubts, twice – in the 1920s and 1990s.
Today’s perception of the classic Albert Kivikas is primarily that of a young man, futurist and inexperienced soldier, who witnessed an historical miracle. To the Republic, the all-embracing experience of his younger days, he devoted himself more passionately than any other Estonian writer.