Short Outlines of Books by Estonian Authors: Jaan Kross, Kallid kaasteelised (Dear Co-travellers)

by Rutt Hinrikus

Jaan Kross. Kallid kaasteelised (Dear Co-travellers)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2003. 719 pp

The publication of Jaan Kross’ (1920) memoirs at the end of 2003 was a literary event. The book has topped best-seller lists and it has been much discussed by critics as well as by the reading public. Dear Co-travellers is undoubtedly one of the most representative memoirs authored by a writer in the past decade; it is a kind of criterion against which the memoirs of other contemporaries will be measured. A number of artists and scientists, and also people repressed by Soviet power, have published memoirs recently. In addition to being the stories of certain people’s development, all these layers of memory reflect the bygone era.

Jaan Kross’ present book is, actually, only the first part of his memoirs; hopefully, it will be followed by a second part. At the same time, it is a unified work, an extensive chronicle of the era and an intriguing self-portrait, covering the period from the writer’s youth up to the beginning of the 1960s.

Kross has been writing about his own life and history for many years. In his works of fiction he has assumed a number of aliases, mixing reality and fiction and changing scenes, all the time moving away from the fictional and approaching the documentary, or, rather, approaching the traces of documentary in the memory.

At the beginning of 2003, Kross published his university lectures under the title Autobiographism and Subtext (see Elm 17), where he throws light on the autobiographical layers of his novels. In Dear Co-travellers he also refers to those of his books in which he discusses some events that have actually happened. His memoirs do not offer confessions of the development of a young man, but rather, they can primarily be called political memoirs, since they have a very clear political subtext. Naturally, Kross presents his life story in relation to historical events and his memoirs are an excellent history lesson for those readers who have no experience and only vague ideas about the reality of the Soviet empire. The author touches only briefly upon his childhood and youth, rushing on to the period which began in 1939 and initiated events of crucial importance in Estonian history. At that time Kross was reading law at the University of Tartu. A large proportion of the book is devoted to the time when Kross was a political prisoner in the northern region of the Soviet Union – in the Komi ASSR – where he at first worked in a labour camp coal mine. Later he was deported to Siberia, where he worked in a brick factory. Representative and telling scenes of the reality of a socialist state, of its ridiculous economy and of the total fear it instilled in its citizens are presented in a memorable form in the section that describes the author’s life after having returned to the Estonian SSR. The memoirs end when the author is given a flat in the new “writers’ house” (a residence built for writers) in Tallinn in 1962. In spite of all his difficulties, the previous repressee became a writer.

The idea of Kross’ memoirs is to stress the historical injustice of the sacrifice of Eastern Europe after the end of WWII. The main prerequisite of a prisoner’s liberation is that he survived his imprisonment; the author remembers many cases where imprisonment and the administration of justice were totally farcical. Kross repeatedly draws attention to the fact that, at that time, none of the leading powers of the world were interested in the restitution of sovereignty to the Baltic states, and that the treachery of the Western democracies condemned half of the nations of Europe to live in isolation for fifty years. “I have to ask unceasingly, who was ready to shoulder responsibility for the fact that half of the nations of the whole continent /---/ had to live with their faces trampled into the mud for half a century?” (p 333).

In a witty text, demonstrating the whole range of his masterly style, Kross tells his own life story and, along with it, the story of Estonia in the first half of the 20th century, as an account of treason and paradoxical survival.

Jaan Undusk. Quevedo. Näidend 12 pildis (Quevedo. A Play in 12 Scenes)
Tallinn, Perioodika, 2003. 123 pp

Jaan Undusk is an outstanding literary critic and writer, whose scientific production has so far been more numerous than his literary woks. All his books have attracted equal attention (see Magical Mystical Language, Elm 8). Aspiration for magical tension characterises also Undusk’s literary texts – his short stories, a novel Hot (“Kuum”), which can be treated as an essay about young love, written in the format of the novel, and his plays, which are his latest passion. He made his breakthrough into drama with Goodbye, Vienna (1999), which had success on the stage. The fact that Quevedo was by far the best entry at the play-writing competition in 2003 and won the first prize came as no surprise – when Undusk takes part in a competition, he wins.

Similarly to Goodbye, Vienna, Quevedo is full of intellectual and erotic tensions, enhanced by figurative language and aphorisms, which result in a real fireworks of philosophical dialogues. The hero of the play is a Spanish genius of the 17th century Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645), the eternity, death, beauty, spirit, and naturally, power are its subjects.

The main intrigue of the play is the contradiction between the poet and politician Quevedo and the Prime Minister of the Spanish kingdom Olivares. This is the eternal struggle between the spirit and the power, resulting in different ways of conceiving the social responsibility of an individual, but it is also a duel between two powerful gamblers. The struggle between Eros and Thanatos adds spice to relationships described in the work. In Undusk’s world, suffering is a pleasure, all his heroes are characterised by the fear that the pleasure might end, and they fear fulfilment and satisfaction that would cancel the pleasure. Undusk contrasts closure and openness, the general and an individual’s aims and pleasures, the metaphysics of ugliness and the beauty of expectation, and values unceasing movement. The scene is laid in the 17th century, but numerous hints refer to the universality of the subject. Quevedo and Olivares will keep confronting each other in the infinity, and Quevedo’s last question “I cannot comprehend, why they will envy and imitate us” can be interpreted both in an ironic and philosophical key. The book closes with Prof. Jüri Talvet’s informative overview “Quevedo redivius”.