Short outlines of Books by Estonian Authors: Nikolai Baturin. Kentaur.

by Janika Kronberg

Nikolai Baturin: Kentaur (The Centaur)
Tallinn, Eesti Raamat, 2003. 574 pp

The main theme of Nikolai Baturin’s (b. 1936) work has been the search for ecological balance between man and nature. One of his main works, the novel The Heart of the Bear, which was made into a film under the same title in 2000 by a joint effort of film companies of several countries, also focuses on this theme. The film has been successful at a number of international film festivals. The Heart of the Bear is a novel with autobiographical elements interwoven with the beliefs of primitive people, and describes the life of a Siberian hunter. Baturin writes about the taiga and primeval forests. Now and then his works touch upon fantasy and he also gives warning of the decline of civilisation.

The bulky novel The Centaur, the winner of the first prize at the novel writing contest in 2002, has a surprisingly fresh and topical subject. This is a family saga, set in fictitious oil fields in an era when natural resources have already been exhausted, against the background of relations between Islam, Christianity and ancient Greek gods. The name of the protagonist – Nikyas Bigart – follows Baturin’s pattern of varying his own first name in all his works (e.g. Niika the hunter in The Heart of the Bear), here using it to emphasise the Greek origin of the main character. Another recurring motif is that of a mysterious double of the protagonist in the form of a young boy. Bigart represents the art of having been conceived, having been born, living, and finally, dying. Nikyas often changes himself from an oil magnate into a centaur of enormous sexual potency, thus filling the pages of the novel with passion and suffering and with innumerable offspring. The ambivalence of human life is constantly referred to by the transition of Nikyas’s external victories into inner losses. In search of his ancestor, as well as of his own self, he follows a real path of suffering throughout the novel.

Obviously, The Centaur is not a realistic novel. Its male and female heroes are mirror images of each other (e.g. Dido – Odid). In addition to other myths, that of Aeneas and Dido becomes powerfully prominent at the end of the work. Bigartland or the Oil Empire represents an anti-Utopia, reminding us of our own oil-based civilisation. Baturin is the creator of powerful images and grandiose scenes – the most suggestive among these is the fire in the ancestral palace of the Bigarts, the Bigarthouse, accompanied by J. S. Bach’s organ prelude “By the Waters of Babylon” (“An Wasserflüssen Babylon”), the strains of which play throughout the novel. A superb image is Nikyas’s rounded basket, which has no opening, where clay men turn to dust, symbolising the transience of human life; they can escape from the basket only when they have become dust.

The Centaur is a novel with several levels. On its surface we can follow the story of world power and oil, but, as the author has specified in his introductory words, this is also a story about the quest for the meaning of existence, about the similarity of men and women despite their differences, about the ancient and modern aspects of love and about the endless variations of immortality. Since a work of prose of such global scope, discussing contemporary subjects, is a relatively rare phenomenon in Estonian literature, The Centaur is a great surprise in many senses. The novel offers us a human drama, which has been raised to the height of divine tragedies.

Jaan Kaplinski: Isale (To My Father)
Tallinn, Varrak, 2003. 327 pp

Jaan Kaplinski has given his book a simple title, To My Father. The book is a long confessional essay, illustrated with old and contemporary family photos of the Kaplinskis – a private letter offered to the public to be read and evaluated, and which the real addressee himself can never read. Kaplinski’s father Jerzy Bonifacy Edward Kapliński (1901-1943), who was born in Warsaw and worked as a lecturer of Polish language and literature at Tartu University in the 1930s, was arrested in 1941, when his son was only six months old, and his unmarked grave lies somewhere in Siberia.

On the one hand, this book creates the image of the father, and in a broader sense, it is the reconstruction of the whole Polish-Jewish paternal lineage back to a Frankist religious sect. On the other hand, the book is about its author, about one of the best known and most translated Estonian writers. In the introduction of the book, Kaplinski writes: “Moshe Cordovero wrote that each creation, including the divine creation, is an act of simultaneous exposing and hiding of oneself. Creating the world, God at the same time exposes himself and hides behind a veil. The divine world is the veil in front of God’s face. Similarly, the writer’s works form a veil hiding his face.”

Kaplinski, who began his writing career in the 1960s as a poet, using plenty of figurative speech and incantations, is much more personal and intimate in his essay, meaning that he has almost given up metaphors and does not hide himself any more; the same is noticeable in his poetry of recent years. The key passages of the book seem to be those where the author talks about the sense of deprivation felt by children of the cruel mid-twentieth century. He talks about growing up in a broken world, among the ruins of a country devastated by the war. By creating the image of his father, by talking to him in his mind and telling him about his life, the author returns some of the lost unity to the world. But still, this unity, created with words, is only a process of deliberation, as many questions cannot be answered, because those who could have known the answers are all dead; the same is stated in a paraphrase of a poem by Cesar Vallejo, which closes the novel. On the other hand, this may be the very reason that Kaplinski’s book lacks the nostalgic charm of childhood found in many books of reminiscences; instead of illusions, we find a kind of soft illusionlessness here, and if a person accepts this, he can take each new day as a gift.

“This book, these letters, should be my report to you, a report, which would, in spite of itself, expect approval or disapproval,” writes Kaplinski. Besides a fascination with the family story, the descriptions of his successes and his spiritual world, and besides the slightly bitter acknowledgement of the status of the writer as an intellectual whore, the reader is fascinated also by the passages that surprisingly reveal some similar features in the fates of the father and the son, as well as their differences. Kaplinski has always been reluctant to accept limits and definitions: “But I do not want to be only and primarily an Estonian (or a Pole), denying everything else. Why should I, then, be a European in a similar way, why should I take as my own everything European, everything originating from Europe, and why should I be hostile to everything that comes from Asia or America? I cannot stand definitions, the drawing of borders between A and B, and between the familiar and alien.” This denial of borders is characteristic of Kaplinski’s innovations in Estonian literature, although he is even reluctant to admit that he is a writer. In one of his poems from his early days, he said that he does not write poetry, but rather declares his love of the world. But maybe poetry and the declaration of love do not differ so much from each other. Maybe all is one and the same, and we can take Kaplinski’s prose and also this long letter as a natural continuation of his poetry, as a declaration of love, where he has almost entirely given up the figurativeness and the literary play of shadows that hide an author.

Ilmar Jaks: Pimedus (Darkness)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2003. 152 pp

The life of Ilmar Jaks (b. 1923) has been as adventurous as is possible. In WW II he fought the Russians in Finland; then he returned to Estonia, escaped imprisonment by the Soviets and was conscripted by the Red Army; he served in the army in Leningrad, and fled to Sweden via Finland in 1945. He studied law at Uppsala University and worked for a short period as a lawyer in Sweden, but he has also lived in Bretagne in France and in many other places in Europe. Now he is again residing in Sweden, in Dalarna.

In Estonian exile literature, which tends to be rather conservative, Jaks’s novels have stood out for their modernity and his short stories are full of warm humane humour and exact details. His literary skill has earned him the Friedebert Tuglas short story award in Estonia. The collection of short stories Darkness, containing works written in the last couple decades, only confirms the decision of the jury.

The short stories of this collection fit well into the increasingly international context of the Estonian literature of the present time, mitigating the geographical serfdom that affected it in earlier decades. The space and the time of the stories were experienced by the author and are described in detail. He easily records the psychological microcosm of the different stages of his life. Movement around Europe is a natural activity for him: his story may begin on an express train speeding from Hamburg to Kiel, in a Parisian café, in a gasthaus in Bremen, on a Normandian farm, at a petrol station in Cardiff, or wherever, but often may also begin in a landscape remembered from his childhood or school years. Although Jaks has said that human nature is the same everywhere, and that the stories he tells could have happened anywhere, the concrete topography of the stories usually specifies their locations. A Muslim girl saves money for an operation to restore her virginity by selling herself in the streets of Paris; an ox is taken to a slaughterhouse in Normandy, etc. Recognisably ethnic personal names and phrases, such as pardon or izvinjite, act as cultural signs. The latter mark the obligatory change in ideological orientation in Estonia in 1940, depicted in the short story “Kingsepa Karla”. The story “Armer Adolf” points out how literature may be able to create newer, better worlds than the already existing one. Here a young boy called Adolf Hitler dies in an avalanche and is buried under a deformed cross with bent ends. Jaks also satirically modifies motifs from the Bible.

Although juridical vocabulary is quite common in Jaks’s texts, he observes the world and the conventional laws of human society with a certain twist. He perceives potential plotlines, and often comical details, in everyday life and discovers ironic, and sometimes tragic, facets in them. The writer Jaks complements the lawyer Jaks, now and then even opposing him: critics have occasionally called him an anarchist who questions laws, speaks for human primeval passions, and depicts in some of his stories the natural and the animal, realising freedom in a much wider scope than would be possible in the strictly regulated world of humans.

Ivar Ivask: Tähtede tähendust tunda (To Know the Meaning of Stars)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2003 (The History of Estonian Thought 52). 568 pp

Ivar Ivask (1927-1992) is an Estonian 20th-century poet and literary critic of international renown. He was born in Riga to an Estonian-Latvian family, so his intellect was formed in a multilingual environment. He started writing poetry in German, wrote most of his works in Estonian, and in the last years of his life, published poetry in English as well. One of his last cycles of poetry, Baltic Elegies (1987), was translated into Polish by Czesław Miłosz. As a literary critic, Ivask started to study Austrian literature; he worked as a professor of literature at American universities and was the editor-in-chief of the journal Books Abroad/World Literature Today in Oklahoma from 1967 to 1991.

To Know the Meaning of Stars draws together a selection of Ivask’s articles published in Estonian, German and English between 1951-1986, devoted to Estonian and Austrian literature, as well as to the work of the Russian Nobel prize winner Boris Pasternak. The book is compiled, edited and supplied with a foreword by Professor of World Literature Jüri Talvet of the University of Tartu. The pertinent title of the book, derived from the title of Ivask’s first collection of poetry, The Meaning of the Stars (1964), allows extensive interpretation, and yearning for extensiveness was always characteristic of Ivask. In Estonian, the word “täht” means both a letter of the alphabet and a star in the sky, and in addition to that, it also refers to the “stars” of the literary world, with whom Ivask had contact in his capacity as a journal editor: Heimito von Doderer, Odisseas Elitis, Jorge Guillén, not to mention Estonian writers. As a comparativist and an expert on European literature, Ivask discusses Estonian literature in the context of foreign literature, calls for openness to productive influences and searches for the new and European in Estonian literature. Such titles of his essays as “Estonian Literature and Present-Day World Literature” and “Against the Sprawling Mania of Narrowness” are characteristic of his attitude. Of Estonian writers, Ivask discusses in greatest detail the repeated nominee for the Nobel Prize, Marie Under, the theologian and orientalist and most clearly mystic of Estonian poets Uku Masing, and such well-known representatives of contemporary Estonian literature as Jaan Kaplinski and Jaan Kross. A major part of the book is devoted to Ivask’s great passion for Austrian literature, and his memoir-like observations on Heimito von Doderer.

In his afterword Professor Jüri Talvet emphasises the relationship between Ivar Ivask’s two roles, poet and literary critic, which has enhanced his ability to examine literary production from the inside, with a poet’s eyes. He also points out the vividness and polemicity of his essays and his courage in examining Estonian literature against the background of multilingual and multivoiced world literature. Such a broad basis and deep classical spirituality, which characterise Ivask’s essays, make them a worthy and memorable read.