Future Classics - How Should Freedom Be Used?

by Priit Kruus

In this article, the younger generation of Estonian authors will be discussed, in whose works we understand who are contemporary Estonians and their societal trends and stereotypes that followed the late-Soviet ones.
In comparision with the wave of the early and mid-90s (Peter Sauter, Juri Ehlvest, and Emil Tode), the authors in this article represent the late teenage period of the independent Estonian literature.  For them, there is nothing revolutionary or avant-garde anymore in the realm of bold writing, such as Peeter Sauter’s Stomach ache.  You wouldn’t meet such texts today nor would they surprise anyone.  When the freedom to write already exists, how does one use it?  Where should they look - to the future, or to the past?  And first of all, what does one write about and how has the young author shaped the image of a writer?

1. Children of transition

The youngest representatives of Estonian literature, born at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, are the children of the transition period, or those that were approximately 11 years old in 1991.  The afore-mentioned generation lost their societal innocence and lived through a critical period that was as long as their teenage years.  With these four emerging authors, not only has the transitional period ended in Estonian literature, but also in the society that their books depict.

1.1 Kõusaar – protagonist of a bestseller

Kadri Kõusaar is a TV host, columnist, and sometimes, according to herself, an ordinary university student as well. She affects the reader like a warning signal, establishing a border that everyone wants to reach out and touch if they only had enough boldness and daring to do so.

Kõusaar depicts a person who lives for a facade, a facade that is an image, which later becomes hard to deal with.  Kõusaar is close to the reader because the fear of going to the very end is not strange for her.  She had the courage to pose nude on the cover of the biggest Estonian tabloid, although she covered her breasts with a rose cloth.

However, the writer of the 21st century should not write about amazing travel stories and love affairs in first-person and afterwards deny any personal connection.  A 21st century writer can surf porn on the Internet, go to a website about Capri and write a work about a whole year of continual sex, death, and sex change in the Mediterranean, all in the span of a couple weeks.  He can then say to anyone that it is all true. First of all, it is finished faster, secondly, everyone will believe that it’s fiction and thirdly, there will be more time left over for the writer to travel.
If Kadri Kõusaar was not an author, but the main character of one of her bestsellers, one would regard the author of this book as someone sensitive to the times, a creator of striking character, a writer with a clear-sighted and sharp social eye.  If anyone will be remembered in Estonian literature from the beginning of the 21st century, it will be Kadri Kõusaar, because her person compels us to answer the question of whether we want to show ourselves as the kind of people we like, or whether we want to become such.

1.2. Henno, a positive double

Yet another future classic, Sass Henno, touches upon the same question.  The main theme of his e-novel Life Starts Today (2003) is taking responsibility in one's own life.  The modern young reader finds a positive double in Henno's main character, and for this reason could be one of the most important for the current young Estonian readers, although it hasn't reached the wider audience because it has not been published (according to the author's wish).  Life Starts Today is available at Estonia's biggest e-publisher Bahama Press at www.bahamapress.org

What kind of picture is offered to us in this work?  A 21st century (male) youth struggles to simultaneously keep his place at the university, his job and hold on to his beautiful girlfriend. Failures, like his flunking out of the university and the break-up with his girlfriend over the girl's unfaithfulness is taken together with sharp sarcasm. At the end, everything is lost, and what comes after is this life, which begins right away, in a second.  Today.

Quick, relaxed and close like a best friend that looks you in the eye when he tells a story, Henno's novel has the free writing courage inspired mostly by Kaur Kender's novel Independence Day. Henno's book mostly shows his new-style healthy attitude, in contrast with the earlier (mid-1990s) male literature about the melancholy of alcoholism, impotence, and a low self-assessment.  For Henno, life is a script, and he is the director.  When he doesn’t like something, he changes the cameraman and shoots again.

1.3. Angst filter Jürgen Rooste

If Henno and Kõusaar represent the innovativeness and vigour of contemporary young literature, then Wimberg and Jürgen Rooste, a few years older, carry the birthpains of. a new century and also a new period – the free market society of Estonia. Dealing with the present, they look back in time, finding safe comfort in the face of nostalgia.

Jürgen Rooste has an effect on the reader much like a filter of melancholic anxiety.  Rooste directs his spirit of empathy to the entire dirty experience of society, because he once believed. In what? Some words do not sound hollow to him: love, solidarity, goodness, purity. In the poetry collections Veri Valla, Tandem (together with Ivar Sill), Under a Flat Sky, and The Happiness of a Terrible Day, he shouts about Americanisation, the Estonian government, drug addicts, the criminal and dark street corners, and the alcoholic daze brought on by sexual frustration. Rooste does a lot of work for the reader. When the Estonian reader wants someone to spell out their discontent with the current times or with themselves, then they've found the right author.  However, Rooste has a hard time finding the right words if he tries to express his anxiety in critical essays. Like in his poems, he has a hard time talking about one concrete thing or hide his emotions. He also doesn't find the right scapegoat for his anxiety – seeing the real background of the processes of society demands a sober capacity for analysis; blaming the government for everything would be a ridiculously worn-out cliché. There is a danger of him burning out, and then we wouldn't see this remarkable lyricist anymore who debuted with the collection Sonnets in 1999.

1.4. Child-like Wimberg

Wimberg has a child-like zest for life in his creative work, though he draws his energy from the romance of the dead collective farm era.  In the book Lipamäe, he describes the sad fate of old people of the Soviet period.  As a critic, he carries the red flag of the retired, defending the classics of Social Realism and teaching of atheism.  His statements contain more desire to provoke and show himself as a defender of a school of thought than a wish to raise a serious literary discussion and encourage an adequate re-evaluation of our literary history.

With the cheerful impression of Soviet times raised in his poetry collection „Book of the Earth“ (although the memories of childhood are something subjective and radically one-sided), Wimberg could be the embodiment of an agreement between generations, though he doesn't have contact with anyone else other than those who are older than him.  The younger generation probably won't understand his nostalgia in a few years.  But Wimberg persists, writing scenarios for the Estonian TV children’s program Buratino is Back, an adaptation of Pinocchio, proving his superb ability to think along with children.

However, in 2045 we will most likely read in a textbook on literature that Wimberg, as the last shoot of Social Realism, represented a small, but oddly provoking face in Estonian literature at the beginning of the century.

1.5 Fear and lying

Strong and sincere feelings are familiar to the children of transition.  The words ‘fatherland’ and ‘mother tongue’ offered great joy, just as the Baltic Chain and night song festivals did at the end of the 80s.  And something as acutely perceived, although this time disappointing, happened 13 years later when Arnold Rüütel became President, a former top Communist and head of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in Estonia.  
Some people clearly felt that they had been deceived.
Disappointment and hope, fear and lying – you can find these main features in the works of the four authors mentioned here.  They will continue to influence the views of their generation.  They don't forget.  It's worth taking this generation seriously.

2. The Estonian Coelhos: more famous than their works

The authors now in question are a bit older, in their 30s, and seem to have a spiritually healthier attitude in regards to the pressure of the past. What is intriguing about them are their relations with mass media and the writer’s image, which are in contrast with the number of their books sold (Kõusaar is an exception as her books are often bestsellers).  

A writer can be bigger than his works.  The biggest mass-author of today, Paul Coelho, is fixed in the minds of millions of readers as the Writer, i.e. the personage of Coelho is bigger than his works.  His texts are flowing fairy tales, i.e. he knows how to craft myths.  Something that is bigger than life.

In the young Estonian literature of today, there are at least four authors that are bigger in the eyes of the public than their published works.  Their personalities are more famous than their works: Berk Vaher as a politician and essayist; Mihkel Samarüütel as a critic and mythical author-figure; Mehis Heinsaar as a future hope lauded with prizes; and Heiti Kender as a diverse media personality (columnist, TV host, and socialite).

2.1 The Estonian Finnegans Wake

Berk Vaher's Lugulaul (Epic Story) aspires above all, according to the author, to be the Estonian Finnegans Wake - the masterpiece that few have read and even fewer understand. A national pride, a huge achievement with a rich writing technique.

Nobody writes quite like Berk Vaher. For many, his engine for creating images runs too quickly, and his literary idiolect also requires practice.  In short, Lugulaul has its own grammar.  How should we understand him?  In any case, one tried and true technique works: you have to interpret less and take the text as it is.  Unfortunately Berk makes this hard, because the easy and confusing, fast and slow alternate in his text without any forewarning and the reader rushes through the laconically-written focal points of the plot out of inertia.

Better known as a critic and essayist, Berk Vaher shows no mercy. His selfless and caring standing for alternative Estonian literature is just means to prepare the ground – all his speeches about the underground and ‘other forms of writing’ end up being implicitly or explicitly about him.  Fortunately he doesn’t do anyone any harm by this, and Vaher continues to be one of the most prolific Estonian cultural critics, evoking an amazingly large number of comparisons with the Estonian classic short story writer Friedebert Tuglas, with whom he supposedly bears numerous similarities, as for the great many speeches, confidence of style, and also appearance.

2.2 Agent Smith

Mihkel Samarüütel is the only contemporary young Estonian author who is a ‘proper’ underground figure in the true sense of the word. His books are not reviewed because he himself has banned it. It is a case where the author places himself apart from the text and the reception of the readers. Even if this is genuine modesty, such behaviour makes a myth of the author. As a representative of harsh literature, Samarüütel is the only one who might act like one of his characters. A man who hates so much that he doesn’t know how to formulate it other than to live it out in his actions. In his works, Samarüütel verbalizes this action.

You can recognize Samarüütel immediately: he doesn’t romanticise macho men or revere women; he does not use commas or other punctuation marks very often; and in addition he does not construct the main character. Samarüütel has frighteningly little self and character focus.  He moves bit by bit in the narrative like Agent Smith in the film ‘Matrix’, someone who can slip into anyone’s skin as he pleases. Samarüütel does not create a ‘daydream nation’, but rather he is it himself. He is everywhere in his works.

evol and 3 are two of his major works that will continue to be remembered for decades to come. Samarüütel’s social view, or more accurately his ability to focus, is really quite strong.

2.3 A saviour against his will

Mehis Heinsaar is the only young Estonian writer who has received all possible grants and prizes (except of course a prize for lifetime achievement). At the beginning of this century, his first book The Snatcher of Old Men came out. This event was neither powerful nor surprising, as Heinsaar’s literary skills and originality were known years earlier. For example, his Butterfly Man was published and was promptly awarded the Friedeberg Tuglas Short Story Prize.  However, suddenly the older generation of critics began to enthuse that the cultured Estonian literature was finally saved. The Chronicles of Mr. Paul, which followed his debut, raised Heinsaar to the ranks of a classic before his 30th birthday, and all this on the basis of two short-story collections. His short stories, written with a touch of old-school style, merited the Betti Alver prize, the literature prize of the year and in addition a monthly state grant for the writing his next novel.

The reasons for such success include the commercialisation of Estonian literature, the continued notion of the wider public that the producers of the so-called yellow literature, Kerttu Rakke and Kaur Kender, are the ‘only readable Estonian authors’, and the opposition of the older generation to such ‘rubbish’.

In his own words, Heinsaar created the mythical character Mr. Paul to rid himself of personal feelings of absurdity. But now the author and the character have switched places: Mr. Paul is on the bookshelves of the readers, and from there slips into their thoughts, but Heinsaar himself is an undefined entity: what, when, and how will we meet him again?  His novel has yet to be published.

2.4 Flight

Heiti Kender has managed to be left entirely out of the literary politicking.  His older brother Kaur Kender has fought openly with the Estonian Writers’ Union.  The publishing of Heiti Kender’s novel was not accompanied by an elaborate advertising campaign, nor has he ever presented himself to the public as a writer.  One can see the pure pleasure he took in producing the novel in addition to the warmth emanating from it.  A satisfaction of existence.

Of these four authors, he is closest to Coelho content-wise.  His novel Flight (2002) is an Estonian The Alchemist: a warm and straight-forward story teaching that set goals in life are closer than we think.  Kender’s main character dreams of flying and builds himself a plane out of plywood in his garage.  At the end of the book he manages to get it off the ground for just a few seconds, and then the wings break.  But the boy is happy and realises that he did not want anything more than to have the feeling of being in the air for a few seconds.

Coelho resolves his works in just the same simple way.  Reading Heiti Kender’s novel a few decades later, we will perhaps have an inkling why, back in the early 21st century, it was completely natural to talk more than act, take less than we wanted. Beautiful and simple, like in a fairy tale.

2.5    Their Own Myths

The Estonian Coelhos are not good crafters, because the number of copies of their books isn’t in the five or six digit range.  But at least Coelho can’t write better in Estonian than them.  The myths of us, Estonians, are revealed in their works – if not myths about all of us, then certainly at least myths about the authors.

3. Fragile men and beautiful furies

The last four, like the previous ones, are united by their age – it is the generation born in the early 70s, the so-called Russian cartoon generation. It is interesting to juxtapose the images of female and male authors. It also determines the possibilities of the authors to position themselves in relation to their subject.  Elo Viiding and Andres Keil, along with Jan Kaus and Kerttu Rakke make for an interesting literary double date.

Typical of current trends, the women in these couples are stronger, more beautiful, and more evil.  The men are vulnerable and suffer from their complexes, trying to find someone weaker to persecute, or they are busy with examining their melancholy navels, looking for intellect in the confused daze of a loser as well as humanity in the activities of the tough guys.

3.1 Viiding’s hate and Keil’s pain

Elo Viiding is Estonia’s most evil poet. Fear her criticism. She’s not only an author, but rather a promoter of a mentality – in appreciating her, you learn how to view her correctly. Behind all this stands a wonderful ego that doesn’t tolerate opposition.  As the heir of legendary poet Juhan Viiding (Jüri Üdi), Elo Viiding continues in carrying the spiritual aristocratic torch in the Estonian cultural sphere. This position is admirable.  The power that Viiding uses in her writing makes everyone feel uncomfortable – even those who would agree with her. When reading Viiding, we don’t know exactly who she’s accusing when she says that Russians must integrate/ change to Russian youngsters with glasses/ and moral bankers (First Desire, p.67). But we feel guilty.

Viiding doesn’t like how people take an attitude towards her. For example, she says with conviction that my masks and costumes awaken feeble hate/ in fake corpses/ cunning and deviousness/ in the aficionados of literature (First Desire, p.10). Viiding assumes that her accusations anger the reader, but what exactly constitutes her special status: is it that she sees the rotten spots of society better or that she feels more pain because of it?  Or both?  But why should we hate her for it?

Actually the reader does have a reason to revere Viiding, because we are dealing with a woman that is capable of giving you a black eye with her words only. Her readings are especially direct, when the beautiful, cold, and threateningly hypnotic reciter is simply too big for the room.

Andres Keil, who debuted in 2003 with the collection of short stories 151,914 characters, shares Viiding’s aesthetic of self-centredness. Although his laconic texts are written primarily in the 3rd person, they have an effect of confessions of the author from the shadow of the alter-ego. In comparison with Viiding, Keil is ashamed of his literary self, trying to distance himself from the negative and shameful connections and associations.  There are no torrents of wrath directed at the reader in his texts like Viiding has, but he is just as inspiring with his eloquence. Nevertheless, Viiding’s feminine power mows down Keil’s masculine melancholy and bouncy self-esteem.

Keil can be sharp as a satirist, i.e. he has an ability to laugh at others, but above all he most sincerely feels for the male figure of the 21st century and his burned-out dreams.  Read Keil and you understand a new trend – men’s rights.  Men are also people.

Andres Keil has created a yet-unseen character: an intellectual moron. Someone from the lower classes who lives out his complexes verbally rather than physically. The creation of such a male character in our treasure trove of literature takes Keil, with just one work, to the authors’ Hall of Fame at the beginning of the 21st century.

3.2 Kind-hearted nerd and beautiful babe

Jan Kaus, chairman of the Estonian Writers’ Union, is one of the coolest contemporary authors. Whether they are morons, chicks, school kids, silly old people, he has empathy for everybody. The author formulates his attitude towards his characters himself with the title of his last collection of stories Hour of the Blessed (2003).

Kaus’s first most striking quality is his kind-heartedness. When he depicts corrupt politicians or girls who are as dumb as a rock, the reaction of the reader is still only an amused smile. Kaus can go further, showing beating, verbal abuse, and rape – but we still realise that besides the horror of the actions, there is nevertheless the perpetrator’s humanism and stupidity that atones for their guilt. Hence the ‘blessedness’.

All that is possible because Kaus’s stories aren’t true to life, but have a twist of caricature. As an author, he is a bit far from reality, like the lonely nerd who doesn’t go to the nightclub, but can imagine what happens there by watching it on TV.

Kaus doesn’t write about what he sees, but about that which he is capable of imagining on the basis of stereotypes: for example he turns a stupid halfwit into an ideal hero who offers to help others. Whether this is closer to real life or not is for the reader to decide.

When reading Kerttu Rakke, the caricatured, too naive or romanticised characters of Kaus become ordinary people once again. Rakke knows her characters better than Kaus and writes with more intimacy. But along with this, the daily routine and boredom soon set in, the pointed and sharp dialogue changes to the chirping of chicks, and the stereotypes are revealed in their own emptiness, as the author doesn’t make their realities more colourful.

Rakke’s Susanna and Me gives the female Estonian readers their own Carrie Bradshaw – a female figure that one can identify with, not fearing the grotesque, excessive use of caricature, or messy details of the soul. It’s rather the qualities that help this identification: a woman who has to make it on her own, feeling proud of her beauty in a world of indifferent men and jealous friends of their own sex.

3.3 Double date

The first couple. Viiding could stand to gain a bit of Andres Keil’s sincerity, which shows oneself as alone, unhappy, and hurt. Suddenly we might understand better where Viiding’s hate starts and why she lets it out so uncontrollably.

The second couple. As an author and also in real life, Kerttu Rakke represents the world that Jan Kaus wants to write about. If Kaus had Rakke’s knowledge, he could make serious generalizations of this life and create characters that would be significant in their contradictions.

4. Freedom

The present article began with one task – to make Estonian literature and writers as interesting as possible. But it is a strange assignment. Young Estonian writers are fervently developing in order to join the freedom of writing that has come with the first 10 independent years, and the duty to become part of world trends, from which we were separated for 50 years. It may seem naive, but actually we are similar to the Finns or the English or the French, because we’ve always read and always wrote. It’s just that over the past ten years we have wanted to become too much like them. One freedom that we haven’t used until now is the freedom to be independent from something – the image of Western hype literature, market economy book-selling strategies, or the need to try all kinds of swearwords and dabble in postmodernism. We only have to like ourselves, then others will like us too. For this reason one should answer a somewhat weird question: what must we do in order to be originally ourselves and yet familiar to others?
How would a teenager answer this question?  Dunno. Beats me.

It will do for a start.

Translated from Estonian by Jayde Will