Short Outlines of Books by Estonian Authors

by Aare Pilv, Berk Vaher

Toomas Raudam. Nips (Snap)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus 2004. 312 pp

Raudam may be one of the most prolific Estonian essayists and prose writers, but his highly autobiographical output tends to meander around a few fixed themes, including illness, pain, and affection. The most recent work is no major departure.
Although ‘Snap’ is subtitled ‘a novel’, it actually consists of a four-part short novel, ‘Line Drawer’, a series of double portraits, called ‘Darwin’s Animals’, and a brief memory of a childhood game, ‘Snap’. Whereas ‘Darwin’s Animals’ evokes something of a surprise with its various Russian characters (by no means common types in Raudam’s earlier works), the stand-out bit of the book is still ‘Line Drawer’ - to the point of making the rest seem somewhat redundant.
‘Line Drawer’ can first and foremost be seen as a family affair, intertwined with a love story. Much of it is Raudam at his most humorous; however, the latter part of the short novel is overshadowed by the details of the Alzheimer’s disease of the protagonist’s mother, making it far from an easy read even for those with the most eclectic of tastes.
There are those who say that Raudam, in fact, writes better prose in his essays - but it is getting harder and harder to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in his works.

Ilus Armin - eesti lühiproosat 1987-2002
(Armin the Beautiful - Estonian Short Prose 1987-2002)

Compiled by Udo Uibo. Tallinn, Varrak 2004. 576 pp

The long awaited anthology of recent Estonian short prose proves to be a mixed bag. The half-page foreword is ridiculously insufficient, especially if one compares it to Kajar Pruul’s brilliant afterword to ‘Concealed Beautiful Disease’, a poetry anthology of the same period.
Intriguing possibilities for generalisations about changes in the contemporary literary scene are presented by the opening and closing stories of the compilation, ‘The Prince’ by Jaan Kross and ‘Attempt’ by Mihkel Samarüütel respectively - the differences between the techniques, themes, and even images of the authors are vast and very eloquent indeed.
The anthology does contain some of the indubitable highlights of recent short prose, such as ‘Al-Qaeda’ by Jüri Ehlvest and ‘Kaisa and Death’ by Ervin Õunapuu, alongside the welcome inclusion of a few somewhat underrated greats, such as Ülo Mattheus or Jaan Undusk (both are quite well known, have occasionally won awards as prose writers, and deserve to be regarded as among the very best in Estonia). On the other hand, there are a few questionable picks, whether it be a middling representation of an author’s work (Valton, Kaus) or a brilliant piece which does not fit comfortably in the category ‘short prose’ (Jaan Kaplinski’s ‘Hektor’). 
All in all, the collection is extensive but perhaps too reflective of the compiler’s taste, which seems to bend towards the grotesque (even burlesque), morose (even hostile), and obscene (even perverse). Indeed, the title ‘Armin the Beautiful’ (borrowed from Mehis Heinsaar’s award-winning story) is quite fortuitous - there is little beauty to be found in the selection. ‘Grim’ - as in Mart Kivastik’s highly controversial piece - might have been a far better choice.

Jüri von Ehlvest. Rahuldus. (Satisfaction)
Ilukirjandus, Tartu 2004. 174 pp

Ehlvest is often rated as one of the most intriguing post-modern prose writers in Estonia. Indeed, he characteristically constructs different personae, mixes apparently disparate storylines and blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction.
Whereas his previous collection of stories ‘A Horse From Nowhere’ was an impressive conceptual work which prompted some critics to treat it as a novel, the current release is slightly more low-key - which is not to say that ‘Satisfaction’ is a step back. Rather it is a step aside.
Parody and pastiche are evident but subtle, nowhere as enjoyable as in the opening story, ‘One’s Own Kõiv’, a reference to senior colleague Madis Kõiv. Ehlvest’s command of the mixing of different lines of action is best represented by the eerie ‘Torop’. Ürgar Helves, Ehlvest’s alter ego from his previous book, also makes his appearance.
Even though he might well be accused of occasionally being too cryptic for his own good, Ehlvest is one of the few Estonian authors who maintains a global touch in addition to capturing something uniquely Estonian.

ki:wa. Roboti tee on nihe/salatühik
(The Way of the Robot is Displacement/Secret Void) 

In addition to holding down multiple (and intertwining) careers as pop artist, model, musician and scandal-monger, ki:wa has released his second book (his debut was a collection of poems called ‘Toys Having Escaped a Children’s Hospital’ in 2002). Just as with most of his other activities, this is as off-the-wall as it gets.
Idiosyncratic to the point of solipsism, ki:wa blends cyberpunk and shamanism with post-modern theories and a flair for (pre)pubescent girls, presenting a unique stream-of-(sub)consciousness prose poem in ‘The Way of the Robot is Displacement’. Its weirdness is further accentuated by the fact that the bonus piece, an earlier work called ‘Secret Void’ seems quite, well, normal in comparison, even though it has all the characteristics of Y-Lit.
Allegedly a story about the adventures of a robotic teenage Amazon in textual space, ‘Way…’ is certainly the most ambitious post-modern work ever published in Estonian: hardly a template for future volumes, but all the more likely to remain a fresh read for years to come.

Lauri Sommer. Nõidade õrnus (Tenderness of the Enchanters)

Tiivaalune, Sännä 2004. Pages unnumbered.

Poet, musician and Uku Masing expert Lauri Sommer definitely weighs in with his third collection of poems. Extensive knowledge of various shamanic traditions feeds into a high awareness of moments and emotions in the here and now - and there is no one quite like Sommer in Estonian poetry, no one with such a broad register, ranging from sublime to obscene to romantic within one poem, while still maintaining coherence.
Besides different mythologies, Sommer seamlessly includes soul-mate authors in his textual world of Laurila: the mysterious Canadian classic Conrad Aiken, Native American storyteller Nakasuk, Taoist Chinese poetess Wu Cailuan and Margus Ainsalu from the Jämejala mental hospital. Sommer’s cultural choices are far from the mainstream, even in the poetry scene, and he himself has referred to his activities as ‘transcendental punk’.
Sommer’s poetry has a peculiar spatial feel to it, at once dynamic and meditative. Indeed, among the author’s chief sources of inspiration have been long walks in nature. At a time when so much poetry has been watered down to mere doggerel, Sommer represents a substantial alternative by still being able to sense and deliver the magic of the word.

Andreas Kalkun. Pääväraamat. (Diary)
Tartu, Erakkond, 2004. 64 pp

Although "Pääväraamat" is Andreas Kalkun’s debut collection, he has been publishing poetry for nearly a decade. Having started with Estonian-language classical poems with a strict form he now writes poetry in Setu language as he comes from Setumaa district in South-Estonia. Several sources and deep traditions blend in his poetry: heritage of Setu folk songs (Kalkun is also a folklorist specialising in Setu oral heritage), intonations of Orthodox Christianity typical of the Setu culture, and the form and topics of European classical and decadent poetry. In Estonian dialectal poetry Kalkun occupies a special place because he uses the Setu dialect (some linguists consider it a language in its own right) as a language that is not restricted to certain topics. Estonian dialect poetry is usually associated with rustic perception of life, but Kalkun shows that a dialect enables a far more subtle poetry. It is also significant that his Setu language is pure, without influences from standard Estonian, so that to a large part of Estonians his poetry seems written in a foreign tongue. Kalkun’s intensive poems mostly talk about passion, whereas it is difficult to differentiate between erotic and religious fervour. Andreas Kalkun is thus a truly refined poet and his oeuvre is a glowing melting pot that blends highly diverse components into a delicious whole. Some see it as exotic, others as a return to ancient familiar intellectual essence. In any case, Kalkun’s book makes it possible to talk about Võru-Setu literature as an independent institution.

Jaak Jõerüüt. Uus raamat (New Book)
Tallinn, Tuum, 2004. 80 pp.

Jaak Jõerüüt who has been a diplomat and politician in the newly independent Estonia (currently the minister of defence) has over the recent years made several forays into literature again. He published two collections of poetry in the 1970s, collections of short stories and a two-part novel in the 1980s, so the present poetry collection marks a continuation of his high-level literary form. Jõerüüt typically has a laconic and subdued way of expression that today, however, has lost its tender irony and scepticism of his younger years. These are replaced by the security of a mature man who has made peace with himself, disillusion without disappointment, quiet insight that occasionally contains mystical experiences of entirety. On surface, Jõerüüt’s poems are not too ‘attractive’, his vocabulary and the described world are quite ordinary, but where he really excels is a sense of discipline and precision in his usage of these simple sentences. The reader’s impression is not created so much by interesting metaphors or the intensity of his poetic language, but thanks to the poet’s unassuming and honed skill to capture the nuances of thinking that convey a purified mood. Although the poems also contain the forever unattainable truth about life, always somewhere near, but never within reach, it does not cause any resignation. The ‘New Book’ is enjoyable precisely because the author’s melancholy is not dark and heavy, but instead shimmering and fluttering, and this is manifest in the poems’ verbal form, their virtuoso lightness. Jõerüüt’s younger poetry was a good example of the attitude in Estonian culture in the 1970s that the playwright Madis Kõiv has called ‘new Pyrrhonism" – a sceptical attitude wary of ideals. ‘New Book’ is a splendid example of one possible path of development where the disappointment-side of scepticism has been overcome and the brightness of confirming the facts has remained.

Hasso Krull. Meeter ja Demeeter. Eepos (Metre and Demeter. An Epic)
Tallinn, Vagabund, 2004. 112 pp.

Determining the present work as ‘epic’ cannot be here taken as a self-ironic playful sign – it is in fact an attempt to see the world through mythological sources and use that to widely and flexibly interpret contemporary problems. Metre and Demeter uses the mythological material of ancient Greeks, American Indians and many other nations, and creates a new mythological world. The book consists of one hundred free-verse poems that are placed symmetrically – the texts between the beginning and the middle become shorter, so that the middle ones only have one line; then they again lengthen to a few pages. The first part, Meter, is a preparation and occurrence of the flood. The second part, Demeter, depicts the creation of a new world after the flood, and tells stories of the pre-creation time. Metre and Demeter are two characters representing two mutually supplementing principles – Metre is a measurable and clear-cut world; Demeter, on the other hand, is an overwhelming goddess, the demon of both destruction and creation. The third significant ‘character’ is water, medium of destruction and growth. Metre and Demeter has a clear message – although it does not exactly declare it. The message is cultural and ecological balance and diversity, which is necessary for the survival of ancient vitality. It is remarkable how smoothly Krull blends different legends and distils out of it an influential, modern-sounding text. This book will probably secure a place among the most important Estonian poetry collections because of its intellectual range, powerful message and poetic mastery. It is also a significant landmark in Hasso Krull’s work. It is not an exaggeration to say that this epic is world literature that speaks volumes also outside the boundaries of one nation’s culture.

Kalju Kruusa. Treffamisi (Encounters)

Tallinn, Tuum, 2004. 80 pp.

Kalju Kruusa is one of the poets who emerged in the mid-1990s, and this is his second collection of poetry. Mood (1999) stood out for its linguistic sensibility, playfulness and a wealth of sensual perceptions, whereas the new book is much more laconic and minimalist. The poems have short lines, lapidary and brief sentences, but the sensitivity of his linguistic nuances has become almost pedantically microscopic. He can use one expression or word in a poem not as an attractive synonym or for the sake of harmonious sound, but merely to stress the nuances of the usual meaning, perhaps unnoticeable at first reading. The ‘message’ of Kruusa’s poems is simple – yearning for a close person, a witty fragment of thought about everyday life, or a memorable instant of perception. His texts contain humour, mostly a bit dry and subdued so that a sparkling punch line is only implied. Sadness, too, can only be guessed; there is little exposed emotion. Kruusa’s poetry might seem rather lax and trivial, but deep down is nevertheless restrained within tremendous tension, both in form and content. His poetry could be compared with the work of a watchmaker who adjusts tiny details to produce a functioning clockwork that shows something mundane and yet eternal. Occasionally he can be really laconic and economical, for example the lines, "elu armastuse / ei leia kahe / ühisvaeva / vahel valides // vaid tühis- / taeva all / mittemiskiga vastandamisi" (p. 74).

Madis Kõiv. Päev. (Day)
Tartu, Akkon, 2004. 368 pp

The novel Day is the bulkiest of all Kõiv’s published prose texts so far. The time of writing is 1972-73 – yet another text that Kõiv has kept in his seemingly bottomless desk drawer. The novel contains everything typical of Madis Kõiv both in style and main motifs, but this time in a much longer and profounder form. This book can be received in various ways – working your way through a few dozen dense and somnambulant pages you might want to discard it, or persevere and let the eerily detailed and diverging text slowly carry you on. This in fact is Kõiv’s original style that he cultivates in all his works – almost obsessively pursuing the details of all associations and the mutual crossing and disrupting of various chains of association.
The story reports events during one day, from morning until seven in the evening when the catastrophe occurs. What caused the catastrophe – destruction of a town – and what does it entail, is never made clear. Everything takes place at the same time in the protagonist’s thoughts and memories and in reality; it is occasionally difficult to differentiate between them; everything is feverishly intense, driven by a premonition of catastrophe. Towards the end of the novel more philosophical extracts appear, where abstract ideas about the inevitability of memory and the past are being visualised. It is one of the most central elements in Kõiv’s works – pondering about memory (the only thing man has really been ‘made of’). It is inevitable, unchangeable, and besides – when any conscious activity becomes memory, it is already marked by the same inevitability. The perfection of the past is experienced just as acutely as a threat of an inescapable future event. The catastrophe connected with the town is a simile of a breakthrough from the inevitability of the past into something that Kõiv calls ‘Now-I’, something that would be free of these inevitable conditions. Kõiv’s concept of course needs a much more extensive interpretation, but one thing is for certain – the Day unites Kõiv’s most original philosophical ideas and the most remarkable features of his literary style. For this reason alone this novel is essential in Kõiv’s oeuvre. It must be admitted, however, that Päev is certainly not the text you should begin with if you wish to take up Kõiv’s work; this is ‘Kõiv for an advanced learner’.

Ene Mihkelson. Uroboros
Tallinn, Tuum, 2004. 96 pp.

It is a collection published on the occasion of Mihkelson’s 60th birthday, compiled by Kajar Pruul, one of the best experts of contemporary Estonian poetry who has written various fundamental articles on our poetry. 2000 saw the publication of another selected poems of Mihkelson, The Scales Do Not Talk, compiled by the author herself. Pruul’s selection in a considerably thinner book than The Scales, shows a sharper and more cutting Mihkelson. The previous books have all been bulkier so that they influence more via the cumulation of texts than a precisely chosen aspect. Uroboros is thus necessary because it allows a glimpse of Mihkelson as she really is – one of the most significant poets of the last quarter of the 20th and early 21st century, who has skilfully depicted the paradoxes of human existence. She is firmly on Estonian ground, often writing about the inevitable conditions of being Estonian, and doing that without any patriotic illusions. She might occasionally seem too pessimistic, but she is merely reminding us of the dangerous limit near which the Estonians actually exist – culture of such a small nation and language constantly situated at the critical border of its resources. Therefore her pessimism simply means that a poet writing in Estonian is in fact inevitably doing this in spite of that danger (and to avoid that danger), that a few generations later her texts could be no more than linguistic memories. Setting her heart on saying something that might not have any listeners, but what nevertheless needs to be said – not only on national but on general existential level – constitutes one of the chief stimulants of Mihkelson’s almost absurdly forceful poetry.

Triin Soomets. Toormaterjal. (Raw Material)
Tallinn, Verb, 2004. 60 pp.

This is Triin Soomets’s seventh collection of poetry, second last year. Since her fifth collection, Pidurdusjälg (Trace of Braking, 1999), there is evidence of continued attempt to relax the previous tense perception, striving for liberation. Trace approached classical, more clear-cut poetry that continued in Leping nr 2 (Contract no 2), whereas now her poetry has acquired an even simpler appearance. Raw Material consists of short free-verse texts, and the axis of the book is a four-page poem of the same title. This text mainly contains the poet’s memories of her as a teenager, when a fence was put up around her home garden, which she is now burning down in her adult years. The whole book is carried by a sense of liberation, a certain relief at returning to simplicity. However, the previous images of blind blood hidden in the body that manifest the ungraspable closeness of pleasure and destruction, are still in evidence here – what has disappeared is the torment, now replaced with self-assured calm. This does not mean becoming tame or indifferent, but instead expresses a bold readiness to look the simple inevitable truths in the eye: "should the flower thank the soil / it would not bloom / guilt would dry the root ... gratitude is the refusal of love" (p 21). These lines are typical Soomets – uncompromising spirit and even cruelty in search of love – but it still sounds more mature than the paradoxes of her younger mannerist style or later classical poetics. It seems that with this book Soomets has finished the turning point in her work that ran through three books. It would be fascinating to see what comes next.  Soomets is a dynamically developing poet whose main subject matter is forever inexhaustible.

Berk Vaher. Sekeldaja päevad. (Bustler Days)
Tallinn, Tuum, 2004. 136 pp.

Berk Vaher has previously published two collections of short prose and one bulky novel, Lugulaul (Epic Story, 2002); he has also been a prolific critic. The current prose collection continues his earlier manner and circle of topics, although his former somewhat solipsistically baroque style has become simpler and more lucid. Vaher’s prose is often derived from certain characteristic features of youth literature, his characters are usually young people still seeking true love or some great awareness or understanding, and hence they relate to the world with bold and at the same time timid sincerity, without any fear of seeming ridiculous. Besides fictional stories, this book also contains brief fragments of the author’s own life and past. Vaher is a poetical author – the language of his stories abounds with metaphoric and impressionist descriptions, his stories are always a bit parabolic, following more archetypical relational schemes and playing them through in the specific conditions of contemporary youth (sometimes seen through an idealising glance). Vaher’s aesthetics in modern Estonian prose is quite unique, as he tries to avoid the main features of the dominating ‘low’ literature and instead offers a glimpse of life full of youthful enthusiasm and hope. The longest story, referred to in the title, tells about a young man who creates a special tiny country for his beloved somewhere in Central Europe, so that she could become a princess there. This fairy-tale essence, however, is conveyed in a free spontaneous mundane language of the young. The writer’s main message in today’s cultural situation might seem a bit old-fashioned and perhaps even a bit naïve – to maintain our sincere and admiring affability towards the world and seek beauty in its most sublime and natural form. Vaher’s prose is fascinating precisely because he tries to express no less than romantic idealism by the language and realities of today’s postmodernist cultural context.