Short Outlines of Books by Estonian Authors

by Rutt Hinrikus, Janika Kronberg

Jaak Jõerüüt: Sõber. Valik novelle 1979-2005 (A Friend. Selected Short Stories 1979-2005)
Tallinn, Tuum, 2005.  260 pp  ISBN 9985802802

Jaak Jõerüüt (1947) made his literary debut as a poet. In 30 years, he has published four collections of poetry (see ELM No 20, Spring 2005), a novel, a number of longer stories, a book of memoirs and four collections of short stories. His poetry has found acclaim with critics, his novel was given an annual literary prize, and two of his short stories have been awarded the prestigious annual Friedebert Tuglas short story prize.

The collection A Friend is a kind of a personal anthology, containing 24 pieces and drawing together the best selection from all his previous collections, and adding three new short stories. The book opens with Mr. Diksit, first published and awarded in 1980. Here, and in the other story that received the annual prize in 1990, Mr. Warma and the Light of the Full Moon, unexpectedly and briefly bring together two different ways of perceiving the world – those of an exotic visitor from India and his local host. Such brief touch of different worlds is surprising and leads us to think about the strange and the familiar, the illusory and the natural, about the nature of presents and the meaning of giving and receiving presents.

Relations between the illusory and the reality are repeatedly examined in Jõerüüt’s work. His short stories proceed from some reminiscences, often from some childhood memories, an unexpected meeting, a memorable situation or some observation. Several of the stories are reflections of some experience or images from memory; they are perfectly worded and refined. Compared with his earlier work, Jõerüüt has moved towards precision and perfection. He regrets the growing alienation and strives for better understanding, his prose is characterised by control and keeping his distance. In general, we could say that Jõerüüt’s subject is the relations of man with the world. He observes the world in a slightly ironical way, wishing to peel off the protective cover and see behind the traditional poses; he wants to dig deep to reach the core, the real essence of things.

Käbi Laretei. Otsekui tõlkes. Teema variatsioonidega (As in Translation. A Theme with Variations)
Tallinn, Tänapäev, 2005.  375 pp ISBN 9985623487

Käbi Laretei (1922) is a renowned pianist of Estonian origin who lives in Sweden. Her first short stories were published in newspapers under the title Kellele ma mängin (For Whom Do I Play) in 1970. Her career in music has been followed by a successful literary career (see also ELM 7, 1998). Laretei writes in Swedish, the subject of her works is memory. She writes about music and its meaning, and about the bitter experience of being apart from her homeland. She had to leave Estonia in 1940, and became an exile.

Comparing the positions of a musician and a writer, Laretei acknowledges that the audience and the composer meet only with the help a mediator, meaning the performer – the interpreter, but says that “the imaginary author can never be present when a reader meets with the written work”. Just like a musician, Laretei the writer is above all an interpreter. Her book As in Translation carries a subtitle A Theme with Variations and a motto, borrowed from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Life is not what you have lived, but what you remember and how you remember and how you tell the others about it.”

The story of one’s life is a construction material for the past. It allows her to cut her life into periods and give reasons for the decisions she has had to make. And just like any other person, a writer, too, creates an image of herself and gives account of her past through her life story.

As in Translation opens with memories of Ingmar Bergman, to whom Laretei was married for eight years, and with the memories of her visit to homeland in 1988. She recalls her youth in Estonia and her first marriage in Sweden, her children and her teachers. But mostly, As in Translation is about Ingmar Bergman, about their meeting and their life together, about their breaking up and about the friendship that followed and withstood. Laretei knew that the public expected such a book from her. Memory cannot be separated from life; each person carries his or her memories throughout the whole life. Laretei’s travels on the memory lanes are perfect, she views her past in an understanding and tolerant way. The book is very much personal, but at the same time, not too personal.

 At the beginning of the book Laretei discusses the genre of her books, refusing to call them novels, but also not wishing to call them autobiographies. Talking about a childhood friend of hers, she notices how she became a poetic image and got lost in the book. This can be an admission that her work is not solely non-fiction, but also fiction, a life that maintains relations with experiences, but still crystallises into something new. At the end of the book, Laretei again touches upon the autobiographical aspect of her writing, searching for the sources of courage to be sincere. She admits that at home, her work was taken as self-exposure, since in her earlier books she had discussed things that were usually not talked about (an abortion) and broken down certain walls. She also admits that when Ingmar Bergman dared to overstep such limits, she could not understand him.

As in Translation tells us about understanding and reconciliation; this is a mature and slightly melancholy book of an author who is a cosmopolite, but has also remained an Estonian. And as it has already been stated, life is not what overwhelms you, but it is what you remember and how you tell about it.

Hando Runnel: Sinamu (You-Mine)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2005. 101 pp  ISBN 998577177x

Hando Runnel (1938) can justifiably be called a living classic of Estonian literature. He began his literary career in the 1960s with simple song-like poems. In general, three different layers can be found in his work: sincere and devoted patriotic poetry which, in earlier decades, carried strong political subtext; rustic naughty songs based on the poetics of newer Estonian folk songs; and lyrical love poetry with sacral and erotic allusions.

Runnel’s latest collection of poems, with a title that does not translate easily, You-Mine, is an example of his lyrical love poetry, continuing the approach of his book Riddles, which was awarded the Estonian Cultural Endowment’s annual poetry award in 2000 (the Estonian language easily allows the formation of compound words; the title of the latest collections combines the Estonian words for ‘you’ and ‘mine’, resulting in a new word, which conveys meaning and looks like a grammatically correct Estonian word, although it is the author’s own creation). The key to the book can be found in its epigraph, borrowed from the Old Testament: ‘There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid’ (Proverbs 30: 18-19). Naturally, this well-composed book is centred on the last of these four. Wondering and admiration, and enthusiasm and inspiration are the prevailing attitudes, which are expressed in a simple language and image system, stressing the archaic and rejecting modern ways. The five cycles of the book are called songs, although formally they are written in quite an idiomatic free verse. The archaic spelling is stressed by capital letters, and the musicality of the text is revealed by phonetic instrumentation.

The title of the first song of the book, ‘Oi öelda’, could be translated as ‘Behold’, expressing surprise. Runnel examines simple, everyday expressions of life with a new eye, as though discovering the forgotten and thus making his poems surprises to the readers as well. His highly natural poetry is based on the awakening of instincts, which have been slumbering under postmodernist self-reflections and overburdened by inter-textuality. Runnel compares the mount of Venus with a beautiful landscape and, seeing the uncovered back of a maiden, calls all yet unborn children to drum against the walls of the womb. These suggestive incantations, sometimes as in a prayer and sometimes with good rustic irony, weave together the humane with the patriotic, the sacred with the profane, and the spiritual with the sensual.

Runnel’s poems, which admire carnality in the spirit of the Old Testament and Rabindranath Tagore, can also be taken as proverbs that aim their teachings at the new generations who carry on life. The words of the patriarch of Estonian poetry should be heard.

Jüri Talvet: Tõrjumatu äär (The Irrefutable Edge)
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2005.  525 pp  ISBN 9985771826

Jüri Talvet (1945), Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Tartu, the Chairman of the Estonian Association of Comparative Literature, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Interlitteraria, poet, essayist and translator, has published a voluminous collection of articles discussing the relations of Estonian literature and world literature. A large number of these articles have appeared in English and in Spanish in several literary publications and the fact that the majority of them are aimed at an international audience makes them even more noteworthy.

The book is divided into two cycles. The first and larger one draws together 21 theoretical discussions, explaining the terms and opening wider historical contexts, which form the basis for the 17 shorter articles of the second cycle, examining single authors or works. Talvet studied English philology, but later specialised in Spanish literature and culture; it is only natural that the theoretical basis of his works lies in the Ibero-American tradition, and also in later works of the founder of the Tartu semiotic school, Yuri Lotman, on the problems of boundaries, the periphery and cultures. Although Talvet acknowledges the merits and contribution to the development of literary thought of the movements that have stemmed from the positivism, psychoanalysis, formalism and sociology of modern Western 20th-century literary criticism, he does not pay much attention to them. As a result, his interpretations of literature are supported by a philosophy that is based on existentialism, further stressing the importance of dialogues that are held in border areas and on the periphery. For him, the emphasising of individuality and the approximation of philosophy and literature are the important components of resistance to totalitarian and unifying tendencies and serve as an opportunity to bring historicity and human consciousness, fragmented in particularism, to the foreground. Among other features, Talvet points out the insular self-centredness of Western culture, which has, in the border areas of different cultures, brought forth such desperate backlashes as suicide terrorists’ attacks on the World Trade Centre.

Being a representative of a small nation living on the periphery of Europe, Talvet has worked hard to apply his theory in practice, by following the reception of world literature in Estonia and furthering the dialogue between geographically distant peripheral areas. The best example of his activities is the publication of a Galician-language anthology of Estonian poetry in Santiago de Compostela, Spain in 2002. In this way, Talvet revives and brings to the attention of the readers of the 21st century the humanist and enlightenment ideas which inspired the birth of national literatures in many peripheral areas of Europe in the 13th-19th centuries, from Italy to the Baltic states, including Estonia, which acquired statehood only in the early 20th century.

A dialogue requires at least two parties. Talvet’s book has two aims – to examine world literature and its reception in Estonia, and to discover relationships between the two and make them more familiar to the foreign reader. He discusses Gracian, Calderón, Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno, Quevedo, Garcia Márquez and others, but also Jaan Kaplinski, Jaan Kross and Arved Viirlaid, whose works have been translated into other languages. He examines Hando Runnel, whose brilliant poetry is so deeply rooted in the Estonian language that it appears almost impossible to translate. And, naturally, he does not forget one of his predecessors in connecting Estonian with world literature – the poet and former professor of literature at the University of Oklahoma Ivar Ivask, devoting a number of essays to him.

Talvet’s The Irrefutable Edge is one of the masterpieces of Estonian literary history, and he has been nominated for the National Prize in the Humanities awarded by the Estonian Academy of Sciences.

Enn Nõu: Mõtusekuke viimne kogupauk (Capercaillie’s Last Salvo)
Tallinn, Eksa, 2005. 487 pp  ISBN 9985791193

The writers Enn (1933) and Helga (1934) Nõu, who live in Uppsala, Sweden, despite their years of birth, are a part of the youngest generation of Estonian exile writers that came into being after WWII. Enn Nõu fled his homeland with his parents as a young boy, grew up and worked as a much-appreciated lung specialist in a Swedish-language environment and made his debut as an Estonian-language writer in the 1960s. The new works of Enn Nõu and those of his wife and fellow writer Helga, which have been published in Estonia during the past 15 years, symbolise the joining together of the two branches of Estonian literature, which had been separated by the Iron Curtain.

Enn Nõu’s book Capercaille’s Last Salvo is a historical novel, framed with brief reminiscences of the exile Endrik, who had returned to his homeland after its having regained independence: it recounts his leaving and the decades spent abroad. We can guess that Endrik is the author’s alter ego, but using the notes of Endrik’s grandfather Timo, Nõu reconstructs much earlier historical events. The epic canvas of the novel rolls out as a saga of the people who emigrated from one of the Estonian islands, Muhumaa, to settle in a promised land in the Far East in 1907. The first four weeks of this journey – by train on the Great Siberian Railway, beginning at the western border of the fragmenting Russian Empire and ending in its south-eastern extreme, in the town of Vladivostok - is rendered with utmost circumstantial and geographical precision. This is like a journey to the end of the world. Later, the author’s omnipresent eye follows the settlers’ work, which is disrupted by the miseries of WWI, the violence triggered by the Revolution and deportations to Russia. Timo continues his journey as a seaman and soon returns to his home on the island of Muhumaa, but he is drafted into the army and has to leave for Russia again and fight in several places on the coasts of the Black Sea. The last episode of the novel deals with the violent sea battle between the Russians and Germans which actually took place in the Muhu Strait in the autumn of 1917. The wreck of the flagship of the Russian Baltic Fleet, the Slava, sunk in the battle, could many years later still be seen as a ghost in the shallow coastal water, attracting treasure-seekers.

The fidelity to detail of the novel, its historical credibility and careful observance of the chronology which the plot is based upon are the best features of the book. In its way, it resembles a research work branching off into several different stories rather than a carefully composed unity. In this eternal fundamental dilemma of historical prose which strives to preserve trueness to sources and credibility at all costs, while at the same time wishing to belletrise the material, the former is dominant. But as an image, the erotic and military motif of a wild bird, found in the title of the book, weaves the novel into a unity. Enn Nõu, who has in his earlier works often irritated more conservative readers with naturalistic and sexual scenes, is in this novel much more poetic and refined. The flagship Slava, comparable to the capercaille cock, sows death via its cannons; a real capercaille cock is shot when he moves toward a female bird; and exotic women in Russian brothels seduce men to sow their seed. But overall, the book is dominated by the bright overtones of love, which conquers sufferings and time.

Merca: Hele häärber (A Bright Mansion)
Tartu, Vilep & Vallik, 2005. 120 pp  ISBN 9949133793

Merle Jääger (1965), an actor at the Tartu theatre Vanemuine, who gives her name as Merc@ on the covers of her books, started her literary career as a punk poet in the late 1980s, when Estonian poetry as a whole, and especially punk as an alternative movement, had a strong social and political colouring. Among the many punk authors of the time, who mainly wrote song lyrics, Merca stood out for the literary value of her work. As an author of lyrics that inspired political struggle and the Singing Revolution, she was called the ‘nightingale of protest’. The two versions of her first collection of poetry, under the titles Merca by Air Mail and Merc@merka, were published by the Estonian Catholic priest Vello Salo in Canada in 1989; her second collection Old Whore’s Morning came out in Tartu in 1998.

Merca’s earlier patriotic poetry and illusionless punk romanticism have more and more often been replaced by rough and tragic love poetry, where an important role is played by different kinds of metamorphoses and embodiments. We can find here werewolf motifs, the robust alternation of Eros and Thanatos, even animal-like passionate intercourses and the natural odour of rot. Merca’s poetry seems to have been born out of the coupling of ancient folklore and decadence; it usually has rhymes and a dynamic rhythm, flinging uneasy trains of images towards the reader. It is no surprise that critics have considered her latest collection, A Bright Mansion, to be an extraordinarily cinematographic and morbid, absurd film, full of black humour, and including some homoerotic and sadomasochist undertones.

Since Merca has preserved the rebellious spirit of punk and the desire for freedom is natural for her, her poetry does not strive for perfection and cultivated form, although one of the cycles of this collection, ‘O, Danae’, is in the form of a sonnet sequence. Her orthography, however, so sharply differs from the norm that it can take some time to get into it. Instead of orthodox letters, in many cases she systematically uses other, different letters and symbols that sound like the habitual ones. She tortures words to break them into rhymes, mixes high and low styles, makes free use of vulgarisms and foreign words, lets the body fluids flow, and contrasts false morals and the glamorous façade of consumer mentality with liberality, at the same time overstressing its darker sides and referring to Aids and alcohol. The reader with healthy nerves could take Merca’s A Bright Mansion as a kind of Trainspotting in poetic form, which offers both enjoyable episodes and frightening visions.

It would be unfair if I did not draw your attention to the lyrical charm of totally different, melancholy and noble verses in the same collection. Their blues-like melancholy of the slum makes us forget Merca’s characteristic theatricality and we can sense some pure existential angst even in the couplings.

Tõnu Õnnepalu: Enne heinaaega ja hiljem. Luulet ja luuletõlkeid / 1983-2005 (Before Haymaking Time and Later. Poems and Translations / 1983-2005)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2005. 311 pp  ISBN  9985791290

Tõnu Õnnepalu (1962) became one of the most translated Estonian authors with his novel Border State, published in 1993 under the penname of Emil Tode. Before that, he had already published three collections of poetry; a longer philosophical free verse poem Mõõt (The Measure) came out in 1996. His latest collection of poetry, published at the end of 2005, includes both of these together with other poems that have appeared in newspapers and a number of unpublished works and two cycles of translations, containing works by Charles Baudelaire and Fernando Pessoa, written under one of his heteronyms Álvaro de Campos. Õnnepalu has also translated works by Marcel Proust and some other French authors, but namely Pessoa has had a noticeable influence on his own works, up to the fact that Õnnepalu, too, has changed pseudonyms and even in this collection, some poems appear under the names of Emil Tode and Anton Nigov.

Õnnepalu’s earlier poetry offered well-composed and rhythmic discreet and nuanced images of nature unburdened by connotations and idyllic conditions, which often displayed introvert features, the feelings of loneliness and anxiety. His poetry often reminded us of impressionist paintings, where the outlines of natural objects can be sensed in a hazy landscape. At the same time, the images in his work have always been exact and sharp despite the growing resignation and cultural boredom: the crosses on church spires kiss the silence and light of upper spheres, treetops dance in the depth of a wintry spring, …  In the lines devoted to an Estonian classic of poetry, Juhan Liiv, he says, “Light and shade alternate rapidly. Nothing is steady. There are distressingly many/ Nuances, the vague longing smells. Where does this longing lead.” Characteristically, the last sentence, although being a question, does not end with a question mark, since an answer is not expected and there are no meanings.

The poem The Measure discusses quite abstract subjects – the dichotomy of human life, nature and culture, an animal in us all, the flesh and the spirit – in religious and sometimes in symbolist key. The feeling of loneliness has obtained an already cosmic dimension, but the imagery of the work is still concrete and sensual. This is a Bible-like story of how the flesh became the word, but at the same time, it is stubborn and, floating between wakefulness and sleep, indifferent and neutral to the world. Õnnepalu seems to be an agnostic: the surrounding world cannot be fully experienced by the senses, therefore, it is useless to attempt to find meanings in it. However, the finale of The Measure is elevated, “To live means to be at a feast,/ To be an uninvited guest at the gods’ table.”

Remarkable in their own way are also the poems that have been published under the pseudonym of Nigov – “An Ode to Tallinn” and “An Elegy to Tartu”, the former being verbose, stingingly sarcastic and even vulgar and the latter – lyrical and melancholy. The book closes with a cycle “Written at the Address”, written in Bordeaux, France, depicting the temporality of human life through the death of the Pope, and in defiance of sanctity, stressing the carnality by demanding the right to life for the foetus.  

Jaan Kaplinski: Kõik on ime (Everything is a Miracle). Compiled by Toomas Salumets.
Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2004. Eesti Mõttelugu, Vol 55. 576 pp ISBN 9985771206, ISSN 1024-1604

The series of books Eesti Mõttelugu (The History of Estonian Thought) draws together essays written by modern Estonian scientists and intellectuals, as well as the works of already classic authors from all spheres of life. This collection, compiled by the Professor of Germanic studies at the University of Vancouver, Toomas Salumets, gives an overview of the ideas of one of the best-known and most translated Estonian writers, Jaan Kaplinski (1941), through his essays written in 1968-2002 on a variety of subjects, such as literature, ecology, colonialism, the problems of self-colonisation characteristic to oppressed nations, religion, cultural differences especially stressing the differences between the East and the West, and the modern global issues.

Already a couple of decades ago, Kaplinski declared in one of his poems that “it is time that aesthetics died”. Having started his literary career as a poet in the 1960s, he has lately written mainly essayist memoirs and conceptual prose, more and more rejecting the idea of ‘pure literature’ and refusing to make it serve the idea of nationalism. Kaplinski is a cosmopolite, a thinker not restricted by the limits of his nation – the fact itself is a paradox in a linguistic environment of a small number of readers. One of his most important points of departure is biocentrism, he serves and protects different expressions and forms of life. In some essays, which were initially inspired by some everyday feature of life, this can direct to global generalisations about the survival of the humankind. He quite often discusses traditional peoples – North American Indians or Finno-Ugric peoples – inspiring his readers to think about the sustainable way of life and the myth-based perception of the world of traditional cultures at our modern time of consumer culture. He is a counter-thinker and for him, the creative process begins with the questioning of convenient common beliefs. Being a free intellectual, Kaplinski makes a stand against the rash attempts at innovation for its own sake, seeing the world in its changes and developments and trying to warn against the dangers that accompany these changes. It is not an accident that Kaplinski’s way of thinking is also based on Taoist notions of path. In the essay About Myself, which is published the first time in this collection, he writes, “I work against the minimising of communication – I rewrite the signs in a longer form, I show people and things in a more complicated way. New ideas emerge in the course of such practice, and the habitual signs, opinions, descriptions and definitions change.”

In the thorough afterword to the collection, Salumets discusses the poetics of Kaplinski’s essays and defines it as an associative branching narrative, which cannot be subjected to an arranged presentation. His conclusion that Kaplinski’s essays strive for a balance of tensions, “which would meet both the longing for steadiness and need for hesitation, finding that culture is the survival strategy in the world that follows the logic of nature”, is probably closest to the point.

Mati Unt, Vend Antigone, ema Oidipus (Brother Antigone, Mother Oedipus).
Tallinn, “”Loomingu” Raamatukogu”, 2006, No 1-2. 96 pp   ISBN  9985853806,  ISSN 1406-0515

The fame of a prodigy of Estonian literature followed Mati Unt (1944-2005) all through his life; after his death on 22 August last year, he was even named a key figure of the newer Estonian culture. He published his naïve and realist debut novel Hüvasti, kollane kass (Goodbye, Yellow Cat) when only a schoolboy, and untiringly, wrote prose, plays and essays and adapted literary classics to the stage. His urbanist novel Sügisball (Autumn Ball), which came out in 1979 and caused lively discussions even in Finland, has been considered to be the first landmark of Estonian postmodernist literature. In his later works, Unt less and less used real life as the subject of his works; the trend can be seen in his latest books of prose: in 1992, he rewrote his first novel under the new title of Tere, kollane kass! (Hello, Yellow Cat!), and after that, published only one more novel, a cultural historical and literature-based Brecht ilmub öösel/ Brecht bricht ein in der Nacht (Brecht Appears at Night).

During the last decades, Unt was mostly a productive theatre director, whose range stretched from intimate chamber dramas to open-air performances, operas and musicals; very often he also created the stage design and musical design of his productions.

The play Brother Antigone, Mother Oedipus, published already after his death, opened at the Tartu theatre Vanemuine in 2003 and was awarded the Estonian Cultural Endowment annual prize of the same year. This is a magnificent spectacle, a triptych based on classical tragedies, mainly using Euripides’s The Bacchae and The Phoenician Women, and Sophocles’s plays Antigone and Oedipus the King. But Unt, being a witty and sensitive mixer of most different sources, has related the parts borrowed directly from the classic playwrights with modern allusions, a Pasolini’s film script, Pushkin’s work, Estonian classics of poetry and folklore and numerous other features. The book contains six pages of references to the used works and to other publications that have had some kind of influence on it.

In order to explain this book, Unt has called it an approach to the initial moments of European culture and its strange title is only meant as a shocking hint at the sexual ambivalence of Greek mythology. Another modern attitude is the author’s denial of any additional connotations in the play, although the programme of the play referred to present-day terrorism as one of the most important modern political problems. The leading theme throughout all acts of the play is xenophobia – Dionysos and his raving Bacchae are strangers, as well as Oedipus – the patricide who becomes a king; his son, half-brother Polyneikos and Antigone are all strangers. This strangeness is at times marked by the unintelligible text that mimics the Greek language. In a wider design, Unt’s play has been seen as a tragedy, placed into the modern context, which points out the danger of a disaster that may approach together with the total alienation of power. The problem is timeless and the classical drama does not strive for truthfulness of the historical period – Pentheus drives to the stage in a motor vehicle, the choppers buzz overhead and modern slang can be heard on stage. The texts of classical authors have only been the basis and groundwork of the play, providing the context for close examination, either with blood-dripping dramatics or playful absurd humour, of the solitude of man and the fatal inevitability that accompanies him everywhere.

Unt’s treatment of classical dramas has already been compared with Nietszche’s treatise The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. In his work, Unt strove to see the world in its mythical and unified essence, contrasting the rules and canons with romanticist freedom and ecstasy and always searching for the new. But in his approach, the finale of the tragedy does not necessarily have an emotional and tragic effect. Oedipus has punished himself by blinding his eyes. Polyneikes is dead. Antigone, Haimon and Eurydice are dead. The words of the Great Master, now reaching us from the Other Side, have a symbolic and soothing value. These are the last lines of the play, borrowed, again, from Estonian poetry, “But our poor play, you know,/ Only lives in the floodlights.”