Short Outlines of Books by Estonian Authors

by Rutt Hinrikus, Janika Kronberg

Doris Kareva: Aja kuju (The shape of Time)
Tallinn: Verb, 2006. 112 pp  ISBN 9985961544

Doris Kareva (1958) has firmly established her name among the most remarkable Estonian women poets. She is already considered as a classic (and the youngest among them), and since some of older poets have withdrawn from the active creative work, she has, in her turn, become an icon of a poet as the noble ruler of the words and of poetry as a magic of words. Her debut collection of poems appeared in 1978; by now, she has already published ten books of poetry; she has translated poetry from other languages and her work has been translated into 15 languages. The Shape of Time is her 11th collection, and as a rule, the appearance of her new books always becomes a literary event. Her sensitive and passionate verses have always found enthusiastic reception among her readers and she has been given a number of poetry prizes.

Having arrived at the Estonian literary scene in the 1970s and written much about emotions and love, she was sensitive to her time and reflected the voice of her generation. By now, her poetry has become stricter and more solemn; she rather expresses the eternal truth than small everyday truths. She speaks not only for her own generation, but for generations and eras. Existential elements have become stronger in her poems and her style has become more restrained; a young girl, who captured life with all her senses has become a middle-aged woman, who talks more about continuity, refinement and transfiguration. But love and its great opposite – death, fate and time, ever-ruling Chronos, have always had an important place in her work. She has started to listen to strange stories of the past, which “grind time so incredibly thin”. “Everything you want will come to you and recognise you and it becomes a part of you,” she writes, but – “the price you have to pay will revealed later”.

“When I sent you out of my door. Finally”, she recalls in a poem and in the next one she states, “I do not carry your photo in my purse any more”, and in another one she says, “I exercise old age, loneliness, forsakenness, poverty, want and non-being”. Her poems still retain that romantic bravado and recklessness, which characterise poets par excellence. She is striving for perfection, and wants to achieve as much honesty and simplicity in poetry as possible. “All bodies are perfectly different from each other/ like rivers/ when they flow towards the ocean./ One and the same spirit is flowing/ in all of them.” “Who has even for a moment perceived the beauty of the truth/ has launched his arrow straight/ into the heart of the world/ that spills living sap/ into his spirit and on his lips.” Kareva writes about time and eternity and the teachings of life – great and eternal truths – in her sensitive poetic language. But she also writes that “the best part of the day is night” and “we are sensual and arrow-like, hotly becoming younger”. See more about Doris Kareva in ELM No 2 and No 5.

Hasso Krull: Loomise mõnu ja kiri (Writing and the Pleasure of Creation)
Tallinn: ”Loomingu” Raamatukogu, 2006, nr. 5-6. 115 pp   ISSN 1406-0515, ISBN: 9985-853-82-2

Poet and essayist Hasso Krull (1964) started his literary career at the end of the 1980s by being an introducer of and apologist for post-structuralism and an enlightener and a guide to different currents of modern thought. About ten years ago, he launched the term ‘the culture of disruption’ into the field of Estonian cultural criticism, which has now been adopted and often used by many critics. Recently, Krull has more and more often returned to simpler wording and folk tradition and has, in his own work, attempted, if not to restore, then at least to point out a primordial syncretistic and unified way of perceiving the world. An example of this venture is his poetic work titled Meeter ja Demeeter (Metre and Demeter) (2004) and classified as an epic, which was awarded the Baltic Assembly Prize for literature in 2005.

Writing and the Pleasure of Creation is an essay written in fluent and simple language about the cosmology of our ancestors; during a short period, two editions of the book have already been printed. The essay, containing 35 fragments, first proceeds from the Estonian runo song and the images of an ancient golden time typical of many nations, but with additional comparative examples from the East and the West, but it soon arrives at wider generalisations and universals. Krull discusses the substantiality which is common to the song and the world, cosmic rhythms and the temporality of creation songs, magical knots of labyrinths, and the patterns that decorate wooden beer tankards, but the key figure connecting all this is the trickster – a prankster who can be found in the pre-Christian oral history of different nations, the primordial principle and the creator and holder of chtonic mystery. Although Krull’s treatment is mainly based on oral tradition, which he, however, does not contrast to written culture, he wittily points out that tricksters and other primordial creatures have found their place in literature and feel at home in our modern world.

Hopefully, Krull’s dynamic essay will inspire the development of both modern traditional culture and its study more than a fully serious scientific research could do. The author distinguishes between three principally different trends in folkloristic research: first, an inward-directed discussion based on realistic explanations or primordial animism; second, an outward-directed ascertaining and study of the migration, loans and influences of the motif; and third, an in-depth analysis. His own essay can clearly be located in the third trend. Although containing all the dangers that stem from abstraction, this is the most poetical and philosophical and, unavoidably, also the most fragmented trend. It still most fully meets Krull’s objective, because he avoids the reconstruction of the unified world-view of ancient people, but indicates the continuity of the ancient unity in the cultural signs and mentality of the 21st century. The creed of the book could be summarised in the belief that to recognise our own mythical other we have to enter the friendly labyrinth of the oral history of our ancestors.

Krull’s discussion is both spectacular and charmingly unpretentious, emphasised by an elegant point: he identifies himself with a ‘creational error’, an orphan or a herd boy, who has thrown a stone (his essay) to disturb the work of the loom of creation.

Tiit Aleksejev: Valge kuningriik (The White Kingdom)
Tallinn: Varrak, 2006. 197 pp  ISBN 9985-3-1230-9

Tiit Aleksejev (1968), a historian by training and a diplomat by profession, earlier published short prose with a good sense of an epoch, which helps him to capture genius loci in words. His first book, The White Kingdom, could be called an international novel, drawing its subject from the pasts of Estonia and of Europe. The novel is set mainly in Paris, the crossroads of relations between diplomats and special agents of dubious background; the intrigue proceeds from an incident in Afghanistan during the days of the Soviet invasion, which gives the book an additional temporal plane. The protagonist, the Estonian diplomat Rein, is a witness to events rather than an active participant. He mostly lives in the world of Parisian bouquinistes, which has an effect on his relations with women. Rein, who is represented through self-ironical reflections, is obviously close to the author; his ability to notice things, his sense of nuances and his skill in putting his experience of Paris into words are noteworthy. The following passage could well illustrate the witty historical dimension of the novel: “If we poured a mixture of wine, milk and honey into the potholes in Great Boulevards, I wonder about the spirits of the dandies who would crawl out of these holes. All the Baudelaires, Bubus and Pierre Hardys, with their tongues hanging thirstily out. And all the beverages in Paris could not quench their thirst.”

The White Kingdom is dynamic and full of witty dialogues, it contains action and we can feel the convincingly threatening atmosphere. As if to polemicise with the bestsellers, which reek of modern conspiracy theories and secret sciences, Aleksejev’s novel points out the crucial role of simple personal conflicts and a casual settling of accounts that are rooted in the past in triggering tragic events. Against such a background, the tennis games and fencing with words of Estonian and Russian diplomats, who traditionally belong to opposing parties, seem to be an innocent pastime in this novel. It can also be called an informal exchange of information (which it might well be in reality).

The title of the book originates from a (fictitious?) treatise, The White Kingdom, supposedly written in 1725, the volumes of which are exchanged by the characters of the novel. Still, it explains only the inertia of human nature. The effect of deceived hopes can be found in several scenes in the novel. Several characters uneasily feel that something is wrong. The wrong is the right is the wrong? A ‘wrong’ person is killed in the bloody settling of accounts between the members of the former special armed groups. This man used to be an acquaintance of Rein’s; later he was an official in an intelligence agency and his casual partner. But his death is only an anonymous piece of news for Rein.

Although the novel is not lacking in thrilling plot and witty descriptions, its strongest point is the author’s ability to give us wise analyses of human nature and the genius loci.

Nikolai Baturin: Sõnajalg kivis (A Fern in the Stone)
Tallinn, Eesti Raamat, 2006. 191 pp  ISBN 9985-65-529-X

Nikolai Baturin (1936) has always been fascinated by the spontaneity and expansiveness of nature – deserts, forests and the sea. The author, who has found inspiration from his years spent as a hunter in the taiga, has been getting nearer and nearer to the genre of science fiction and fantasy in his latest novels. His previous voluminous novel, Centaur, drew on classical mythology, motifs of Islam and Christianity and modern global problems.

A Fern in the Stone is, to a certain extent, a further development from Centaur, although instead of mythical content, it contains more elements of fantasy. The pace of the novel is fast: Nikolas Batrian, the commander of a submarine destroyer, is ordered to fulfill a training task somewhere on the South Atlantic, but instead of practice shells, they use nuclear shells to bomb the bottom of the ocean and an unknown submarine civilization is destroyed. Millions of dead human-like beings that surface after the attack dissolve in the water without leaving any trace. Although the reader can guess who the real culprit of this hecatomb (as the destruction of the civilization is called here) was,  the author turns to the problems of global guilt and responsibility. The crews of the submarines are arrested and isolated together with their commander in an especially cruel prison and they are forced to bear the guilt of the crime. Their trial drags on due to a lack of witnesses and unexpectedly revealed facts: the civilization living on the bottom of the sea had been created by humans so that it could survive the total deluge, the so-called global thawing, which was threatening the world because of the melting of glaciers. “We all have the same origins, we all come from the ocean and we’ll return to it. The highest peak of the world, Mt. Everest, was formed of limestone consisting of corals and lithothamnion. We live on the bottom of ancient seas and what could be more natural than to re-inhabit them again.” The commander Nikolas escapes with his crewmen in search of evidence but, not having found it, returns to the prison to shoulder the responsibility and die. Just before his execution, his inward-directed glance finds a beautiful world, and a book titled A Fern in the Stone, telling about his own life, opens before his eyes…

Baturin does not fear monumentality and pathos; he willingly heroises and commits to martyrdom his protagonist, whose name and views are so similar to his own that autobiography and fantasy run in unhindered parallel courses in the novel. His books can well be taken as magical realism and they are much appreciated by enthusiasts of science fiction and fantasy. In a threatening and ominous world, Baturin’s novel stands for an ethical mystery, aimed at restoring human values and saving life on the Earth. 

Helga Nõu: Ood lastud rebasele (An Ode to a Shot Fox)
Tallinn, EKSA, 2006. 231 pp  ISBN 9985-79-138-X

Helga Nõu (1934), who was a child of Estonian exiles in Sweden after WWII, was a part of the younger generation of exile Estonian writers. She has already published a number of new books in Estonia and has been smoothly integrated into the unified Estonian literary scene. The subject matter of her novels has, however, remained generally the same: the search of exiled people, who have grown up abroad, for their identity, the rediscovering of the once-lost homeland and the restoring of ties between different generations.

The plot of the novel unrolls like a mystery novel: the protagonist, who is at the moment staying somewhere in South Estonia, makes a phone call to her flat in Tallinn and a burglar answers. As the novel proceeds, we can also find features characteristic of ‘women’s books’. The reader learns about complexes that torment an Estonian woman who has grown up in Sweden. Soon the book focuses on the main character’s, Hanna’s, attempts to find, meaning to understand, her mother, who had perished together with the ferry Estonia in the stormy sea in September 2004. When Hanna, who had promised herself that she would never return to Estonia, still goes there, she experiences the same trauma from the opposite direction. The reader is also fascinated by semi-Biblical mysteries and aspects of the esoteric: in Estonia, Hanna tumbles into a nightmarish time-shift, witnessing an episode of the war events of 1944 and, having met some members of a strange St Elmo brotherhood, she discovers suddenly that she has been impregnated by mysterious Jehoshua, although she had thought herself to be barren. Only after that does she manage to establish a close relationship with her late mother, with whom she had not talked enough when her mother was alive. Estonia – the country of losses – now proves to be the country of discoveries. The broken thread of life is retied across death and a shift in time.

Nõu quite knowingly cultivates the soil ploughed by feminism and she does not aestheticise her characters. She describes the woman and her body with a post-feminist naturalness. The name of her hero, Hanna, originates from the Bible, where it was borne by a woman for whom childlessness was shameful.

As in other Nõu’s books, here, too, different planes are interrelated: relations between parents and children, exile and homeland, the past hidden in order to carry on living, the bringing of up children in exile Estonian families and the complexes and conflicts these children acquire in Swedish schools, the earliest erotic fantasies of young people and the persistence of those memories in their later lives, which is examined with the eyes of a psychoanalyst. As is typical of a good book, this one, too, offers more questions than answers, such as, ‘how should one cope with interrupted time?’, which is precisely what exile, the absence from one’s homeland, is. Or, ‘are sexual deviations characteristic of a generation that has grown up in exile?’ And ‘to what extent are the complexes that torment Hanna, her ambivalent yearning for and disgust with Estonia, conscious or unconscious?’

In Nõu’s work, an animal of some kind, helping to stress the animal urges, passions and instincts of humans as biological creatures, often acquires a key role. In Hanna’s time-shift episode, a tame fox, loved and cherished in a war refuge, and mourned when it is shot, becomes the symbol of the novel. This episode occurs in a place called Mällu, a name which directly refers to memory in Estonian (Mällu→mälu→memory). The novel as a whole depicts a journey to a virtual place that later fades away like a mirage. But its traces remain in Hanna’s memory – Mällu is the only place where Hanna meets her late mother, although it happens years after her death; and there she starts to understand her mother. Having returned to Sweden, she has to piece the fragments of her memory into a whole. The restoration of the wholeness of memory is the main prerequisite of biological fertility, and DNA acts as the hardware for genetic memory. How else can we explain the biblical miracle of Hanna’s impregnation?

Nõu’s novel is both serious play with the tragedy of history, and a magical theatre, where a miracle is born through the act of remembering.

Jan Kaus: Tema (He)
Tallinn: Tuum, 2006. 269 pp  ISBN 9985-802-87-X

He is the second large work of prose written by Jan Kaus (1971), the Chairman of the Estonian Writers’ Union. He has published in other literary genres and attempted his hand at music and art; he is also a prolific philosophical literary critic. Concerning this book, it is also important to know that for a short period of time, Kaus worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency.

Knowing all this, readers will expect a modern novel, and Kaus does not disappoint them. He is a psychological character novel, where the first person hero narrates his story, and constantly interrupts himself with other marginal, but witty, stories. The antihero Sten tells readers about his hedonistic life, facilitated by his job as a copywriter. The story is told in the form of an inner monologue of aphoristic style. Sten’s life, full of pleasures, has been messed up by his love affair with the stewardess Mirjam, and Sten, in his selfishness, does not even bother to understand or solve the conflicts that arise in this relationship. These conflicts are paralleled by Sten’s complicated relations with his parents, his attempts to understand his late father, who had for unclear reasons committed suicide in the toilet of a plane flying to Yerevan, Armenia and also the stories of a Puerto Rican gigolo, who resides at an Estonian farm in the woods, and a Russian whore, which all indicate the chaotic manner of human nature and human relationships. Sten is an individualist and loyalty to a group is alien to his nature; he enjoys not only the comfort and advantages that life offers him, but also pleasure for pleasure's sake, escaping into pleasure to find oblivion. The narrative takes a turn, and Sten is forced to abandon his habitual way of living and write down his story by a malicious event: the kidnapping of Mirjam and a demand for ransom. It is later revealed that actually there was no crime, and the kidnapping had been staged to put Sten to the test by the Society for Seeing Connections, which is engaged in social revenge.

At the somewhat cathartic finale of the book, which takes place in Helsinki, at Sten’s last meeting with Mirjam and in his inner monologue, held at her window, the positions of pronouns are changed. The ‘you’, or the reader of the book, whom the narrator had addressed earlier, and Mirjam – the former ‘she’ – exchange places. Suddenly, the whole book, all of Sten’s text, is addressed to Mirjam. Could it have been that the real protagonist of the book was ‘she’, not ‘he’? (There is no grammatical gender in the Estonian language, and one and the same pronoun refers to both ‘he’ and ‘she’ – hence the wordplay.) She had been the initiator of Sten’s narrative anyway. Does this change indicate a turn in the self-evaluation of the protagonist and the possibility of a new life, a new beginning of the journey? Kaus does not answer these questions, as this would be the subject of another novel.