Short Outlines of Books by Estonian Authors

by Rutt Hinrikus, Janika Kronberg

Ervin Õunapuu. Meie igapäevane jää. Eesti gootika III
(Our Daily Ice. Estonian Gothic III)

Tallinn, Varrak, 2006. 257 pp  ISBN: 9789985313282

Ervin Õunapuu has found a firm place in the consciousness of the Estonian reading public as a tough critic of religion and a sovereign free thinker. His stories are clear, his images are vivid and his provocative attitudes have irritated religious circles. From the viewpoint of an independent, free and dignified man, the author primarily attacks the institutions which strive to affect mass consciousness, and he stretches the nerves of fanatics and missionaries of any creed. His weapon – his word – is sharp, sometimes even piercing, and he may even develop it into the grotesque and absurd.

This novel is a sequel to two previously published collections of short stories under the same title, Estonian Gothic. It begins with a memorable episode about a message recorded in the sea ice somewhere on the Estonian coast. From there, the fragmentary and dramatic action starts to roll, seen from different points of view and supported by biblical and historical allusions. The namesake of the Christianiser of Estonia, Bishop Albert, arrives by sea from Rostock, and the namesake of a Swiss church reformer, Ulrich Zwingel, comes by plane from Amsterdam. A religious war is about to break out on Estonian soil. Zwingel has the task of destroying the rebel Albert. But, actually, no one is what he seems to be, and nothing is what it seems to be. Zwingel, together with his allies, is engaged in a war against global atheism. Bishop Albert bows to Islam and wants to merge the two spiritual and cultural heritages into one, as he feels this is the only way to restore paradise on Earth. Both the weapons and pleasure substances used in the book are culturally determined. Zwingel’s aim is to buy, using the services of the real estate firm Holy Land, a large plot of land by the sea, to restore a medieval monastery and launch a mission by sword against the dirty and sinful folk who are ready to receive the Good Message only after having had their heads cracked. Albert’s weapon is the poisonous hallucinogen ‘angel trumpet’.  

Õunapuu, who is also an artist, is a perfectionist and pays a great deal of visual attention to characteristic details. But his trueness to detail is imaginative and surreal. The clever motif that brings the religious warrior Albert to Estonia is the stone of Kaaba, a stone from the sky that the archangel Gabriel had broken into two pieces. Everybody knows that one piece is located in a site holy to Muslims, but the other piece has fallen somewhere in the Nordic area. The geographer al-Idrisi, known as the first to mention Tallinn in a recorded document, was actually in search of this other piece of the stone.

Religious criticism in the novel points to the initial unity of the three major religions. The book cover design refers to the intertwining of religions and to messianic syncretism; the text arrives at this point when Bishop Albert, together with his companions, reaches one of the oldest Estonian churches, where a mural supposedly depicting Jesus turns out to actually depict Muhammad. In this church, Bishop Albert designs a new True Trinity, the symbol of the Trinitarian mysticism: “He brought a thick carpenter’s pencil out of his pocket, squinted his right eye and drew a cross on the whitewashed limestone wall. Under the longer branch of the cross, he drew a half-moon and, finally, outlined a six-branched star on the tip of the cross.”

Beyond the thrilling and somewhat ludicrous plot, Our Daily Ice can also be read as a novel about the fate of a small nation standing at the crossroads of different cultures. “This book is written in water,” proclaims Õunapuu in the epigraph and, at the end of the novel, the frozen texts of this language are searched for in the Vatican ice archive. The existential anguish caused by the too-low resonance of the language of a small nation is underlined by the question concerning the language that will be spoken when the three prophets of the Heavenly Father – a Palestinian, a Jew and an Estonian – start to govern the new world, first in Estonia and then throughout Europe. It will happen when the first oasis of the new faith Krislam comes into being. Will the language be Estonian, Latin, German or Arabic? The cover of the book features a cross; the half-moon and the Star of David on one of its branches will form the symbol of the new faith and the new people.

Õunapuu’s style is categorical and uncompromising; only at the end of the book does he go too far, by making his warriors of faith puke from eating the hallucinogenic plant angel trumpet, and by calling the whole story an April fool’s joke. But his humour is bitter and it echoes his question concerning the future of Europe.

Kaardipakk II
(Deck of Cards II)
Tallinn: Näo Kirik. 2006.  ISBN-13.978-9949-13-842-5; ISBN-10:9949-13-842-6.

It was five years ago that five Estonian poets appeared before readers for the first time with a poetry collection printed in the form of a deck of cards. The idea turned out to be very popular, so popular, in fact, that a second printing was ordered.  Now the same group is back, and the pack of cards has expanded to twice its size: now it would even be possible to play bridge with it.

    The idea is a good one, and it is polyfunctional—on each card a poem is printed, on some the poet’s photo as well, so one can play a game and at the same time nourish one’s mind or soul by reading poetry.  The form of a card pack allows one to ignore the editor’s choice, as the sequence always changes, each time you shuffle.  The organisation and imperative which always characterises group collections is lacking.  Even the publisher is a small one, Näo Kirik (Face Church), a play on words.  In Estonian the word is a declension of face (nägu), chosen because it sounds like the place name Mäo in Central Estonia, where, according to the publisher, strange things happen. Asko Künnap,  the initiator of both the idea and the publishing house, who is also one of the authors of the anthology, calls himself the earthly representative of this „church”, though he is indeed also active in the advertising field.  He thinks up new modes of existence for books, but refuses to exploit the possibilities offered by the internet.  This is because the internet is ostensibly for more functional things.  Thus the pack of cards serves both the purpose of preserving books and preserving information channels: the result is an example of the mixture of high and low, poetry and card-playing, poetry and advertising.

    All of the authors of the anthology were born in the decade 1969-1979, and are known and recognised figures in Estonian poetry.  Künnap, who has published a few collections, tends toward the gambler in his texts; the fairy tale quality and surrealism basic to him is generative of new fictional worlds. With his slight inclination to a „green” way of thinking, he crafts an opposition between, on the one hand, the westernised mentality of Indo-Germanic peoples and those subjected to them in the distant past and, on the other, aboriginal romanticism and the world of his own creation.  In some of his poems he forgets himself, and finds himself wandering around there with his eyes closed in meditation.

    The women authors in the collection are somewhat contradictory: Triin Soomets` brief verses are charged with psychological tension; what speaks in them is spiritual and physical passion, and the quest for balance between them.  This is poetry which is at once personal and individual, remaining thoroughly in contact with reality, but striving to open to territory beyond, carried by the intent to reach one’s deepest core, the recognition of one`s life and liveliness through pain.  Elo Viiding is, rather, social and intellectual.  The asterisks underneath the poems signal to the reader that cards can also be used to explain things, that the cards—in the case of this pack, the poems, have meanings.  Viiding sets silence and lack of voice against each other; what speaks in her is one who seeks to change the world, not a gambler.  She preaches as a strong woman, and draws attention to the fact that the things that matter in the world are justice and memory.  And that with cards it is possible to predict the future.

    In the fast-paced free verse of Jürgen Rooste there is bravura, rowdyness, and anarchism.  He is shameless in parodying the dusty cleanliness of the classics, and has no truck either with hangovers or warm feelings, be they for close companions or humanity at large.  Karl-Martin Sinijärv is equally known for his cooking as for his poetry, and among other things, writes restaurant reviews.  His gourmandise is visible also in the linguistic play of his poetry.  He is ripe, much more laconic than Rooste, though he shares with him the poetic persona of bravura and the image of a forceful, pushy bohemian.  

Andrus Kivirähk. Mees, kes tundis ussisõnu
The Man Who Knew Snake Spells. 
Tallinn: Eesti keele Sihtasutus 2007. 381 pp. ISBN 978-9985-79-178-3.

Andrus Kivirähk has plenty of imagination, talent, and productivity.  Considering Estonian circumstances, his books have become real bestsellers, but he has also received considerable critical acclaim.  Kivirähk has written feuilletons, television scripts on current events, novellas, and successful plays.  „The Man Who Knew Snake Spells” is his fourth longer work of prose.  

    If Kivirähk did not have a natural inclination toward being a writer of comedy, then „The Man Who Knew Snake Spells” would be a tale of endless sadness.  The background of this work, which blends together a wealth of fairy tales and folkloric material is the Christianisation of Estonians, which began in the 13th century, and which laid the groundwork for changing the thinking and way of life of the indigenous people.  Leemet, the first-person protagonist of the novel, is one of the last of the forest-dwellers, who was born in a village, but whose family soon returned to live in the woods.  Leemet lives the way his forefathers did, eating the flesh of wild animals, using his knowledge of snake spells to communicate with animals; owl`s eggs are his consummate delicacy, while he vomits up bread made from grain grown on the village fields.  The novel is chock full of polarities, pushed to the point of absurdity, which are ultimately derived from the natural life of the forest and its opposite, life in the village, complete with  quirks of a new era and foreign customs.  On one side there is life lived close to nature, animal skins for clothing, hunting, shanks of meat baked on a fire, and a carefree life of a cave.  The forest people can still remember the times when they enjoyed hallucinogenic mushrooms, though more and more they are being replaced by wine stolen from the monks, usually after killing them.   Wolves are used as beasts of burden, and they give rich milk; snakes are the friends of humans.  People even winter in the snakes` caves.  Since few men are left in the woods, women sometimes pair up with bears. In the memories of the few remaining forest-dwellers, the ancient golden age lives on.

    On the other side, agriculture and foreign customs are taking root: people wear woven clothing, and eat „European food, fit for people of more refined taste.” The new era, foreign customs, and following the latest fashion in today’s sense are ridiculous to the core: for example, the enthusiastic followers of Christian musical culture in the village talk about the castrati with beautiful voices, who sing somewhere far away in Rome; they sum up their own regrettable fate as follows: „Here in these parts they don’t cut off balls. After all, this is the outer reaches of civilisation.”  In the words of one of the village youths, their life could not be better, as it is a good thing to work in the fields by day, sing hymns to God in the evening, and after that to „fuck the broads.”  The agricultural tools brought by the foreigners—the sickle and the rake, are objects of particular scorn.  Working in the fields is compared to the scurrying around of dirty ants.  Clever remarks like this spill forth as from a cornucopia.

    From time to time violent action intrudes on the scene.  In the case of Kivirähk it is by no means impossible that a man whose legs have been chopped off makes himself wings out of the bones of the enemy he had killed, and armed with these, attacks  knights` castles and monasteries, as in fact happens in this novel.  Thanks to grotesque and crazy imagination, the most repulsive episodes never become intolerable; rather, the reader is able to maintain perspective, to look at these with a smile and a sidelong glance.  Kivirähk tells it all as if it were quite „ordinary.”

    Yet these polarities cannot be considered straightforwardly.  Through the human monkeys Pirre and Rääk the author caricatures extreme conservatism and a longing for the ancient past: in their rejection of modern times, these people do not even find life in the cave to be tolerable, and set up house at the top of a tree, which may be uncomfortable, since the pine needles scratch their bare cocks. All in all, the last forest-dwellers are afflicted by a deepening degeneration.  Leemet, who is usually clever and able to make adjustments, is not able to get used to the life of the village, even though he is prepared to live with the daughter of the village elder, and adopts the child she had with a knight.  But even this attempt ends tragically for all, and only speeds up the protagonist’s isolation.  And so the main character, with the smell of home in his nostrils, is forced to admit: „ We were still nothing but shades, which get longer just before sunset, only to disappear forever.  I, too, am lost.  Noone knows that I am still alive.”

    The story Kivirähk tells is sad and tragic, resembling a fairy tale; it is imaginative, grotesque, and amusing, but at the same time it illustrates historical changes, which do not lack in depth.

Jüri Ehlvest. Palverännak
. Tallinn: „Tuum,” 2005. 248 pp. ISBN: 9985-802-83-7.

Jüri Ehlvest, who died last year on the 11th of October, was an adventurer and creator with a restless soul.  The motif of the journey is also central to his literary works.  The writer, who would have turned 40 on the 15th of March this year, clearly derived inspiration from the chafing of cultural boundaries, as well as from accidents in interpreting the signs of foreign cultures.  Ehlvest was fascinated by the unknown, the mysterious, the esoteric, and the cryptic, and if he could not find enough of the cryptic in reality, he made it up in his writing.  Critics have referred to his works with the expression ‘abyss of stories’, and they indeed consist of strange combinations of dreams, novella fragments, hallucination and reality, into which the reader stumbles and gets caught.  Nevertheless, taken together together, however fragmentary or confusing they may seem, they make up a whole, and  catharsis may take place in spite of it all.

    Pilgrimage is also the story of a journey.  The epigraph comes from the Gospel according to Matthew: „It is not that which comes from outside a person that pollutes him, but that, which comes from within.” (15:11), and this already points to the double dimension of this journey.  The chronologically jumbled events, about which we are warned in the „Prologue, which would also do for an epilogue”,  take place in a jumpy cadence across many different locations—the Visby Writers’ House, Prague, Belfast, Tartu, an insane asylum, and a gasoline station somewhere in Poland.  Rome appears from time to time as the horizon of longing proper to a pilgrimage, but before that the story takes the first-person protagonist to a turkey slaughterhouse in Ireland, where he is earning money in the pre-Christmas season.  This is a personal experience—realistic and naturalistic, and from it spin out many of the novella fragments that constitute the novel.  A key symbol in the text is the protagonist`s love letter to his wife, which he has torn to shreds and is trying to piece together like a puzzle.  The rips in the letter remind the author of his own soul.  According to Ehlvest, piecing together the puzzle resembles composing and ordering his soul, even though the result, the whole that presents itself to his eyes, may be totally different from his prior experience.  This, too, has everything to do with the journey to one`s own depths, which runs parallel to all of the locations where the novel takes place.  Throughout the author is borne along by his belief in the healing, world-mending effect of creativity: „This book has an idea; it has to change something in this world.  In one person`s life.”  This person is the reader, toward whom the writer turns repeatedly, wittily explaining aesthetic, philosophical, even financial considerations connected with his work.  And the reader, though baffled by the book`s quite intentional complexity, cannot remain indifferent.  Ehlvest presents complexity with esprit, sees unexpected connections, and chooses unusual approaches.  Ehlvest actualizes the meaning of literature, discusses the problematics of literary ontology, and as he plays with his reader, keeps deferring the solution, repeatedly creating the effect of betrayed expectations.

    As a novel, Pilgrimage can also be read as a love story, which as a chain of interruptions takes place both in reality and in the spiritual darkness of its writer. Indeed, this is a novel that traverses the intermediate terrain between waking, dream, and awakening either into a new dream or hallucination.  One metaphor  for a „sacred journey with fortunate ending” is a strange episode, which nevertheless bears the characteristic marks of the author: a description of the journey of turkey carcasses from hooks in the slaughterhouse until their final destination: „ we are full of apples, we are golden, we are carried on expensive plates, happy women sigh when they see us, and children rejoice.  The candles are glowing, it is a party.”  This is indeed the place where eternal life begins.  

    In the last years of his life, Ehlvest also often spoke of happiness as the goal toward which one should strive.  The last sentence of Pilgrimage, the word the writer bequeaths to the generations that follow him, resonates convincingly for those who have made the passionate journey through the novel: „We shall be happy.”

Madis Kõiv
Näidendid. Plays I. 
Tartu: „Akkon” 2006. 503 pp. ISBN- 13 978-9985-9739-1-2.

 The respected physicist Madis Kõiv, now of venerable age (born 1929) was a relative latecomer to literature.  He first stepped before the public beginning in the late 1970s in collaboration with other writers, with  plays and one novel; only in the last decade of the 20th century did those works he had written ‘into the drawer’ some twenty years earlier begin to reach the stage.  From that point on it was impossible to imagine Estonian literary life without Kõiv: in addition to plays, radio plays, and two film scenarios, he has published a few novels, four volumes of memoirs-- difficult because of the combination of events and the thematics of the reconstruction of memory; short prose and essays, in which discussions of literature are rendered fresh due to the often unconventional gaze of the bystander.  In addition, Kõiv has not made a secret of his passion for classical German and analytical philosophy, and has admitted of the influence of Martin Heidegger—metaphysical and analytical lines of reasoning are visible in his writings.

    In the solid expanse of Kõiv`s creation, special weight should be given to his plays: he has admitted that thinking in  dramatic form is what comes most naturally to him; his plays have attracted the most attention and brought him the greatest recognition.  Despite their somewhat intellectual heaviness, and the fact that often the writer does not seem to be thinking about the real possibilities of the stage, the plays require congenial and resourceful producers.  Here may also lie the reason why Kõiv is unanimously considered to be the renewer of Estonian theatre at the turn of the century. As a philosopher Kõiv often asks after the ‘ultimate truth’, even as he admits that it cannot be achieved; as a physicist he composes long trains of thought, often in strong contrast to the point of view of the earthy characters that permeate his plays.  The author himself does not switch roles; his creation, despite its many-sidedness, is consistent, representing quite an unconventional process on the literary scene.  

    The first volume of Madis Kõiv`s planned four-volume set of collected plays brings before the reader six plays, representing different aspects of the author`s work, complemented by a useful introduction by theatre professor Luule Epner.  The play Las olla pääle (Let it be), on the Estonian poet Ernst Enno represents cultural historical material; it brings into relief Kõiv`s sympathy for ‘closeness to the people’, a tendency that has unjustly become marginalized and has been undervalued as ‘simple in texture’.  The identity drama Faehlmann, based on a wealth of factual source material, and co-authored with writer-psychoanalyst Vaino Vahing, also belongs to this type.  Here there is a skillful combination between a historical panorama of the mid-19th century and Estonians` budding search for national identity.  References to historical characters can also be found in plays such as Kammertükk (Chamber Play) and Turba philosophorum, but  these reveal rather a subjective and visionary impulse.  The first of these is populated by characters belonging to different periods and spaces, such as Socrates, Napoleon, a dim-witted person bearing the initials F. N, and World-Class Author, whom we can recognize as Lev Tolstoi from the allusions to the Kreutzer Sonata.  In the second, the title of which could be translated as ‘philosophers` quarrel’ or ‘confusion’, the main character is Johannes Brahms, who is in the midst of composing his 7th symphony, and yet not a famous composer.  Kõiv has used great figures from European intellectual history, including both musicians and composers in others of his plays.

   Castrozza is based on old legends of a black magic artist who wandered around Livonia in the 19th century, but the action is relocated to a similar mountainous region in Switzerland.  At the center of the story is a man who has lost his memory,  who has landed in an isolated district and caused social intrigue and violence there.  In this play one can recognize Kõiv`s close proximity to existential drama, but also some autobiographical impulses: the author himself has spoken of his dramatic experience of altitude sickness in the 1960 in the Pamir Mountains, which caused him to stop doing scientific research for a period of time, while he temporarily expressed himself through  literature.

    Finally, some of Kõiv`s plays are covers for key works of Estonian and world literature.  In the current volume this direction is represented by The Magic Mountain, based on Thomas Mann`s great work.  Critics have pointed to the importance of Kõiv`s skill to dramatize time, and with his special textual world to create an atmosphere spanning the snowy heights and the darkest depths of the human character.  The construction of such a textual world has been influenced both by Shakespeare`s totality and the absurdity of Beckett`s dialogues.

Tarmo Teder. Onanistid
(The Onanists)

Tallinn, Tuum, 2006. 224 pp   ISBN: 9789985802953

Tarmo Teder (1958) has published seven books, mostly collections of short stories. The Onanists is his second novel.

Teder is one of those authors who prove to us that reports of the death of realism have been greatly exaggerated. His short stories tell us of the world of men, and they have the power and purpose to depict life in its most natural way. The stories are linear and each is centred on a colourful main character. Actually, the stories are rather rough: the characters may belong to the bottom layers of society, and often they are losers or bohemians who have been seriously hurt by the limits and conventions of society. Teder always takes the side of “little people”, but his little people are never totally defenceless; often, they can very cleverly find ways to save themselves, and they are full of bravado and ready to fight back, no matter what happens. Such characters and their actions are often quite funny. These people are active and they never get boring. The only thing they seem not to be able to succeed in is cheating and outsmarting others.

The book’s subtitle is “A Hundred Hours in the Life of a Cultural Journalist”. Teder has written about journalists before; he knows them and their life well.  The main character of The Onanists, Rudolf Teenus, is a chronic alcoholic, whose life philosophy does not contain too many taboos. If he could bother to define his motto, it would be a practical piece of advice: “Take from where you can take”. He is not taken aback by anything but, in the book, he often runs into situations that would scare even as cool a man as him. His drunken adventures grow into a series of comical events. The overall tone of the novel is social, not moral. If we looked for Teder’s analogue in world literature, we could call him an Estonian Venedikt Erofeyev.

Teder has said that, under the seeming flatness and shallowness of The Onanists, there is hidden a deep personal tragedy, whether we take it as a tragic comedy or a farce. When shaping the character of Teenus, he had in mind a kind of good-intentioned loser who will always end up under the wheels of life. Teenus, who moves from mishap to mishap, is offered, at first glance, a favourable deal to become a guinea pig in a centre for the scientific study of onanism. He soon leaves the place and believes that he will start a new life. Onanism, thus, serves as a wider metaphor for directionless and futile fertilisation. Still, the title image of this novel, which is among the best of the year, is the most questionable and artificial detail of the work.

Ülo Mattheus. India armastus (The Love of India)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2006. 196 pp  ISBN: 9789985791479

Ülo Mattheus (1956) is the author of two novels and two collections of short stories. He published his first book in 1981; The Love of India is his third novel.

Mattheus is more of a thinker than a plotter, spiritual quests within the framework of mostly eastern philosophy are essential for the characters of his novels. As a writer, Mattheus considers it important to find a certain atmosphere for his novel; its air is light and spacious.

The Love of India is subtitled Fragments of Letters, this is a novel in letters written by the main character to his beloved – Beloved – when travelling in India. Trying to understand the secret of inner peace, he follows his spiritual companion, Buddhist monk Choe Jor, whom he would want to ask about the meaning of being, but he is well aware that there is no singular answer to such a question. Thus, The Love of India is not a superficial description of a pleasure trip of a modern tourist to add still another country to his collection of discoveries, but rather, a trip to India is another leg in a journey to the essential principles of being.

Mattheus does not describe his impressions of cities or temples or other specific places; neither does he retell already familiar myths. The fictional author of the letters lives under two spells, he is bewitched by love and fascinated by India. When stopping in hotels at the foot of the Himalaya, visiting monasteries, studying the Tibetan language and attending dharma lessons, the protagonist describes his experience, and shares his thoughts. The reader passes through the author’s experiences as if he participated in them, as if he was a co-addressee of the author’s letters and by this, also the companion of the writer of these letters. The fact, whether the letters are real of fictitious, has no importance, the book is a poetic text about the Oriental experience of a European, about his attempts to understand the essence of India and Buddhism, but also, about his wish to understand the meaning of life, time and death.

The book has an effect similar to a poem, which does not require ready answers, but offers the joy of participation. Although the deeper and detailed understanding of the spirituality of India remains declarative, we could well be content with the realisation: Today, I suddenly recognised India, but I have not found the words to express this feeling.

Mats Traat.  Naised ja pojad. (Wives and Sons)
Tallinn, Looming, 2006, 2-5
Mats Traat.  Sarviku armastus. (Old Devil’s Love)
Tallinn, Looming, 2006, 11

Mats Traat earned a double praise for his fiction in 2006: his novel Wives and Sons, which was published in a literary magazine Looming, and has not yet come out as a book, was proclaimed the best prose work of the year, and his short story Old Devil’s Love was given the Tuglas short story award. In addition to that, Mats Traat was given the 2006 Cultural Award of the Republic of Estonia for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement.

Mats Traat who celebrated his 70th birthday in November 2006, is a living classic, who has published more than 60 books and is one of the most important Estonian prose writers. He is also the author of a number of poetry collections and an outstanding writer of short stories. His works map Estonian history through the stories of people, he writes about being an Estonian, but foremost, he writes the history of Estonian peasants.

Wives and Sons is a part of Traat’s monumental series Mingem üles mägedele (Across the Mountains). This is a great series of historical novels about the life of peasants; such works were mostly written in the first half of the 20th century. Wives and Sons is the 11th part of the series, which already amounts to almost 1600 pages. Most of the volumes of the series can be read as independent works, not requiring knowledge of other parts. The prologue to the epic series, a short novel Puud olid, puud olid hellad velled (Trees Were, Trees Were Tender Brothers, 1979), is a separate masterpieces focussing on the tragic conflict with reality of a dreamy young man, who was forced to take over a farm when still too young. The main intrigue of the series is initiated in Across the Mountains (1979), describing the life of Estonian peasants at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century (see Elm 05). In each new volume, the series draws nearer to the present time. Wives and Sons is set in the economic crisis of the early 1930s. Farm owner Hendrik has had to mortgage his farm; his family has to make do in a very difficult situation. Everyday life is centred on small problems and offers very little for the soul. The author’s empathy is admirable – he delves into the country life of the period, uses dialect in the speech of his characters and perfectly knows the conditions of the period. The mistress of the farm is finally hit by a surge of passion, whether the last moment of joy, or a sin that has to be redeemed? Her body is quickly ravaged by cancer and the master of the farm Hendrik, still full of vitality, buries her and finds a new wife. The novel concludes with the birth of Hendrik’s eleventh child, his ninth son. Life is not easy and for country people, life is a difficult task that has to be fulfilled. But for many generations it was natural and they made no pompous words of patriarchal peasants as the pillars of a nation.

Wives and Sons is a good realist novel, and an achievement among the novels published in 2006. As several outstanding novels of Traat have not found enough renown in recent years, the shower of awards may try to compensate it, but it may also mark a return to permanent values that are the themes of the whole of Traat’s work.

The short story Old Devil’s Love is an example of Traat at his very best. This is another cultural historical story (see also Elm 07), the protagonist of which is a writer and schoolteacher Jakob Tamm, who is hopelessly in love with his pupil. The author changes viewpoints and observes a period in the life of sentimental, honest, true and patriotic poet from near and afar, seeing it through the poet’s own eyes, through the viewpoint of a young girl and through the prism of time and history. A casual co-traveller asks the poet: “Whose shoulder can you lean on? Estonians have no literature.” It is the end of the 19th century, the poet is desperate because his dream of happiness has failed and because the role of ideals has become negligible in life. The author states that “a different world is mirrored in each drop of water” and “no matter how love is revealed to people, it is a blessing, no matter whether it is answered or not.” This short story portrays sensitively a human life with its emotional anguish and places it in an exact temporal context.

Indrek Hirv. Surmapõletaja
(Death Burner)

Tallinn, Tuum, 2006. 167 pp ISBN: 9789985802946

Indrek Hirv (1956) studied ceramics, and graduated from the Tallinn Art Academy; he is a member of the Estonian Artists’ Union (since 1985) and the Estonian Writers’ Union (since 1991). He is one of those poets who immediately establish themselves with their very first book. He had already written poems for ten years before publishing them under the expressive title of Dream Rage (1987). Since that time, a new book of poems has appeared almost every two years, Death Burner being his sixteenth collection. This is a selection made to mark the 50th birthday of the author, and containing both old and new poems. Hirv is a master of words, and a master of classical verse; he bases his work on the New Romantic tradition of the Estonian poetry of the first half of the 20th century, but is influenced by the world tradition as well. He is also an inspired and skilful translator, the names of the authors he has translated – Villon, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Garcia Lorca, Brodsky and others – showing his preferences in poetry. His works contain romantic bravery and recurrent symbols, clever word choices and unexpected comparisons, and a kind of cultivated mannerism as well.

Hirv’s poetry is focussed on I, whose essence is turned toward you; his poems are saturated with erotic motifs. He talks about love in many languages, usually in the solemn language of the Song of Songs, sometimes also in a reversed blasphemous language, but only seldom in the everyday idiom. Another important theme of his poetry is death and he often relates erotic motifs to death, which is the ultimate dimension of love, but sometimes also a delicate game. He also writes about life and time, night and day. He notices and records the reality of his home town, Tartu. His metaphors display inventiveness in choosing words and symbols; he calls himself “the beggar of stars”, “night walker”, “a young stallion”, etc, and finds numerous images for talking about you and us. His poetry is a catalogue of eternal themes, all of which one, actually, expects to find there; they have not become clichés, since he really has a way with words.

Death Burner consists of three cycles, testifying to how Hirv’s poetry has changed over time, becoming clearer, more philosophical and meditative, but still leaving its artistic essence intact; as always, his verses are full of passionate vigour and music. The last cycle of the book is in free verse, differing from the first two and exhibiting laconic concrete images or descriptions of his state of mind. Death Burner knows that My shadow and I/ we will change places some day/ but until then I have much to learn from him.

Andrei Hvostov, Henrik. Näidend 12-s pildis  
(Henrik. A Play in 12 Scenes)

Tallinn, Loomingu Raamatukogu 2006/20. 74 pp

Andrei Hvostov (1963) graduated from the university as a historian, and now works as a journalist and a columnist. His first book was a collection of historical essays (1999), his first novel Lombakas Achilleus (Crippled Achilles) was published in 2004. In the end of the previous year, he published his third book, the play Henrik. The list of characters at the beginning of the book is followed by a remark that “the text is, primarily, meant to be read, not to be acted onstage”, indicating that this text could as easily be taken as an essay as a drama.

Henrik is, naturally, Henry of Livonia (Henricus Lettus, Heinrich von Lettland/Heinrich der Lette), about whom Hvostov has written already in his earlier essays. Very little is actually known about a priest and chronicler Henry of Livonia besides the fact he is the author of The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, telling about the Christianisation of the areas of the present day Latvia and Estonia, born in about 1188, died not before 1259. As he knew the Latvian, Livonian and Estonian languages, he participated as a translator in the expedition of the Pope’s legate in Estonia in 1225-1227. Henry’s chronicle is the only source concerning many events of the ancient struggle for freedom of Estonians; at the same time, almost nothing is known about him as a person. Recently, Henry has figured in historical fiction or films (a play by Endel Nirk Tabelinus (1990), a film parody Malev (Army) (2005), etc.) One of the strong points of Hvostov’s Henrik is that he has brought into limelight a character, who has been in the shadows for a long time. He has given voice to forgotten characters and marginalised those, who have so far been considered heroes (e.g. Estonians’ leader Lembitu).  

The play consists of Henry’s numerous monologues, his reminiscences of events of his childhood and the crusade. Sometimes, these are interrupted by different memories, offered by the Master of the Order of Sword Brothers, Virgin Mary, etc. These characters are arguing about historical events, quoting from Henry’s chronicle and its commentaries. Hvostov interrelates different approaches to history and different texts.

He turns many myths upside down. He attacks the primitive national conception of history, according to which there was an irreconcilable opposition between Germans and Estonians after the conquering of Estonia. The ancient Estonians were, without exception, noble, the crusaders stood against them as the ambassadors of evil. In Henrik, this has been reversed and cruelty seems to be a daily pastime for all, but especially, for Estonians. One of the characters, called “a man from Saaremaa”, tells the others with pleasure how he tortures his enemies. Besides people from the 13th century, some characters from the 21st century have also been involved – a writer, an archaeologist studying the ancient society, the ghost writer of President’s speeches and others. Henrik is not a reconstruction of the 13th century, but a revision of a former construction. In order to meet the expectations of the reader/spectator, Hvostov may exaggerate now and then and turn to rude comic, but a dispute between different interpretations of history holds the tension. The present and the future may often be related just through the past.