Kaplinski's changing tale

by Lauri Sommer

  In his short discourse titled Literature, Jaan Kaplinski wrote about an uncertainty of his, about his years-long wait for his prose to ‘start moving’, for the subject matter to tell its own story. His earlier, fragmentary attempts, later published in the story I (Mina, 1973), were poetically constructed, constituting the flowing ‘prose of a poet’ focused on imagery. After a long wait, he realised that in order to escape the course of the everyday and tell the tale, he must succumb to literary rules, and that ‘the whole point of a story lies in the fact that it helps us to escape the meaningless’ (Whence Came the Night, p 12). Things are, naturally, not that easy. Kaplinski is interdisciplinary by nature. Besides fiction, he has in recent years been an active, swiftly reacting and reliable columnist who emphasises the danger of Americanisation and the crisis of ethics and nature protection, tackling topical problems along with eternal and national issues. He does not propose trivial solutions, but seeks something more natural and free of convention. This is also evident in his prose, which often uses elements of genres outside of normal fiction (essay, letters, memoirs, autobiography/confession, documentaries, fairy tales and articles). Kaplinski says: ‘We mostly write according to plan, knowing what we want to say. A poem, essay or story means growing flesh on bones, clothing a naked thought in images, examples, turning it into literature. My path is the opposite. I start with images, pictures and associations, and try to reach the thought, the understanding, through them’ (Ice and Titanic 1995, p 13). The aim, therefore, is to understand. Kaplinski’s manner of writing does not concentrate on external activity, but on the inner states of a character, meditations, flows of thought, memories and dreams. Some topics examined in essays are further discussed in prose, where the characters frequently conduct lengthy Socratic dialogues. This kind of mixed genre, using free association, can also tackle a journey (Journey to Ayia Triada, 1993, Spring on Two Coasts, 2000) or an incident in history (Ice and Titanic). When Kaplinski is writing fiction, his approach is largely science-fictional, seeking new opportunities in human perception, thinking, creative genetics and living matter. He develops classic science fiction topics (exceptional individual skills, changeable reality and time travel) and methods that have transferred from fairy tales to sci-fi (unusual viewpoints, allegory and warning), criticism of religion and the ideas of his mentor Uku Masing. The science-fiction style, with its peculiar characters, makes possible fantastic ideological pluralism. Kaplinki is a master of the canon of the unusual. He has translated science fiction (Stanisław Lem’s Memories of Ijon Tichy, 1967, and Anglo-American authors in Flowers to Algernon, 1976), and recently translated a collection of ancient, non-European, fairy tales for children (Two Suns, 2005). As a side-effect of his interest in American Indians, he studied Carlos Castaneda’s works in the 1970s, but was soon disappointed, as he failed to find authentic folklore there. Sharing the Buddhist view of life, Kaplinski turns an emphatic eye also on the animal kingdom, affording animals fine reasoning skills on philosophical, theological, biological and genetic issues. In Estonian science fiction, with its uneven standards, predominantly young authors and the strong impact of new age, occultism, cyber punk and virtual reality, Kaplinski’s manner of writing is, of course, totally different. Perhaps it’s old-fashioned – an easily followed narrative, wholly intellectual and somewhat moralising. All this is not in vain. In 1999 he almost won the annual sci-fi award Stalker. Kaplinski’s perception of science fiction and life is unusually elementary and essential: one of his starting points is the mystery and weirdness of the world. He is a nomad by nature, seeking alternative possibilities. For him, the inborn and normal givens (Estonia, European cultural space, patriarchal division of men/women, man as a supreme being etc.) are nothing natural and obvious. He has always been fascinated by synthesis, freedom arising from shifting boundaries, and a wider balance.

   A different manner of writing prose has emerged from the need to shed light on himself and his historical background – traumas, his somewhat confusing descent, and his character. Kaplinski reputedly began writing stories when he was still in school. He has written stories for children and plays. His poetry collection Evening Brings Everything Back (1985) marked a transition to prose poetry, a step towards a narrative perception of the world. His first fully prose work, the autobiographical Whence Came the Night (1990), appeared when he was already seen as a classic as a poet, essayist and thinker. He later again, and more boldly, tackled the key points of his life, thus creating some kind of intellectual cycle. Repeated examination of complicated topics (growing up without a father, a difficult childhood, contradictions in the brutal acts of men, women, and complicated relations with his mentor Uku Masing) has made them less confusing and painful. They can be observed from a distance; they change and adopt literary and fictional elements. The approach to traditional fiction is here obvious when comparing his early simpler short prose with the polyphony of shades in his latest novel The Same River (2007). The book is full of fascinating analyses and superb ideas, although his thinking, in some ways, has become more rigid as he’s got older. In Journey to Ayia Triada religion is seen in a holistic key, as an opportunity regardless of confession, whereas later the disapproval strengthens. Some conclusions (the stupidity of believers, and limits of the religious world) were reached long ago, and some situations are repeated and are often banally illustrative. The strict denial has deep roots. As a young and romantic author in a secular-communist society, Kaplinski for awhile wrote lyrical poetry with Christian pathos that revealed a desire for redemption. Later he preferred Taoism and Zen-Buddhism – not really religions in a European sense, rather ways of life and philosophies. After quarrelling with his ecstatically religious and maximalist mentor Masing, and observing the limits of local Christianity and discoveries in genetics and psychology, he began doubting organized religion in general. His abrupt re-evaluation of Christianity might have symbolised mental freedom to him, but is incorrect in relation to Estonian history. The style of argumentation in the Estonian language space is immediately recognisable, and the sketched mental picture is extensive, finding favour with the followers of Estonian native religion (maausk - faith of the earth) and anti-clericals. Kaplinki certainly defends his principles with great conviction.

A choice of his works and topics

The late prose debut Whence Came the Night (1990) was an indication of the main issues to come: describing simple and familiar things – his childhood post-war Tartu, its ruins, inhabitants, and their daily activities. The stories are short, but have a recognisable style.

An Eye (1999) is a strange piece of science fiction, even mystery. The plot unravels in Soviet society, where reality was often unpredictable and absurd anyway. The KGB resembles a secret order and people often play double games, being outsiders (theologians) as well as insiders (KGB agents), or even double agents working for the West. The friend of the story-teller, who is interested in theology and especially in Gnosticism, thinks the whole human race is being watched and directed by a mysterious Eye. The Eye is a kind of KGB extension into a theological plan, eternity, and it is typical that the whole truth is never revealed. The friend manages to go abroad to a theological conference, where he meets a Chinese magician, with whom he can have an elitist dialogue abounding in cultural contrasts. The magician takes him to meet the Creators. Fairy-tale elements now appear; the Creator of the current world is summoned by a magic ritual. Relying on a claim in the Bible (God created the world and saw that it was good), the magician asks the Creator:  “There is a fly among the creatures you created, Lucilia Bufonifora in Latin. As the name indicates, it eats toads. The female fly lays eggs in a toad’s head, the larvae force their way through the toad’s nostrils into its body and gradually eat it. /---/ How could such flies be good?”(p.79). The first Creator fails to answer, as do the Creators who created the first. They say the whole is good, but not necessarily the parts. They refer to aesthetics, become angry, criticise the lower Creator etc. The Gnostic, faulty model of the world continues to be valid, and the essence and reason for errors are still unclear. The Eye seems to contain a warning to people not to gullibly yield to religion. 

The plot of the story Hector (2000) is almost minimal. The protagonist, a lonely intellectual mutant created in a scientific experiment, is ‘neither dog nor man’ (p.149). Describing everything from an animal’s point of view enables Kaplinski to criticise man’s self-centredness and desire for power. The creator of three mutant geniuses – Hector, the artistically gifted monkey Achilles and the philosopher raven Nestor - is a Native American scientist who has been entrusted with this task by a bear, the totem animal of his clan. He wants to show the human race that they are nothing exceptional in nature. The beings created by means of a brain operation and by blocking the gene that inhibits learning are embodiments of his criticism. The scientist is well aware of the ethical problems that will arise if he shows the outcome of his experiments to the wider public, and therefore he keeps the creatures locked up in his lab. The whole undertaking, however, fails to yield far-reaching results. Maybe nature does not approve of such amateur activity. Only Hector survives, as the other two die of brain tumours, and the Master himself soon passes away as well. Hector saves the Master’s notes on a computer and sends them off on a reliable Internet address. He then blows up the lab and, equipped with the Master’s medicine bundle, sets off in search of the Master’s young relative in order to pass on the bear’s task as required by Native American custom. The story ends ambiguously. We never learn what becomes of the whole undertaking.

Ornitosophy is a treatise-like supplement to the previous story, narrated by a character in Hector, the raven Nestor. Kaplinski again questions anthropocentrism and man’s exclusive claim to wisdom. Nestor’s criticism is primarily directed at people’s nominal, senseless notions and their superficial thinking. Nestor also talks about man’s belittling attitude towards animals and his simplistic understanding of animal nature. The indigenous people’s worldview, especially totemism, seems to be more to his liking. In ancient beliefs and fairy tales living creatures had no anthropocentric hierarchy. Animals and birds were the shape-shifting ancestors and helpers, bearers of power and wisdom.

The short story Real Numbers (2000), originally written in Russian, describes a summer school of scientists. This time, redemption is sought in an unusual manner – via a synthesis of exact sciences and theology. The narrator meets the mathematician R, who has his own detailed esoteric theory, with cabalistic undertones, on the relations between real numbers, angels, names, realities and God. The theory is presented with an intensity bordering on genius and madness. The characters again conduct several philosophical disputes where R reveals the mission of man: “We were not created to count the worlds, but to save our world from drowning in its illusory separation, to open it up to higher worlds.” A similar attempt to explain great existentialist issues, and contempt for parapsychology and sectarianism, also characterise Kaplinski’s essays. The highlight of R’s activities is a kind of mathematical meditation, where ‘numbers become living creatures /---/ But are the numbers talking to you?/---/ yes and no. They do talk, not in a human tongue, but in the ancient primary language that does not distinguish between word, number, melody and gesture, or between word and object’ (p.65). At the end of the story, R quietly reclines in a psychiatric hospital, ceaselessly muttering rows of numbers (or prayers, and algorithms of the universe). This is a saintly, bright departure, as if fading into mathematical nirvana.   

The elegant lyrical sci-fi short story The Amber Pine is a kind of paraphrase of his well-known poem Come Back, Amber Pine (1984) and of classic sci-fi (Wells and Wyndham) topics of time travel and altered development, and the universal belief in totemist soul animals. An American paleo-botanist, who goes through lengthy chrononautic training and travels into the distant past in a time module, does all this with a personal aim in mind. During his research he manages to pinpoint the location where a fly-like insect gets trapped in a pine tree’s resin. His beloved, of Estonian origin, used to wear a necklace of that amber and claimed that the insect was her imprisoned soul. Soon after, she died. The paleo-botanist reaches the past, sets the insect free, which instantly vanishes from the amber necklace he is holding. He then dispatches the time module to melt in a crater and ends his life with an overdose of pills, thus liberating his soul as well. The eternal unity of the lovers is revealed. The soul of the Estonian girl appears and says: ‘In spite of time and space...Let us go’ (p.337).
The autobiographical To My Father (2003) contains psychological research on family roots, autobiography and reflections. Kaplinski’s father Jerzy was a Polish professor who married an Estonian woman, was deported to Siberia by the communists and died there. His absence in Jaan’s life has had an effect on the son’s writing. In this book, the author tries to produce a whole, a story of development, to establish continuity by means of his own and other people’s recollections, papers left by his father, pictures and photographs, KGB documents, various Polish memoirs, and through insight. His research reveals fascinating information about his predecessors, many of whom were involved in culture. Trying to understand his father’s character, his charm and a certain frivolity, his intellectual interests, to determine his own similarities and differences, grandfather Jaan also includes his children and grandchildren. Not everything, of course, fits smoothly into the whole. His father’s Polish culture, with its customs and attitudes, contains much that is alien to Kaplinski. He is also frustrated by the hostility to nature and lack of culture in contemporary Estonia - mental alienation is thus added to the genetic. The restless life of the writer emeritus, who travels from one conference and book fair to the next (Kaplinski calls such people ‘intellectual call girls’), is occasionally reflected in the fragmentary nature of his work. However, the unknown and the incomprehensible are compensated for by the autobiographical part, wisdom of life and conclusions. The result is many-layered, personal, melancholic and touching and, according to the bestseller lists, also easily readable and enjoyable.  

The Same River (2007) is Kaplinski’s most compact prose work so far. This is a development novel, thirteen years in the making, with autobiographical undertones. It describes a young man’s life, dominated by oriental studies, poetry and love, in Tartu in the 1960s. There are many stylistic layers. The background is the atmosphere at the University of Tartu and its cafes, theological circles, southern Estonian rural life and dialect, activities of the scheming KGB, which somewhat relaxed after Stalin’s death, cultural discussions, wonderfully depicted mental ecstasies and various love affairs. The world view of the young and talented man is impulsive and unstable. Deep depression can unexpectedly be followed by an experience of meditative bliss, which however, can be easily shattered.  Kaplinski eloquently points out the differences between the rhythms of the ecstatic and the real world, metaphysical hangover, a sense of coldness and mood swings.  The protagonist is tormented by two main desires. The first is to find someone to love and rid himself of his virginity. Kaplinski reveals the main character’s moments of impotence and sexual fantasies. His planned romantic affections give way to dark sexual urges. Lusting after women, the relevant expectations and fears conceal an ancient initiation-desire to finally become a man, and to escape puberty and its embarrassing connotations. First of all, however, a serene union of mind and body is sought. Another necessity, perhaps partly caused by the absence of a father in the family, is to find a spiritual leader. This role can be filled by the Teacher, recognisably Uku Masing (1909-85), a radical Tartu theologian, poet and thinker. The consequences of their relationship are reflected in a variety of Kaplinski’s later actions and opinions. The first-person narrator is reverent and admiring, and hopes to become The Teacher’s disciple. The Teacher, however, is solitary, bitter and at the same time secretly hopeful, and in love. He is a complicated mixture of superb intellect, poor health and cultural rejection, whose happy and misanthropic moods can alternate very quickly. When the sunny and beautiful biologist Ester turns up, needs of body and soul are finally united and a conflict emerges. Without being aware of it himself, the romantic protagonist becomes a part of a tragic love triangle. Rivalry appears, the narrator hopes against hope, and the relations between himself and the Mentor become gradually worse. When he chances upon a love letter at Ester’s written by the Mentor, where the latter says nasty things about him, he is deeply disappointed both in the Muse and the Mentor. There are difficulties also at the university. The KGB finds out that he has been propagating the poetry of the exile Estonian poet Marie Under, i.e. banned literature. He is in danger of being expelled from the university, and the KGB tries to recruit him as a spy. The situation is complicated, but the interrogation episode is conveyed with fine Soviet-like humorous detail. He reaches a compromise with the KGB without being recruited. His first happy sexual experience helps him overcome the crisis, as does his departure to the university in Leningrad in order to take up oriental studies. The Same River is among the most widely read Estonian novels in recent years, and with good cause. The descriptions are lively, the sensuous, mystical and erotic layers come together, and there are features of literature for young adults. His intellectual depth is quite exceptional in current Estonian prose. Sometimes he argues too much and this might seem to prevent the plot from developing, but this should be regarded as a typical feature of the author’s writing. It can be claimed that the autobiographical subject matter has finally become fully deserving fiction. With this novel Kaplinski has certainly established himself as one of the leading prose writers in Estonia.