Short outlines of books by Estonian authors

by Rutt Hinrikus

Merle Karusoo. Kui ruumid on täis. Eesti rahva elulood teatritekstides 1982-2005 (Full Rooms. Life stories of the Estonian people in theatre texts 1982-2005)

Tallinn, Varrak, 2008. 602 pp


Merle Karusoo (1944) is an acclaimed theatre producer. This book, containing thirteen theatre texts, draws together a major part of her work. Since 1975, she has brought about 50 productions to her public and received numerous awards for her work. Her expressive productions of documentary theatre are based on authentic collected materials – people’s life story interviews, diaries, letters and memoirs. She uses people’s memories and the powerful medium of theatre, which have enabled her to make these Estonian stories approachable for all people, but especially for Estonians. The stories have helped people to understand themselves and to withstand the general levelling and vulgarity of society. The voice of the theatre is obviously louder than that of the book. Although the book lacks the third dimension when compared to the theatre, Karusoo’s work is expressive and thought-inspiring reading material. This is a monument that has been carved out of real life with a sharp knife.


Karusoo’s sociological memory theatre started with stories of schoolboys, titled I Am Thirteen Years Old, followed by Our Life Stories and Full Rooms, based on the essays of final form pupils. These productions were banned in the Soviet Estonia of the stagnation time – theatre was not allowed to be a chronicle of the times, and the fear of the decline and gloom of the stagnation could not be referred to. However, Karusoo continued collecting life stories, together with her team, gathering already forgotten stories to preserve the continuity of memory. In 1987, she brought out An Account, a story of a woman who had been deported to Siberia, which profoundly shocked and moved the audience. An Account continued the path Karusoo had chosen earlier, but this story of an ordinary woman victimised by the state was one of the first to open up memories that Estonians preferred to forget, and to tell them that the story of every human being’s life is sacred.


Merle Karusoo has said that everyone has the right to his or her life story. The life story offers one the chance to look into one’s own eyes. But it also offers the chance to hide, and to tell lies about oneself, because if a thing is not remembered, it has not existed. For Karusoo, obstacles to memory and hidden life stories have been the most important themes through many years.


Interpreting her experience of documentary theatre, Karusoo wrote her MA thesis Not Included in the Mainstream; in this book, she has used excerpts from the thesis to comment on her theatre texts. She points out bitter truths, but she also believes that facing the truth can be followed by understanding and a search for revelation.


She believes that when people experience something together, it intensifies the emotions and, in ritual art, participation in the process is much more important than only observing from the outside. Her mammoth project Circulus (a CD containing the material is included in the book) was an open-air production that led its participants through the Estonian history of the 20th century, from the events in 1934 that marked the beginning of the ‘silent era’, through the Soviet occupation, and up to the 1990s, when the world changed dramatically and Estonia regained its independence. In such a production, the experience of participants is essential and such experience emphasises the questions Why? How? When? Why did some people become collaborators, while others were deported, and still others remained indifferent to everything?  Karusoo believes that untold stories become toxic and that the Estonian people as a whole belong to a risk group. That is why she also addresses such subjects as HIV, using interviews conducted with criminals. She has brought to the stage the stories of an alien war told by Estonian men who were sent to fight in Afghanistan by the Soviet regime, and compared these stories to the boys’ childhood games of Red Indians (Missionaries). Then, the boys sympathised with the American Indians, who had been deprived of the right to their land. Now, the boys are adults and soldiering in a foreign land.


The inquisitive and analysing message of Karusoo’s theatre texts leans towards sociology, but her view of the world is, paradoxically, very poetic. She believes that everything that has taken place sometime in the past leaves its traces in human beings and will repeat itself in some way or other. Everything that has been is again repeating itself today – people experience loss again and again, people are betrayed even today, they hide and flee, and they are afraid and try to forget just as they did in the past. She is firmly convinced that one has to remember the past; she says, “Memory is hurting inside me” and admits that she constantly writes and produces the same story. Missionaries is the same as Deportation Men, Parents of Sick Children is the same as The Children’s Risk Trip, Autumn 1944 is repeated in all departures, and The Cranes Gone, Bad Weather refers to more than the fact that, in the old days, snow was whiter and life was fairer. All of them expose the painful moments of society.


If everything can still be found somewhere, we can hopefully, through the stories of all of us, achieve revelation and understanding. Karusoo states, “I know no other way to myself than through myself.”



Tiit Aleksejev. Palveränd (Pilgrimage)

Tallinn, Varrak, 2008. 310 pp


Tiit Aleksejev’s (1968) historical novel Pilgrimage relates the events of the first Crusade in 1095-1098, as seen through the eyes of a young shield-bearer. Pilgrimage is Aleksejev’s second novel; his first, titled A White Kingdom, received the Betti Alver Award for the best début in 2006. Having been educated as a historian, it is to be expected that Aleksejev would choose a historical theme. Pilgrimage reaches back almost a thousand years, and required profound research. The protagonist of the novel is the young man Dieter, born somewhere along the border of France, who grows up as an orphan. He first becomes a shield-bearer and is taught the art of reading, accessible only to a chosen few, by his seigneur. Later, having been knighted, he rises in society, and his obligations grow together with his status.


Dieter is not a warrior by nature, but rather an observer and a chronicler. The campaign he participates in, referred to as a pilgrimage, should be carried out in order to honour Christ and to liberate the Holy Land from the infidels, but historically liberation and conquest blend into each other. Pilgrimage gives a creditable and thorough overview of the crusade, showing once again how the pursuit of an ideal eventually turns into the earning of honour and riches, and how war soils everything it touches instead of making it sacred. The journey of historical and fictional characters is depicted without embellishment; the scenes are realistic, but not too brutal for readers. The times are hard and the journey is exhausting, but the main idea is not to illustrate history, or to disillusion the reader. Rather, it can be called a development story, with the main character developing like a growing tree – depending on the soil, and growing wider or narrower rings according to how good or bad the years are.


Besides a historian’s deep passion for research, the novel was probably mostly inspired by the problems of historiography and memory, the truth and the lies of history and the possibility of historiography. The plot of the novel is thrilling and intense. Discussions of the historical recording of events do not stand out for a more casual reader, although at the outset the reader is pointed towards the theme of remembering. Pilgrimage is written in exact and beautiful wording, and the sensitive choice of words is especially related to the inner monologues of the protagonist.


Dieter’s first seigneur, Raimondas, admits at the beginning of the story that one of his biggest desires is to become the chronicler of the pilgrimage, because “quite often, a deed will acquire its true meaning only after it has been written down.” He continues, “Today, we know only as much about Alexander as was written down by the chroniclers. Without them, Alexander’s empire would only be a legend, a confusing dream.”


Much has been written about the first crusade, and this has enabled Aleksejev to achieve greater historical accuracy and to capture the character of the epoch – he has passed his history exam with flying colours. The main character may seem to be slightly too advanced for his era, but this is part of the inherent freedom of fiction – artistic licence. Pilgrimage is one of the best works of fiction last year.




Mari Saat Lasnamäe lunastaja (The Redeemer of Lasnamäe)

Tallinn, Tuum, 2008. 149 pp


The title of Mari Saat’s novel can be understood in two different ways in the Estonian language: the redeemer comes from the Tallinn district of Lasnamäe, or he is the one to redeem Lasnamäe. Lasnamäe is the last of the large ‘bedroom communities’ built in Tallinn during the socialist era, a pompous stone concrete desert, and it was an effective migration pump for the Soviet national policy. (During the Singing Revolution, the chorus of a popular song repeated a mantra-like verse, “Stop Lasnamäe!”) Due to this policy, the majority of the residents of the nine-storey dwellings of Lasnamäe are Russian-speaking late immigrants from the rest of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, they had to face an entirely different world. Lasnamäe is much more than simply a district of Tallinn; it is a symbol. The redeeming of Lasnamäe can be interpreted as the acknowledgement of this area just as it is, together with its houses, wind corridors between the houses, all of its residents and their problems. It respects all the differences and tolerates those who are different.


In this seemingly unpretentious book by Saat, we find two main characters atypical of Estonian fiction – two Russian women, the mother Natalja Filippovna and her daughter Sofia. (Estonians have been given quite secondary and less than positive roles in this novel.) Natalja Filippovna, a Russian woman in her forties who has not yet lost all of her characteristically Slavic ripe beauty, comes to Tallinn in the 1980s together with her husband, who is an officer in the Soviet Army. Her husband drinks and beats her and one day Natalja decides to get a divorce. Her decision is greatly helped by the behaviour of Estonian women in similar situations. Her teenage daughter, a souvenir of a summer adventure from years ago, is a pupil in an Estonian gymnasium; her name, Sofia, means ‘wisdom’. Names tend to have special meanings in this book. Natalja Filippovna endures all that happens to her for the sake of her daughter. She works in a factory, but she is made redundant. At the same time, the mother and daughter find out that they will need a large sum of money to pay for dental treatment. If Sofia does not have expensive dental braces fitted, her lower jaw and whole face will become seriously deformed and her future will be ruined.


Natalja has to sacrifice herself for the future of her daughter; the “work” she is offered is abominable, but pays well. There is no other alternative and Natalja accepts the offer of a man who pimps his wife. Natalja agrees to substitute for the wife, who is too ill to continue this “work”. Sofia also finds work reading aloud to her classmate’s grandmother. The banal jobs have their moments: an older man develops serious feelings for Natalja, who is not indifferent towards him, and Sofia finds her classmate’s grandmother an interesting conversation partner. But the criminal nature of Lasnamäe never sleeps ... Will Dimitri Dimitrijevich be the redeemer? He is attacked by drug addicts, teenagers like Sofia, whom Sofia tries to redeem.


This brief outline does not fully capture the seemingly simple story of two women, one submissive, and the other young and sharp. Nothing is left to chance in this short novel and it acquires new dimensions through careful reading. The novel, one of the highlights of last year, deals with sacrifice, crime, redemption and hope. It is linked to both Dostoevsky and the present-day real life of Estonia.


Mari Saat has been an acclaimed author in Estonian literature for more than 30 years. She has always been quietly present, she has not sought the limelights, and she is by no means an entertainer. She deals with very serious problems and often writes about death. Her writing possesses a certain magic: she is very careful about transforming reality, but she reaches out to the main questions of existence. Her previous novel was about the loss of loved ones in a shipwreck and about a mixed-nationality marriage, where reconciliation has a price and the price is death.


Who will be the redeemer of Lanamäe? According to Saat, there are several possibilities. But it is clear that this/these redeemer(s) will emerge from among people who suffer and are ready to make sacrifices. Estonian critics have noted the acknowledgement of Christian values and the foretelling of the coming of a new generation which has left behind old problems and pains and cherishes democratic values.


Mari Tarand. Ajapildi sees (Inside the Image of Time)

Tartu, Ilmamaa, 2008. 272 pp


Among the books published last year, Mari Tarand’s memoirs of her brother Juhan Viiding, who was seven years younger than her, have gathered the largest number of awards. “This is not Juhan Viiding’s biography but, rather, a book of memories. I am writing about Juhan’s childhood and youth; I am writing about our family and home, about the soil that nurtured the future poet. Whether I like it or not, very often I, too, stand quite in the middle of the picture - me and my own quite stretched out childhood.” This book was written to commemorate the 60th birthday of the popular actor and poet, a unique innovator in Estonian poetry, who took his own life in 1995. Mari Tarand has for a long time worked as a radio journalist. Her book is exceptionally honest and unvarnished, but very warm and immediate. Both critics and readers have said that such books can very rarely be found.


This is the story of an intellectual Estonian family in the post-war decades, as well as the story of a childhood that was happy and unhappy at the same time, just as all childhoods are. The head of the family, Juhan’s father Paul Viiding, was a writer and the secretary of the board of the Writers’ Union in the post-war years. In 1950, when the next “search for enemies” began, caused by Stalin’s and the Soviet state’s paranoia, he was accused of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ and expelled from the Writers’ Union. Juhan’s mother Linda Viiding was a translator and an active member of several societies. When the long-awaited son Juhan was born in 1948, the family already had had three daughters.


“At the time when Juhan was born, we still lived in three rooms with nice furniture. The furniture, however, was not ours. These things had been left behind by the previous resident of the flat, Nigol Andresen. I do not know when he had come to live in this flat, but we heard that he had left the place in order to move to Kadriorg or to some other flat more worthy of a high state official – he was the Minister of Education of the time, in the government led by Johannes Vares. Anyway, we lived among Andresen’s dinner table, chairs and sideboard until 1956, when Andresen returned from prison and got his things back. And we found ourselves totally without anything!”


A few items from the pre-war era and hints of the happy previous life of the parents characterise the 1940s and 1950s for most Estonian families. Here, the memories focus on the central part of Tallinn, their flat, where the Soviet regime housed four different families, and the summer playgrounds of the children outside the town. The family was poor, because their father had been declared a “people’s enemy”. Her younger brother grew and very soon showed an extraordinary ability to attract all kinds of people and unexpected, funny and sometimes scary troubles. During summer holidays in the country, the older sister wrote a letter to their mother in the town, telling about her younger brother: it had once happened that he had been lost for some time, and then came back after some time and recited a poem: “Many years have passed from the time / when there were no Russians in our land / then we could eat meat and sausages / and had no sugar coupons.” The 15-year-old sister knew that such verses could well provoke a harsh punishment, but how could she explain to her younger brother that such short verses could be much more dangerous than leaving home and being lost for several hours.


The authenticity of Tarand’s book is largely ensured by her ability to emphasise and to go back in time, so that we do not perceive her memoirs as memoirs, written long after, but as if she has written it all just in the middle of the actual events. She changes her point of view often; she asks questions and answers them herself, trying to explain why and how one or another event happened, still not attempting to give final answers. For example, why didn’t the future poet do well at school? He had matured early, was very energetic and restless and caused much worry for his parents, who thought that their task was to try to treat and heal him, even in a psychiatric and neurological hospital, where he was sent just because his parents loved him.


This boy, who did not fit into the frames that were suitable for other children, wrote home, “If you love me even a little, please take me back home!” Who is a good child and who is a bad one? The boy at least tried to be good. But many special talents are delicate and can easily be wounded and therefore need special protection, but also create unexpected problems.


A new home, specially built for writers, was ready in 1962; Paul Viiding had been re-accepted into the Writers’ Union, and the family was finally able to move into a flat of their own. Unfortunately, Paul Viiding died before this long-awaited day. Tarand’s book does not tell us how Juhan Viiding became a star on the stage and in poetry. “My journey with my little brother ends here. I have been able to witness from near and from farther away how a white singing bird struggled to climb out of the egg shell, how a chrysalis developed into a moth that passionately ached for something else.”


This book has still another character – Poetry – that helps to comment on the life of Tarand’s younger brother. Each chapter has a motto taken from an opening verse of some of his poems, but the whole book is framed by verses from the poetic journey titled “My little brother by my side” written by the legendary Estonian poet Heiti Talvik.



Liisi Ojamaa. Jõgi asfaldi all (A River under Asphalt)

Tallinn, Varrak, 2008. 54 pp


In order to get this book, I had to comb through three book stores. Finally, a copy was found in the third one. The number of copies of poetry books is not large, but the fact that a book of poetry had almost sold out made me happy. Liisi Ojamaa (1972) has always written city poetry; she has a fan club of her own and can expect to become a classic of the genre. City poetry has, naturally, been written in Estonia for about a hundred years, but Ojamaa has brought the theme of the modern contemporary city into Estonian poetry.


A River under Asphalt is Ojamaa’s fifth collection of poetry. She debuted in 1990, together with four other young poets – a boxed set of five books of poetry that was called the “girls’ box”. Of her fellow writers included in that book, Aidi Vallik (ATS) has become a successful author of young adult books, and Elo Vee (Viiding) and Triin Soomets have found their places in Estonian poetry. Liisi Ojamaa has also secured a place for herself, although she has attracted less critical attention and she usually does not care much about publicity. Despite that, she is firmly positioned among the most popular contemporary Estonian poets.


She is most loved by teenage girls, who want to be free and enjoy love, and bravely, drunk on spring and their own youth, and maybe something else, walk around town in an endless June, hearts full of sweet pain. Liisi Ojamaa has been called a barefoot flower child and a little hippie. She has her own style and significant meaning, although she is not alone in the niche of city poetry. The brave verses of this lyrical post-hippie present us with authentic city romance, although not in such a raw form as can be found in the poetry of the slightly older punk poet Merca.


A River under Asphalt contains poems from several years, mature poetry and poems about maturing, and existential questions that are inherent in poetry. The questions are old, but the suppleness and charm of their wording and presentation make us concentrate on them. She also acknowledges the fact that she has left her younger self behind and has to come to terms with this.


Thus we can say that another generation in Estonian poetry has reached maturity. It does not rebel or quiver in hot passions any more, but has chosen the path of clarification and the search for peace. For the onlooker, it is an old story, but for the traveller, this path is ever new and unprecedented.