Short outlines of books by Estonian authors

by Janika Kronberg

Ain Kaalep: Muusad ja maastikud. Luuletusi aastaist 1945-2008 (Muses and Landscapes: Poems 1945-2008).Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2008. 599 p. ISBN 978-9985-62-703-7.

Ain Kaalep`s (b 1926) Muses and Landscapes belongs among the „big books of poetry“ that have recently become popular in Estonia, collections that confer or ensure the status of their authors as „ classics.“ Kaalep is a classic in many respects, and deservedly. His philological education is many-faceted: by vocation he is a translator and cultural mediator, by profession an editor and essays. He did not become a literary scholar for purely ideological reasons. Despite this fact of political contingency, many generations of Estonian humanities scholars consider themselves Kaalep`s students, whether because they have heard his brilliant lectures or read his writings on world literature.  Indeed, J.W. Goethe`s idea of Weltliterature is a particularly important point of departure for Kaalep, and it undergirds his activities both as scholar and poet.  For Kaalep, the culture of antiquity and European humanism have remained ideals, made visible in his poetry by the rich quality of its erudition and the precise cultivation of classical verse forms.  Among his many contributions are the editing of the Estonian translations of Homer`s Iliad and Odyssey, and the compiling of anthologies of ancient Greek and Roman literature, which include his own translations.  It is self-evident that this work of mediation has left its marks on Kaalep`s own oeuvre, both in terms of motifs and the choice of verse forms and measures. 

However, just as Goethe borrowed from both East and West, Kaalep does not restrict himself to Europe.  Actually, one could furnish a whole course in metrics with examples from his poetry: it includes precise hexameter, romances, and sonnets, alongside rubaides and haiku. Borrowings of form and content are an extension of translating, but in addition to this Kaalep has also written sparkling free verse in south Estonian dialect, popular song lyrics, some of which have since lost all moorings to their author, and epigrams commenting on current events. All of these- both previously-printed texts and a few unpublished cycles of poetry have now been published together in the same volume. Kaalep`s poetry from 1945-2008 comes to the reader complete with the author’s commentary and an overview of his poetry by literary scholar Sirje Olesk.

Kaalep is a learned, ‘academic’ poet, whose work is dominated by intellectual and international subjects, and a concomitant depth of exploration of the possibilities of language.  The intellectuality of his poetry, and its frequent secondary inspiration from art and literature is balanced by an extraordinary linguistic flexibility and inventiveness, which is shown particularly by the freshness of his imagery.  Many of Kaalep`s poems are new interpretations of classical texts or motifs.  Thus critics have taken the core of his work to be intertextual dialogue with the „other“, whether with a prior work of literature, or an artistic work from another medium.  However, Kaalep`s work does not merge into universality and globality; rather, he succeeds in locating his culture of origin in a broader and more multi-faceted context.  The postmodern ‘culture of interruption’ does not suit him, and instead, he performs as a bridge-builder across cultures and eras.  Deserving as he is of the honour of being a classic, he emphasizes his self-confidence about his own usefulness in today’s fragmented world: „I endeavour to offer poetry of the present according to my taste and understanding; at best, a bit of future poetry as well.“ The sensitive reader of poetry could not dream of arguing with him. 

Elin Toona: Ella Tallinn: Loomingu Raamatukogu, 2008. 192 p. ISSN 1406-0515, ISBN 978-9949-428-38-0.

Elin Toona was born in Estonia in 1937, fled with her mother and grandmother to Germany during the war, and resettled in England.  Since 1970 she has been living in Florida, in the United States.  For some years she worked for the BBC, and began writing novels in Estonian in the 1960s. She wrote her novel Lotukata (1969), which looks at life in refugee camps in Germany after World War II through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl, both in Estonian and English. The English version, entitled In Search of Coffee Mountains (New York 1977; London 1979) was well received.

In 2000, Elin Toona surprised Estonian readers by publishing a capacious monograph about her grandfather, the recognized and popular poet Ernst Enno (1875-1934). The monograph is a thorough work of research based on documents and family tradition about a grandfather that his grandchild had never met, though she had heard a great deal about him and had read his poetry.

„Ella“ is a book about the poet’s widow, the author’s grandmother, her closest and dearest relative, whose life spanned the years 1879-1974, and who died at an advanced age in London.  The author has briefly summarized the essential facts of Ella`s family origins and her grandparents` marriage, focusing more on the period of time in which she shared Ella`s life.  The outlines of Elin’s own adventuresome, often tragic life story are also visible in the book: her idyllic childhood in the seaside town of Haapsalu, the Soviet occupation, the divorce of her parents, both actors, the flight from Estonia on a German ship, and the postwar years in the British zone in Germany, with the accompanying fear, cold, hunger, and misery.  This is followed by a few decades in ‘good old England’, where the general attitude toward foreign refugees was far from friendly, and where she experiences bitterness with respect to English society, estrangement from her mother, disappointment in a great love for a man who turns out to be homosexual, marriage to a rich man from Singapore whose family refuses to accept Elin and attempts to kill her.  After these events, Elin flees once again, this time by land across India and Europe, returning to London, and from there travelling to America.  Through all of this, the child and later the lovelorn woman, is always welcomed and consoled by her grandmother, the only person in the world who really understands her.

This is a personal book, nevertheless not overly sentimental, perhaps because of the distance created by the author’s use of the third person. The text is infused with a passionate emotionality, and a belief in overcoming life’s difficulties despite all odds. A documentary dimension is added by weaving personal letters into the text. The temporal boundaries are broadened by Elin’s regained contact with the father she lost, and by her later visits to the homeland after the end of the Soviet occupation. The openness with which Elin writes about her life is rather unusual in Estonian literature, as can be seen in perhaps the most difficult episode in the book, where a British soldier rapes a 7-year-old child in Germany. The depiction of school and working conditions in her early days of living in the English industrial region between Leeds and Bradford is also bleak. The toughness and pluck with which young Elin begins to break out of this constraining milieu, and aspires to become an actress in London, is admirable, and shows great willpower. She finds a job at Royal Court Theatre, as well as some parts on television, becomes friends with the American comedian Harold Lloyd, a friendship that lasts until Lloyd’s death.

Elin never makes it all the way to the top, or if she does, it is only in the purview of Estonian literature. Something always has a way of happening in her life to curb her flight, though the author’s will to live never lets this discourage her.  The soul of her guardian angel of a grandmother lives on in the book even after she has departed, and even when Elin no longer writes about her directly.  Elin’s goodness of soul is something she probably learned from her Grandmother, as well as genetically inherited, just like the feeling of happiness despite what she has had to renounce. The following quotation applies to many of the life events Elin describes in the book: „Once again, there was the opportunity to become ‘famous’, as we would always joke among ourselves.  That time I again turned my back on ‘fame’, and believed more in love. I never became rich and famous!  But in my own opinion, I have lived a rich life.“

Kärt Hellerma: Sinine missa. Valik reisikirju (Blue Mass. Selected Travel Letters). Tallinn: Tuum, 2008. 351 pp. ISBN 978-9985-9897-5-3.

 In this volume Kärt Hellerma (b 1956), who has previously received recognition for her representation of human relationships in her novels, short stories and criticism, has gathered together four different texts with four birthplaces. Despite the genre proposed by the author in her subtitle, these pieces can only tentatively, and with reservations, be designated „travel letters.“ Indeed, all four texts draw common inspiration from periods spent in different writer’s residences, but the impression of a journey is created by their arrangement, and by the resultant dynamics between them. Let us first characterize each of them in turn.

Unheard-of Music was written in Jyväskylä, Finland, and its dominant focus is the critical comparison of the cultures of two countries, Estonia and Finland. To some extent the critique broadens to a comparison of the familiar democratic welfare society of Finland and Eastern Europe, to the detriment of the latter. Estonia is a country where people talk mostly about money, where what counts are titles and positions, where culture is filled with the pathos of hatred; a country where men are macho and women second-rate beings, whose glances belie resignation and anxiety: „Woman is always a stranger among men, always Other. She is an animal hidden under a velvet surface, who at the first opportunity pulls on a werewolf’s powerful skin, but who even in her human form carries with her temptations and vices; to oppose these, every self-respecting man must always carry a silver bullet, which he loads at the right moment, in order to shoot the wolf dead.“  For this woman narrator, sharply perceptive about the sexist attitudes toward women in her homeland, who is dissatisfied with poetry, and writes long prose, a temporary balance is provided by falling in love with a Finnish writer. This, however, leads her to a new round of existential generalizations-- about the eternal loneliness of man and woman.

The same open and polemical attitude toward the prevailing cultural politics of Estonia is continued in Mazzano Diary, inspired by the Finnish writers` residence near Rome.  Hellerma has plenty of criticism to dole out, both to cynical, modern media and to perspectives on art that have retreated far from any horizon of transcendence; she does not deny her embitterment and the defeats in her personal life, though she decorously hides the perpetrators. From here, one might have expected her to continue on the wavelength of institutionalized feminist discourse, but in this respect Hellerma again maintains an undogmatic independence. She emerges in the voice and persona of a rebellious intellectual, expelled from her sect, who at the same time emphasizes her femininity in a passionate quest for love. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say she emphasizes her right to love and to be loved.  Drawing out three dominant themes in contemporary culture—business, power, and revenge, Hellerma herself clearly represents the third.  Granted, she modestly relegates the role of angel of revenge to conscience pangs, but this does not diminish her own role as their conjurer.  The author finds balm for her vulnerability mainly in the southern European landscape.

The third piece, The Footprints of Aalotar, was written in the Ventspils writers` residence in Latvia, and is based largely in the oeuvre of Finnish writer Zacharias Topelius.   This is a poetic piece, as well as the most chaotic one in the collection, alternating between notes, memories, stream-of-consciousness observations, all circling around her struggle to describe surroundings that make her restless and disturb her concentration.

Critics have judged the culmination of the book to be the title piece, which is bewitching in its impersonality and poetic quality; this is also the least transparently personal among the four pieces in the collection. Ostensibly, it is set in Visby, Gotland; its plot consists of the narrator’s falling in love with a Catholic priest. Blue Mass has the effect of a sacred-erotic prose poem, in which a very human, sensual passion and longing for wholeness is connected with an eternal dimension. In a way this short story continues the themes of The Footprints of Aalotar, softening and tempering the uncompromising discourse of revenge of the first pieces. For Hellerma, her human frame is a palpable source of temptation, as well as an obstacle on the road to spiritual enlightenment and reunion with the Absolute: „For years I had no idea why I was given a human form.  I did not know why I had fallen into the perpetual trap of flesh and bone, and how long my arduous journey had lasted.  I had long since forgotten the story of my beginning, of my origin.“

In summary, Kärt Hellerma issues a bold challenge both to the apologists of modern art, to media pundits as well as to northern men. Hellerma`s autobiographical openness seems fed by the same springs as her favourite authors—Henry Miller, Antonio Tabucchi, Albert Camus, John Fowles, Karen Blixen and many other models, fertilized in turn by the prose of Erica Jong.

Rein Raud. Vend (Brother).  Tallinn: Tuum, 2008. 115 lk. ISBN 978-9985-9897-1-6.

Tallinn University rector Rein Raud`s previous book, Hector and Bernard (2004) was an attempt to approach the contemporary everday problems through Socratic dialogue.  The basis of his slender new novel, Vend (Brother), is what is usually considered to be a low genre—the Western.  In the shadow of the pastiche of a Western, a weighty message is delivered to the reader.  The problem at the core of the text seems to be the existence of justice, and the activities engaged in by a free person towards its establishment.  The author makes no secret of the fact that this is an intellectual game: in the preface, he directly thanks Alessandro  Baricco and Clint Eastwood for inspiration, and those musicians he thinks would provide an appropriate soundtrack—Bulat Okudzhava, T-Bone Burnett, and Chavela Vargas, as well as the artist Luis de Morales.  However, allusions to all of these can also be found in the text of the novel.

The sujet of the novel is simple.  At the beginning of the text, a brother, wearing a furling coat and a broad-rimmed hat, arrives in a small town for a meeting with his sister Laila, who has been unjustly evicted from the Villa that once belonged to the family.  It is intimated to the reader that the brother has had an eventful and adventuresome life, and that he has now come to fulfill his father`s last wish to reestablish justice.  Yet much remains shadowy about his past, the background of certain episodes, and the immediate happenings in the novel`s time and space.  The corrupt upper crust of the small town is forced to give up its power, as they are unable to do away with the brother; in the single case of a bloody settling of accounts, we are only shown the consequences, and even these are not very serious.  In contrast to ordinary literature, the good guys are mysterious, and in fact we never find out whether the retreat of the bad guys and the prevailing of justice is directly connected to the brother`s appearance, or whether it is simply unavoidable, and would have happened anyway.  The villain is vulgar, and receives his inexplicable comeuppance by the very fact that he finds itself bothered by the brother, who appears with the aura of an avenger.  The only visible act carried out by the brother is the fact that he works for awhile as a gardener in the Villa`s garden.  At the end of the novel Laila is reinstated in the Villa, and the brother leaves town for parts unknown, just as he came.

Critics have spoken of „Brother” in terms of the Taoist principle of „the action of non-action” and the Lacanian „empty signifier”.  There is no shortage of effects to disappoint the reader expecting action, but for those who enjoy intellectual games, the book is a genuine treat.  Amidst language reminiscent of Baricco`s rendering of emotion, there is a modest sprinkling of aphorisms. The style is fine and allusive, which further distinguishes the book from the macho quality characteristic of cowboy games.  As far as these are concerned, there are palpable traces of Sergio Leone`s spaghetti westerns, and (especially) Clint Eastwood`s self-directed „High Plains Drifter.”

Despite the position of Rector—or perhaps in order to counterbalance it—Rein has defined himself in his public appearances as an armchair anarchist.  „Vend” is appropriate evidence for this claim.  Stylish and nuanced, clearly written with pleasure, and with a luminous ending, this little book proves that great literature is possible even today.

Kalju Kruusa: Pilvedgi mingi liigutavadgi.  Tallinn: Koma, 2008. 128 pp ISBN-978-9949-18-057-8.

One of the functions of poetry is to surprise—with some unanticipated image, unexpected connection, invented word, unusual expression, or idiosyncratic style. A good poet always brings something unprecedented into poetry, sees life with his or her own eyes, and creates an individual style in which to describe it.  Otherwise he or she remains an imitator, and does not contribute anything new to the tradition.
 In his third collection of poetry, the most capacious to date, Kalju Kruusa (b 1973) , does track ordinary and everyday moments in outside reality, but he finds surprising connections in it, expressing his discoveries in idiosyncratic language, and at times with comic overtones.  The everyday thus is made extraordinary, the common strange: the habitual order of things is shifted, and through words, imaginative associations are made apprehensible to the senses.  Everything begins with language—at least in Kruusa`s poetry it does— as the title promises in its twists on Estonian-language orthography. The correct spelling would be Pilvedki mindki liigutavadki, but Kruusa changes the consonants and makes them softer. This change extends to the whole of his poetry as well.  Of course, one finds even greater departures from ordinary spelling, such as the consistent use of commas in unexpected places after an empty space,  leaving the impression of a slight shuffle in the rhythm of the text. The critics have given Kruusa high praise as a practitioner of untranslatable language poetry: indeed, many of the characteristic features of language lose their meaning in translation. 
On one hand, such reality-shifts expressed using such particular linguistic means might give good reasons for talking about surrealism. However, if we leave aside the linguistic aspect, the surprise factor in Kruusa`s poetry can be located in the way he lifts some aspect of an ordinary situation out of its dormancy, and then grounds the mounting tension of unexpectedness with a phrase like „nothing special.” The unusual suddenly turns out to be ordinary: In one of the longer prose texts in the volume, nail scissors which caused problems when trying to board an airplane acquire unexpected proportions and turn into weapons after all, that get one onto the airplane, destroy crowds of  people, the whole airport, etc, until finally the poet finds himself comfortably settled on a plane from Tokyo to Honolulu.  In the poem Jungle Funk a „herd of unusual wondrous animals elephants” coming to „bring a little wonder” frighten a sleeper out of his bed, and then back into the depths of it. Kruusa`s poetry swarms with such little miracles, which become an ordinary part of the everyday world.  Sometimes it has the same effect as the phrase „nothing special”, and the reader, shaken awake by the fast-paced rhythm, calms down again. The wonder of poetry has been born through Kruusa’s suggestive word—and the reader has recognized it.
The elephant, who in Europe and in northern climates is an exotic being, is an appropriate carrier for the transcendence of the exotic in Kruusa`s poetry. In fact, the poet has been very active as a translator, and recently more and more absorbed by Japanese culture and poetry.  However, in his own poetry he neither imitates nor uses foreign forms of poetry, but rather, turns his wanderings into quite ordinary free verse—whether the landscapes are in his homeland, or, more and more often, in China and Japan. Yet this is not common tourist verse; in places, Kruusa`s writing comes to resemble a diary, which represents everyday situations in defamiliarizing ways.  In order to ‘domesticate’ the word of the ‘stranger’, which is represented by turns by an Eastern concept in Latin letters or by a hieroglyph, the poet does not hesitate to use footnotes or even explanations.
Most of Kruusa`s texts have their origin in a condition of feeling, a place, or a detail. Around these the poet has successfully created a distinctive atmosphere, allowed the light and shadow to reveal themselves  from an unexpected angle, and then retreated.  This is a kind of sensitive impressionism, the kind we might imagine if we watch the shadows of clouds moving over grainfields and catch a whiff of their fresh scent.