Short outlines of books by Estonian authors

by Janika Kronberg

Jaan Kaplinski: Paralleele ja parallelisme (Parallels and Parallelisms). Tartu UP, Series: Contemporary Thought. 2009, 275 pp. ISBN 978-9949-29-040-9. ISSN 1736-3136.

The basis for this book is a somewhat expanded version of the lectures Jaan Kaplinski gave at Tartu University as Professor of the Liberal Arts in 2000-2001, with the overarching title Thoughts about Languages and Cultures. Appended to the 20 lectures is the previously published treatise 621, which, reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s treatise, contains that number of fragments, devoted to the discussion of similar themes.

Kaplinski is one of Estonia`s most renowned and translated writers. He is first and foremost a poet, though he has never wanted to fit into a predetermined frame, and of late has even resisted being deemed a writer. Indeed, as a writer, aesthetics has never particularly interested him.  He once wrote in one of his poems that the time has come for aesthetics to die. In one of the lectures in this series, mostly devoted to his own creative work, Kaplinski admits that in his own view he has already done his poetic deed. He has always been more interested in anthropology, astronomy, natural and exact sciences, and philosophy. The current book, written by the philosophical Kaplinski, reminds us that as far as his education is concerned, Kaplinski is a linguist above all.

As the author confirms in his introduction, he is not a producer of ready-made truths and thoughts, as these are abundantly available on the market these days. Kaplinski`s primary preoccupation is with the ethical development of thinking, along the lines of the Finno-Ugric philosophy of life, which Oskar Loorits, classic Estonian scholar of folkloristics has summarized as follows: Live and let live. To the extent that Kaplinski, the child of a Pole (with Jewish roots) and an Estonian, avoids emphasizing or constructing a national identity, so he is also a stranger to drawing firm boundaries, formulating definitions so characteristic of Western philosophy, and to normativity of all kinds. Kaplinski stands sovereign both with respect to his own literary creations and his philosophical thinking, and it is this latter sovereignty that the book of lectures represents.

Kapliinski takes language and culture as his point of departure, studying the ways thinking has been determined by them, calling into question some truths and concept of Western philosophy, among them the direct connection between thought and the language of sight. Through this Kaplinski`s originality becomes apparent: he is a linguist who knows many different languages and cultures. Although the differences of worldview between finnougric and indogermanic languages was already discussed by Nietzsche, Kaplinski assembles support for that claim on the basis of rich and unusual pondering of evidence from the Finno-Ugric peoples to the Dravidians. Thus he makes distinctions between hierarchizing description and representation in philosophy, clearly signalling that he strongly prefers the latter. He illustrates the difference with a wealth of examples from Eastern thought and the Estonian language, and sees a significant similarity between them in approaches to thinking—in contrast to the abstraction characteristic particularly of Latin and Greek. Kaplinski refers to these opposing types of cultures as meditative and communicative, whereas the latter type steadily distantiates itself from nature and naturalness, moving more and more toward dogmatism and theories: „In meditative culture both philosophical and religious discourse tend to be groping and tentative. In philosophy, a clear distinction is made quite early on between a word and its meaning on the one hand and things on the other. If in communicative culture what dominates is philosophical realisms, belief in the isomorphism (one-to-one-correspondence) between things and words, in meditative cultures what comes to rule is nominalism, the belief that words are not the lords of reality, but rather guests—as articulated by the ancient Chinese thinker Zhuang-zi.

Finding more support for his claims among Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian thinkers, alongside a few isolated Western thinkers (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein) and the rich linguistic material, Kaplinski clearly directs his critique at Western civilization, particularly in its modern condition. Among the effects of the modernization of modes of thinking, he sees the violent adjustment of Estonian language to Western standards, and efforts to overcome national inferiority complexes from the starting point of B. L. Whorf`s Standard Average European. Instead, Kaplinski wants to go back, to take his point of departure from the ancient and the unique, from what is natural and authentic, and in this he seems to have quite the right idea. Nevertheless, his critique is not an enraged one, nor is it even particularly polemical. These lectures, articulated in neutral argumentative mode have been delivered in a style of stoic peace and tolerance

Memory literature and Henn-Kaarel Hellat. Inimese tegemine I-V (The Making of Man I-V)
Tallinn, Faatum, 2002-2008

In recent years, Estonian critics and the press have more than ever before been talking about a boom in memoirs. 'Memoir' has become a common term to mark a large variety of publications that share only one common feature – they all talk about somebody’s life and this ‘somebody’ is usually a real person. Memoirs have become a flowering business, books are written about older local stars and starlets, as well as about artists in their full creative power, and some artists have successfully written their autobiographies.

Besides superficiality, we can find true gems among memoirs. Searching in a library catalogue among Estonian-language publications for the year 2008 by using the key words ‘memoir’ and ‘life story’, we get a list of a couple of hundred various titles. The list includes all kinds of memoirs and biographies, from voluminous books of memories written by scientists and public figures to picture books, modest efforts put together by amateurs, jubilee collections and a few scientific monographs – the number of the latter is, unfortunately, very small. In addition to life stories of ‘famous and odd’ people, produced by journalists, there are many memoirs and reminiscences penned by modest country or townspeople, who have followed the principle of relating their life stories as truthfully as possible.

Both the public and journalists have asked whether the number of publications is too large and the noble name of literature is being trampled into the mud. How should the past be written about? Whom do these books address? Which subjects do these books cover? And how should we group the authors of these books?

Mostly, the authors hope for a ‘wide audience’. But memoirs undoubtedly offer more to those people who have had experiences similar to the author's, such as people of the same profession, or people who were deported to Siberia. Another group is formed of books written about the time when Mother/Grandmother was young, directed to children, but often more interesting for adults, such as Heljo Mänd’s Little Dandelions or Leelo Tungal’s comic and ironic books (Comrade Child and Grownups).

Comptroller General Hindrek Meri says in the introduction to his memoir Reminiscences from a Rolling Freight Wagon (Tagasivaateid veerevast vagunist) that middle-aged people, let alone young people, do not even think about writing down memories of their lives. The whole idea of my present undertaking is to record for the next generations some images of the life of Estonians, starting with the pre-Second World War years. The same wish has driven many other authors – physicians, scientists, specialists (Paul Ariste, Raimund Hagelberg and Hindrek Meri), soldiers, musicians, foresters, writers, Estonians living in Estonia and abroad, religious people and exhibitionists, weirdos and moralists, etc.

The most popular books of memories and life stories are Mari Tarand’s sensitively and skilfully written Inside the Image of Time (Ajapildi sees) (see ELM no 28) and Mihkel Raud’s Black Mud on Your Face (Musta pori näkku). The latter has topped sales lists and has obviously fanned the flames under the kettle of memory literature. Raud has, for 30 years, played in different Estonian rock bands. His book is an honest and brutal, obscene and tragic image of its time. Many people mentioned in the book are well known to the reader, which adds to the public interest.

Mihkel Raud’s book may be rivalled by Vladimir Wiedemann’s School of Mages: Estonian Occult Underground 1970-1980 (Maagide kool: Eesti okultne underground 1970-1980), but the characters of this book are unknown and the public interest is therefore much smaller.

Single books can be evaluated from several different aspects, but all together they create a substantial picture of the Estonia of the 20th century, especially of the period of Soviet occupation. Besides facts and images, the reader of memoirs of the Soviet time usually expects some kind of assessment of these years and activities. Sometimes, such an assessment is hidden, sometimes it is loudly voiced. Biographical experience is universal, but there is no universal answer to the challenges it poses.

Among the creators of a substantial picture of time, Henn-Kaarel Hellat’s (1932) work of five volumes, The Making of a Man, is without doubt one of the best.
The meaningful title of the series is divided into five subtitles: I – The Gluer of Thread (Niidiliimija); II-III – Boys’ War 1-2 (Poiste sõda 1-2); IV – I Gallop Far Away (Kappan kaugele); and V – In Temple and Tavern (Templis ja tavernis). 

The author examines himself as a case study, striving for impartiality. “This is not my true biography, although I have given the protagonist my own name. I am not ashamed to admit that my memory is quite bad. /---/ Trying to use a metaphor, I should say that these memories from far away decades are like pieces of thread, which I try to glue together into one long colourful thread, into a whole spool of thread. And as glue, I use fantasy, imagination.”

The descriptions that fill the book are intense and exhaustive, including mentality and spirituality, and principles of childrearing, but also the environment of things from the past. The author is a child of an army officer, who remembers the spiritual milieu of his childhood years, the 1930s, as the period when the foundation was laid for the ‘making of a man’ of him. His mother had to make a choice between a career as a violinist and marriage; she chose marriage. Children were brought up according to strict principles, firmly based on work ethic, as the family did not want to pamper the children. The description of Hellat’s home gives us a picture of a home of Estonian intellectuals in the 1930s, of a lost world.

The following two parts, titled Boys’ War, examine the years during and after WWII. Hellat lost his father and brother in the war years, and the end of the war did not mean the end of awful times. The Soviet regime returned and the echoes of the war shaped the atmosphere of the period, accentuated by the fear of deportation in 1949 and endless work on a farm. The hope for his father’s return was not realised; only his cousin, who had ‘become red’, i.e. an orthodox communist, came back.

The last part, In Temple and Tavern, is about the years 1954-64. Hellat entered the university, studied law, became disappointed in his choice, met many creative people, lived a stormy student’s life, etc. He says, “The ‘making of a man’ of me was especially intense just during this period. A large number of masters of very different skills, mentalities and aims took pains to reach this goal /---/ I have to cope with the result.”

The Making of a Man is Hellat’s best work so far. It shows that biographical writing often opens hidden doors and memory brings out long lost treasures. The world that Hellat gradually and reflectively delves into, trying to describe his realisations as precisely as possible, is much different from the present one. Detailed and colourful memories are very often the best history lesson.

Elu täis üllatusi. Helga Nõu 75. Maale ja mõtteid 1956-2009 (Life Full of Surprises. Helga Nõu 75. Paintings and Thoughts 1956-2009)

There are not many writers who are equally successful in literature and in art. Among Estonian writers, the prolific prose author Toomas Vint is a well-known artist. The exile Estonian poet Arno Vihalem, who lived in Sweden, was a professional artist. A list of writers who are also amateur artists would be quite long.

Helga Nõu (1934), who lives in both Estonia and Sweden, has been actively painting since she gave up her job as a schoolteacher. Life Full of Surprises is dedicated to Helga Nõu’s 75th birthday; its pages offer both her poems and her paintings. As a writer, Helga Nõu became familiar to the wider Estonian public probably only in 1990, when her novels A Bad Boy (Paha poiss) and Tiger, Tiger (Tiiger, tiiger) were reprinted in Estonia. Her name figured in newspapers earlier, when the writing couple Helga and Enn Nõu began participating in Estonian public life as soon as it became possible, at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s. They have done a great job of bringing home Estonian literature that had been hidden for a long time. During the Soviet era, only a few had access to exile Estonian literature, which was carefully guarded by censors. Surprisingly, a harshly critical review of Helga Nõu’s first novel, A Cat Eats Grass (Kass sööb rohtu) (1965), was published in the Soviet Estonian newspaper Noorte Hääl. Public criticism of the book, published by an exile writer in Sweden, which was prohibited at home and could not be sent here by mail, informed the public of the existence of the writer.

The Baltic Sea was surging behind my window
It could not be crossed
Stopped by the Iron Curtain
I cried in my new home
Behind my curtain,

recalls the writer in her book of surprises, which shows her from new and unexpected angles. This is a retrospective book that can, to a certain extent, be seen as a memoir.

I was asked: do you remember
Do you still remember?
I saw myself in Pärnu
In the yard in Jalaka Street
Everything was gray and small
I was grown up
The chickens of my childhood
Had all long ago been made into soup

Nõu observes her life through words and images, verse and paintings. Even in short forms, she is often paradoxical, her best images are unexpected and full of thorns, and her poetic voice is restrained. Images and texts alternate in the pages of the book. Nõu’s colourful paintings are in accord with the text: “Pictures express only isolated thoughts woven into the fabric of life, or into a sweater,” writes Helga Nõu. The verbal reminiscences of this writer with a long career in teaching are often witty, perceptive, didactic and playful. The texts and images standing side by side sometimes relate to each other in an entirely unexpected way, sometimes in a more traditional mode. Helga Nõu as an artist is in no way inferior to Helga Nõu as a writer, but as an artist she is a surprise to her readers. 

Olev Remsu. Musketäride muutumised. Tartu romaan viieteistkümnes peatükis (The Changing Musketeers. A Novel about Tartu in Fifteen Chapters)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2008. 455 pp
Olev Remsu (1948) is a prolific writer. The baroque abundance and volume of his prose have now and then hindered the reception of his works. His book The Haapsalu Tragedy (Haapsalu tragöödia), or more precisely its first part, has so far received the most acclaim. It seems to me that The Changing Musketeers is more solid. Although the subtitle of the book suggests that this is a novel about Tartu, I would place it together with other Estonian school novels.

The number of canonical Estonian school novels is not large. This list opens with Oskar Luts's Spring (Kevade) (1912), with its archetypal characters, who have become a part of the Estonian identity. The second part of A. H. Tammsaare's monumental Truth and Justice (Tõde ja Õigus) (1929), actually a development story about the main hero Indrek, is also a colourful story of a colourful school. We should not forget Mati Unt's Good Bye, Yellow Cat (Hüvasti, kollane kass) (1963), written by a very young author when he was still in secondary school. In addition to the eternal problems of young people, this fresh book also contained plenty of signs of the upside-down Soviet period, which modern schoolboys would not even recognise.

Jaan Kross' The Wikman Boys (Wikmani poisid) (1988), a novel about a class of boys in a Tallinn elite school and the spirit of the 1930s, has become a classic. It is a novel about the bel epoque of the Estonian Republic, which was violently disrupted and destroyed by the war. We should add some novels from the teacher's viewpoint: Karl Ristikivi's The Garden (Rohtaed) (1943) and particularly Mats Traat's Pommer's Garden (Pommeri aed) (1973). These teacher novels differ from other school novels in their bigger share of fictionality.

A characteristic feature of a school novel is the author's use of autobiographical subject matter, the umbilical cord of memories that connects the authors with their long lost school time. From the distance of time, they observe themselves and their friends from a new perspective. The writer's licence makes it possible to add fictional aspects and the whole picture with all its temporal relations is retrospectively revealed.

Remsu has (unconsciously?) modelled his school novel on the best representatives of the genre and he closely follows one year in the lives of four friends – four musketeers – which is also the last school year of his protagonist.
The story of the protagonist Kolla, Nikolai Mjarg, is related from the third-person aspect; Kolla is observed from outside and carefully alienated from his creator by the voice of the narrator. A favourite book of the post-war generation, Alexander Dumas' Three Musketeers, was published in Estonian in 1957. According to Remsu's book, Kolla, a strong, robust and talented boy from the slums who is being reared by his mother, is Porthos in the game of musketeers. Another boy, Schultz, resembles the musketeers' Athos. Kolla, shaped according to autobiographical material, and Schultz, seen through Kolla's eyes, are living characters. The remaining two friends have names, but they are not brought fully to life, although they are quite dutifully talked about. The cast swirling past the reader is colourful, including many persons whom people living in Tartu can easily recognise. Out of politeness, Remsu has given them new names, but preserved their biographical details.
Remsu, who usually takes liberties in his work, has in this book been quite true to reality, allowing only slight shifts in time. Compressing time, he brings forth characters who are easily recognised and events that actually took place during his own university years. The novel encompasses three main lines: Kolla's development, the life and tricks of the Soviet times, and the landscapes and moods of the town of Tartu.

Remsu describes Tartu very truthfully, using real place names, but often only mentioning them in passing to create a background for his characters. The greatest bonus that the book offers to its readers is the recording of the time and place, as Kolla, with his painful loves and joys and troubles of growing up to be a man, is quite an ordinary character. The images of school created by Oskar Luts or Jaan Kross are full of memorable friends, classmates and teachers, but Remsu's novel is much less crowded. He introduces some teachers too but, as characters, they remain rather superficial.
The book is an interesting read for Remsu's contemporaries and especially for people living in Tartu. Other readers may miss some of the joy of recognition. Remsu skilfully mixes fiction and true memories, and a character described as “the chief of the KGB with the name of a city” does not make it clear whether it is Comrade London or Comrade Pariis. A short and rather funny dictionary of words used at that time is added for those who had not yet been born then. At the same time, all this makes us wonder whether Remsu would not have done better by choosing an openly autobiographical and documentary genre to create an even better image of those times. Or, contrary to this, maybe he should have gone even further and used even bolder fantasy. Everybody's school years can be described as a comedy or a tragedy. Remsu's novel offers us both, but comedy is still prevalent here.
The Diary of Karl Ristikivi 1957-1968.  Tallinn:Varrak. 1012 pp.
The last decade has brought before the public a wealth of memoirs and diaries. Whether or not this is connected to a general surge of interest in all kinds of autobiographical materials (ego-documents), writers` diaries have moved to the centre of Estonian cultural space. Certainly this is an indication of the high degree of esteem in which writers and their creations continue to be held in Estonia, and a key factor in the way these texts signify. This is particularly true of the diary of Karl Ristikivi: everything that the author says, reveals or withholds contains some kind of truth about him as a writer.
For a long time, Karl Ristikivi`s diaries have been a closely kept secret. In the second half of the 1930s, this son of a servant girl from Läänemaa became a literary star in Estonia. As far as we know, Ristikivi began keeping a diary quite late, around the time he was completing his university studies on the threshold of his 30th year.  On 23 October 1941 he picked up a small notebook and wrote on the cover: literary diary.

Though it was started as a record of his literary reflections, the diary soon turns autobiographical, and is interrupted in January 1944, when the writer flees to Finland. He continues on to Sweden in September of the same year. After a long period of depression, during which his best friend marries and his first novels written in exile are met with accusations and reproaches, he resumes his diary on 1 August 1957. The opening lines of the diary are ordinary—even perhaps too ordinary:  a self-introduction, but addressed to whom?

1.8. 57—Thursday.
It is a very ordinary day, this day on which I begin my diary.  I do not know which attempt this is, nor whether I will get farther with it this time than I did the previous times. But now I have decided to keep it for 10 years.  Thus it would replace the newspaper clippings---which I am now finished with—after 10 years of work.
And so, for starters, my coordinates. I am 44 years old and work in the Solna health insurance office/---/This is located diagonally across the street at Rasundavägen 100, and I am sitting under the window. 

As is often true of diaries, Ristikivi`s does not contain the information one would expect, nor does it reveal great secrets. Rather, it corresponds to all the characteristics of the canonical diary: it is monotonous, full of repetitive openings, memory fragments, returns to the same themes. It is unexpectedly circumstantial while also unexpectedly private—a very human document in its moving helplessness. Nevertheless, it is very deliberately written as the diary of a writer, a public figure who belongs to the public sphere. While concealing everything that is deeply personal, information is periodically divulged about conditions surrounding writing, including the writer’s health. The author knows that the diary is a personal document, but he also knows that one day it will be found and read. Otherwise, why would it be composed so thoughtfully? The writer notes the dates and ceremonies that are important to him, and emphasizes the way he recollects the past. He heals past trauma through scriptotherapy, sometimes dramatizing the past in order finally to be freed from it. Daily writing allows him to lighten his heart, and helps him begin writing again. The first-person narrator of Ristikivi`s last work, Rooma päevik (Roman Diary) refers to his diary as a hermit’s monologue. Ristikivi interrupts the fictive monologue of Roman Diary in mid-sentence. Ristikivi`s own writer’s diary, however, resembles a secret drawer. The writer does not hold out the key to the reader, but hands him a secret message directing him to the next hiding place, where yet another secret message awaits him.

In many famous diaries self-examination is prevalent: the writer seizes the opportunity to know himself or herself in such a fashion as only God could know their inner self—to know themselves truthfully, thoroughly and from the inside. In his diary Ristikivi is free of all pride, but he never takes himself apart completely: God knows him anyway, and we can only guess that besides himself he has written the diary for a reader, whom Ristikivi trusts, yet from whom he also hides a great deal. 
He complains to his diary about all those things that he never complains about to his friends in real life, yet even here he chooses what exactly to confide, and what to conceal. The main themes of the diary are the writer’s state of mind, his hopes and fears, creative plans and progress reports about his books, failures to cross the language barrier, events of the past and anniversaries of significant events, in addition to impressions from his travels and miscellaneous circumstantial information.
The diary is often the only reliable place to talk about depression. Along with this, the diary is often filled with anxieties of being different. Self-examination is often accompanied by the feeling that others see him as something strange. Repeatedly he confesses his fears:
I am afraid of people, afraid of illness, afraid of accidents. And unfortunately this is not without reason (12.10.57)
When day dawns and with the coming of the lighter season of the year, these existential fears recede and Ristikivi exerts himself to find a topic that would attract him enough to be able to start writing again. Often the greatest obstacle is not so much the present with its everyday fears and routine, but images from the past that continue to make themselves felt. Just as the writing of history is a dialogue between the present and the past, so also is a diary. Sixteen years ago I left Estonia.  I had no real place there, neither do I have one here.“ (26.11.59)
Along with isolated images from the past and coded messages, the diary presents quite a thorough chronicle of creative work, both works in progress and those Ristikivi actually wrote. In addition to brief notations, there is much material about the many books he plans to write—drafts of outlines, choices, gathering source material, and the process of writing.
As Ristikivi finds his writing rhythm, his depression subsides, and the diary entries increasingly become reports of how his writing is progressing: information not only about his choice of topics but about how he writes. Ristikivi’s creativity is lively, yet there is the perpetual question of finding a new form. For example, in the diary Ristikivi does not reveal the entire design of his series of historical novels up front; rather, he only alludes to it.

True to promise, Ristikivi kept a diary for 10 years, and even a bit longer: 1 August 1957-21 June 1968.  It seems that at least at the beginning he intended to write a page a day.  Some longer entries can be found in the pocket calendars he kept during the period 1947-1977.
There is no doubt that the diary is a helpful resource for those conducting research on Ristikivi`s life and work. For other readers, it is a human document.  However, if the curious reader expects a glimpse of the angel „barring the way with a sword“ from Ristikivi`s poetry, he will find no more of this in the diary than has already been said in the poem. Instead, we find the writer’s self, firmly held in check, and despite the self-revealing helplessness, it is in part constructed. How else would it be possible?

The original manuscript of the diary is kept in the Baltic Archives in the Swedish State Archive in Stockholm. The diary has been prepared for publication Janika Kronberg, a scholar deeply versed in Ristikivi’s work, and who has also provided the diary with extensive commentary.