Estonian Landscapes and Mindscapes

by Tiina Kirss


That literature, midwifed by translation, opens windows into a foreign culture is a commonplace, with the caveat that the translation has to be a good one. For a ‘good’ translation to communicate, surely it must not excel on a linguistic level alone.   Sly complexities make  ‘cultural translation’ of literature a daunting endeavour: the silences between and around the words may mean as much, or more than the words explicitly written. And then there are those blank, unreadable spaces on the mental map, which are visible to the ‘native’ reader, but baffling for the outsider: places, events, people, objects.  When speaking of the history of the English novel, Patrick Parrinder claims that the thick, descriptive language of the ‘realist’ novel carries ‘local knowledge’ about the land, language, and people, the culture by which it is inscribed and circumscribed. Recurring to the term ‘local knowledge’ borrowed from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Parrinder suggests  that  a novel may do the same kind of cultural work as an ethnography.  Perhaps this is most keenly so for the outsider looking in through the literary window.
Landscape, as it is represented in literary works, is one of the key features of  ‘local knowledge’. A tangible, if imaginary sense of place gives a foreign reader an entry code to the larger culture-- its literal geographical contours and other, more elusive maps of sensibility and values, derivable, though not reducible to the shape of the land. What, then, is an Estonian landscape?  If we narrow our focus to Estonian literature, we might ask whether we encounter landscape more immediately, more intimately through poetry or prose. ‘Poetry’ might be an automatic, even sensible first response: Estonia has a strong poetic tradition, and, within it, a powerful current of nature lyricism.  Many would even say that the test of a real Estonian poet is how well he or she comes to terms with nature.  Among younger contemporary Estonian poets—Mehis Heinsaar, Jürgen Rooste, Timo Maran, Kristiina Ehin, to name a few, there are many urban as well as rural lyricists of distinction, whether or not nature poetry is a dominant note in their oeuvre.
To answer the question of landscape in terms of Estonian prose would, however, be more accurate.  Some novels do provide a template for the sense of place, that locality that means both geography and mindscape. We may call such novels ‘realist’ since they create the illusion that we are looking through a transparent window onto a cross-section of ‘social reality’. Yet even if we acknowledge that the ‘reality effect’ is a literary game, the template is evocative. Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and William Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha are places in the mind,  but are also superbly figurative of social circumstances, relationships of kinship, power, and violence that have regional and historical specificity.
 Three Estonian novels from different regions and moments could serve as initial orientation points for charting the landscape of Estonia through its literary prose.
  A. H. Tammsaare`s classic novel Tõde ja Õigus (Truth and Justice, 1926-1933) has been translated into several European languages (Finnish, German, a French translation is in progress), though not yet into English, and is firmly lodged at the core of the literary canon. Tammsaare`s ‘agrarian novel’ has never been out of print, neither has it been banned by any political regime.  It fit without a rub into the criteria of ‘critical realism’ of the Soviet era, and has continued to be read in the school curriculum, with the argument that it embodies ‘national values’. If one reads Tammsaare carefully, however, one will soon see that these values are often placed in a starkly ironic light. 
The physical landscape of Tammsaare`s classic novel resonates with its moral imperative of hard work, the human will pitted against poor soil, too wet and too rocky to till without constant struggle. In the first scene of the novel, the protagonist, Andres, and his bride, Krõõt, arrive by horse and cart at the farm that Andres has just purchased. Indeed, the purchasing of family farms by former serfs and the financial struggle to make them prosper was in its heyday in the time represented by Tammsaare’s novel.  In the first sentence, the narrator straightforwardly locates the novel in time: „It was at the end of the third quarter of the last century“—the era. The young couple is making the ascent of a hill, and the setting sun is too low to illuminate them—until they reach the crest: „There it is, Vargamäe“, the man said, and motioned across the bog to the next hillock, where a group of low buildings lay close to the ground. “This is the landscape of the northern Estonian farm— the boggy, hilly terrain of Järvamaa, A.H.Tammsaare’s native realm. The territory is alien to Andres’ new bride, Krõõt, whose point of view predominates the first scene of the novel:  „here a hill, there a hill, a third one farther still, on the left a fourth one, on the right a fifth, behind them a sixth and seventh, and even more besides. On the hilltops, fields and buildings, around the hills and between them marsh, with patches of bog, covered with poor brush.“  If the new homestead, on its native land with its uneven composite of hill, bog, and marsh is one archetypal landscape—with which the protagonist will have a lifelong adversarial relationship, Krõõt’s sadly remembered home is a second, quite different archetype. She grew up on a farm deep in the woods, which always echoed to her singing.  Her new home does not ring with echoes, and Krõõt does not have the strength to survive the alien landscape: she dies in her third childbed. Her husband then takes a new, sturdier wife, Mari, to be his yokefellow in building Vargamae, and to mother its next generation. Their son Indrek is sent to Tartu to school, and is to experience a painful, lifelong conflict between the town and the country, between Tartu and Tallinn of the first decades of the 20th century, and the pull of his native soil.
 The fictional Vargamäe of Tammsaare’s novel is the archetypal Estonian single-family farm,  founded by unrelenting effort with a view to future generations, who would have an easier, more prosperous life—or so it was hoped.  It is raw and exposed compared to the sheltered remoteness of Krõõt’s birthplace, one of the novel’s several suppressed terms.   For Tammsaare’s first, urban readers in the late 1920s and 1930s, the years of fighting the soil to found farms such as Vargamäe was already a fading memory, a lost world. Like Andres`son Indrek, many of these had been educated in town, or were already second-generation citydwellers.  In the Estonian literary canon, however, the imaginary landscape of Vargamäe had neither peer nor rival—even his literary successor, Karl Ristikivi, in his award-winning novel Tuli ja raud (1938), where the protagonist is a farmhand-turned factory worker, does not create as forcefully coherent a chronotope of agrarian life.  Vargamäe evoked the whole of agrarian reality, receding just beyond the generational horizon into the nostalgic gold of memories. 
It is striking, then, when one takes a closer look at locality. Vargamäe is specific not only to a time of transition, but to a region  The predominance of northern Estonia in the imaginary landscape reflects a dynamic of cultural history with precedents, including the fixation of the northern dialect as the standard for written Estonian.
Are there, then, other Estonian landscapes that stand in the shadow of Tammsaare`s Vargamäe? If we move southwards on the map, an alternative agrarian landscape emerges in MatsTraat`s (b 1936) epic novel, Minge üles mägedele (I, 1987), which is set in the county of Võrumaa in the 1880s.  The opening lines of this novel are revealing, especially if we set them alongside the laconic first sentence of Tammsaare`s Tõde ja õigus: „Over that hill, no one could prevail. It loomed over the surrounding land indifferently, taking no interest whatsoever in the question of whether or not it had the right to be so commanding, so much so, in fact, that even with the best of efforts, there was no way to see past it or over its top.“ Palanumägi, as this hill is called, is personified from the beginning, as if it had a mind of its own. Kotter, the family patriarch and founder of the farm at the core of Traat`s novel, keeps having to shift his buildings to a lower place on the hillside in order not to offend its magisterial presence.  Like Tammsaare`s Andres of Vargamäe, Kotter has had to engage in unceasing labour (rühmeldamine) to plant his grain and eke out a living. 
The beginning of Mats Traat`s multivolume novel of the several generations of Palanumäe can be read as a gloss of the beginning of Tammsaare`s canonical novel.  Such a reading is implicit and anticipated, if not deliberate: Traat is winking at his knowledgeable reader, who knows his or her Tammsaare—if not from reading it, at least from seeing one of several dramatizations onstage. And thus, these first pen-strokes that draw a map of Palanumäe hark back (or across) at the arrival of the young couple, Andres and Krõõt, at their new home at Vargamäe. As in Tammsaare`s novel, the story begins with a wedding—which takes place in 1885, bringing a young daughter-in-law and her different ways to Kotter`s farm.
 The southern landscape of Palanumäe is far from hospitable, and it is certainly an adversary. Paradoxically, since the mountain has already won, its indisputable sovereignty creates room for a more moderate approach to life, an ethos not quite as extreme (or workaholic) as Andres` austere and unrelenting work ethic. The discourse of Traat`s novel also makes more room for cultural history, for showing the work of creating institutions, societies, and literate traditions in the Estonian language that picked up its pace during the movement of national awakening in the 1860s and 1870s. In Tammsaare`s novel national awakening is a blank spot, at best a silent background, and its ideas do not inform the world of its characters. Only one of the farmers, Hundipalu Tiit, subscribes to the newspaper, and is aware of events and ideas of the day. Tammsaare`s Andres` daily labour,and his ongoing conflict with his trickster neighbour Pearu, who keeps moving the boundary stones and digging his ditches so the water flows onto Andres` fields, knows no interval for rest or fruitless talk.  At Palanumäe, by contrast, men on their way to the wedding party in Kotter`s wagon argue about whether the Estonian people will survive or succumb in the ‘mixed-up’ times of russification, which were already being felt by the mid-1880s.  Their argument includes the ‘symbolic capital’ accrued by the intellectual leaders of national awakening.  Perhaps a people who now had its imaginary golden past embellished with mythological heroes, stood a chance to keep on living.  Reading Tammsaare`s epic novel alongside Traat`s Palanumäe cycle provides  geographical as well as cultural lateral vision, a fuller view of the Estonian landscape, with more of the paradoxes of its agricultural past in view.
A third, very recent prose work, Tõnu Õnnepalu`s Paradiis (Varrak,2009), is a spare, though succulent meditation on yet a third Estonian landscape, that of the islands.  While August Mälk, Juhan Smuul, the brothers Jyri and Ylo Tuulik, and Herman Sergo have brought vivid life to the Estonian islands and islanders in their literary works, Paradiis does not belong neatly in a cluster of ‘regional fiction’. Õnnepalu’s second-person epistolary narrative refracts twelve years of life in a village in Hiiumaa in the last years of the Soviet era and the following years of transition.  Õnnepalu`s poet’s eye for the detail of wind and light is accompanied by a quietly ironic voice that rings the changes of the local place names— a bus stop named Aafrika, and Paradiis (Paradise),the name of the village,  a pleonasm that contains Pariis (Paris), the terminus of desire for many young people in Soviet-era eastern Europe. Not a work of realist prose, the self-proclaimed model for Õnnepalu`s text is a children’s book almost universally familiar to his generation: Astrid Lindgren’s Children of Bullerby. The map of Paradise on the inside cover of the book mimics the maps in children’s books, the left-hand edge doubly marked: „official border, boundary of the known world“. While Paradiis sketches a regionally specific landscape, and the social landscape of local people with evocative detail, it is fraught with artifice, as can be seen in the accompanying photographs. It is also a text about various kinds of losses—ownership and dispossession, dissolution and imposition of borders, all of which qualify as deprivations, along with the vicissitudes of failing to tend what needs to be tended, whether it be a meadow or a memory. As such, Paradiis celebrates, mourns, and exonerates locality, and affirms ways of being in and with a landscape.
As refracted through its prose texts, the landscape of Estonia is deservedly palimpsestic of several localities—whose blanks and intersections call to the translator to help in the crafting of genuinely local knowledge.

Tiina Kirss
Tartu University