Short Overviews of Books by Estonian Authors

by Janika Kronberg

Sirje Kiin. Marie Under: elu, luuletaja identiteet ja teoste vastuvõtt.  (Marie Under: Life, Poetic Identity, and the Reception of her Works)
Tallinn, Tänapäev, 2009. 864 pp

Marie Under (1883-1980) was one of the most outstanding Estonian poets. She lived a long life, much of it far from home, since she and her husband, the poet Artur Adson, were among the 70,000 Estonians who fled their homeland in 1944 to escape the approaching Soviets.  Marie Under died in Stockholm in 1980, leaving behind an impressive body of splendid poetry, a limited amount of correspondence, less than 50 pages of her diary and no memoirs.

The publication of memoirs and autobiographies of outstanding Estonian public figures started, with a few exceptions, at the beginning of the 20th century. The compilation and publication of biographies (in their modern volume and meaning) of outstanding Estonians started somewhat later, although the first attempts at serious biography writing had already been made. The author of the first noteworthy biographies was the writer Friedebert Tuglas (1886 – 1971), and his first great work in the genre was the biography of the well-known Estonian poet Juhan Liiv (published in 1914).

For Tuglas, the development of biography as a genre was a part of the Young Estonia programme, the banner of which declared: 'More European culture!' At the same time, biographies of national public figures were believed to primarily fulfil a pedagogical function.

The 1930s proved to be the first decade when the publishing of biographies started in earnest, but this development was disrupted by the Soviet annexation. A new series of monographs on writers was started in the late 1950s. However, monographs on many classics of Estonian literature are still waiting to be written.

Marie Under made her first appearance on the literary scene in 1917,  when Estonian literature lacked the cultural substrate underlying modern western European literature. Marie Under claimed for herself, in Juri Lotman’s terms, 'a right to a biography', primarily by resisting the social norms of her times. She was one of the first Estonian women to live a life of artistic freedom, and a literary salon formed around her.  The frank eroticism of her first lyric poems aroused a tempest (in a teapot) in the Estonian public.  Twenty years later, Under was hailed as a living classic of Estonian poetry; she has enjoyed a lasting reputation as a symbol of national identity and as one of the masters of poetry in the Estonian language.

Until now, there has been no biography of Marie Under. For political reasons, it was not possible in Soviet Estonia to write a biographical study of a classic writer who was living in exile, and whose works were banned. In Estonia, there was no comprehensive overview of the poet's later works. Besides, during the poet's lifetime, literary critics in the diaspora held Under in such high esteem that they encountered writer's block when undertaking a biographical or Leben-und-Werk inquiry.

In 1963, the critic Ants Oras published a short monograph (under 100 pp), with a New Critical slant, on Under's poetry. Oras treated Under's life in the most discreet manner. In 1974, the first draft of another biography, in essence a life story written by her husband Artur Adson, was published in Sweden.  This was actually a highly edited, even censored, version tightly controlled by the poet's husband.  In 1996, Under's personal archives were taken to Estonia, and at the end of 2008, Sirje Kiin completed a full-length biography of Under. The book, over 800 pages in length, is largely based on this archival material. Sirje Kiin has remarked that she based her work on a Neo-hermeneutical perspective, and asserts that 'texts from life' are as important as 'artistic texts'.

This book has, again, provoked an old and familiar question: how does one write about a great poet 'of the people' – and, at that, about one who also happens to be a woman?

Autobiography, naturally, reflects the personality of its author, but the author of a biography also cannot withdraw from the text – he or she is present in the selection of material and in the interpretation of the material.

 Under's private self, her self-image, is often veiled and hidden, but it can be seen in both the bold eroticism and joie de vivre of her youth, and the painful longing for home in the exile poetry of her later life. By airbrushing Under's private life, Adson emphasised her international reputation. In contrast, Kiin's biography stresses the dimensions of love and passion, revealing her private moments, as well as the politics of her time, showing the total refusal of the Soviet system to countenance Under and her works. We might well argue that the journey toward the mythic meaning of the great poet's life is well under way, but the path to discerning her inward and outward individuality as a character in her time has only just begun.  Sirje Kiin's biography, the most ambitious and voluminous monograph on one of the greatest Estonian poets, gives an overview of a writer's path, but also draws attention to the question of a more general consideration – how should 'women of letters' be represented in Estonian literary history.

Eneken Laanes. Lepitamatud dialoogid. Subjekt ja mälu nõukogudejärgses eesti romaanis (Irreconcilable Dialogues. Subject and Memory in the post-Soviet Estonian Novel)
Tallinn, Underi ja Tuglase kirjanduskeskus, 2009. 328 pp

Interpreting the recent past is usually compromised by the need for distance. Books describing historical events that require that people make different choices, the hardness of these choices and their consequences, are published gradually. The first decade after regaining independence was a period of sounding out new conditions and new subjects in literature. Only then were the new possibilities accompanying freedom discovered – opportunities for examining subjects that could not earlier be touched upon without making compromises. Quite a large number of memoirs discussing the recent past have now been published, but the number of scholarly treatments of literary works on the same theme is small.

 The monograph by Eneken Laanes (1972) discusses three novels of great significance: Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Border State (1993), Jaan Kross’ Treading Air (1998) and Ene Mihkelson’s The Sleep of Ahasuerus (2001).

The introductory chapter of the book examines cultural analysis and more general tendencies in post-Soviet literature. Laanes first outlines the territory, chooses her tool and establishes rules. The selected novels deal with the discourses of memory and the identity of post-Soviet society. Her tool is cultural analysis and its concept-based approach, proceeding from Mieke Bal and others. Observing the representation of the subject in literature, she enters into a dialogue with the methods of its representation and finally arrives at the culture of memory and identity policy.

Laanes thoroughly analyses, in particular, Jaan Kross’ Treading Air as a monument to the Estonian nation, a novel about resistance. In Treading Air, Kross observed history through the life story of his protagonist Ullo Paerand. In the autumn of the pivotal year 1944, Paerand had to decide whether to flee from Estonia or not, whether to tie himself, or not, to the continuity of resistance (with the very short-lived Otto Tief government, which guaranteed the continuation of the state identity). Remaining in the homeland becomes the narrative of resistance in the novel. Laanes analyses its essence, using the terminology of collective memory of Aleida Assmann and others. Laanes analyses how generational memory changes into collective memory. The notion of collective memory is related to the notion of testimony. In the collective testimony of history, Assmann distinguishes between national testimony and moral witnessing. In the novel, the latter is connected with the subject of 'the betrayal' by the Western countries and the victim narrative of the Baltic peoples. (Kross has repeatedly stressed in many of his texts that the Western countries betrayed the Baltic countries after WWII.) Laanes points out the emotional relationship of moral witnessing with the past.

Laanes analyses two central metaphors of Kross’ novel: treading air, meaning flying without moving forward, and playing a flute without hearing one’s performance. The moral witnessing occurs, according to Laanes, in the search for a middle voice in which to tell the story of the hero of the novel. Laanes’s treatment also points out the possibility of anecdotilisation of memory, which strengthens memory.

Mihkelson’s novel The Sleep of Ahasuerus is considered to be the most profound analysis of the post-war events in Estonia. It is a masterful, but difficult novel in the 'German tradition'. It analyses betrayal and the creation of a zone of silence and lies.

Via collective memory and cultural memory, Laanes discusses trauma narrative. Mihkelson’s novel questions linear answers. Based on LaCapra’s theory of trauma and Derrida’s hautology, Laanes focuses on the role of narration in the working through of individual and historical traumas. Examining the duality of the main hero of the novel, she shows how a dialogue is established between reality and its interpretation. Difficult themes (loss of parents, hiding of the truth, loneliness and the deheroisation of the Forest Brothers) have to be written and talked through, since the wish not to think about them would mean acquiescence in false conclusions drawn from false preconditions, which leads to endless repetitions. 'The truth is not a ready product here, which has to be found in the past, but knowledge that is born from a dialogic process between different interpretations of the past.'

The breakthrough novel by Tõnu Õnnepalu, Border State, is easier to interpret. The narrative of betrayal examines the yearning for Europe and the feeling of embarrassment regarding the past on the part of an Estonian. Laanes analyses the role of memory in the construction of identity.

Laanes’s excellent monograph displays brilliant analysis, and its interpretations of theoretical and fictional material are trustworthy. She does not focus on the traumas of the past, but examines the role of literature in shedding light on them and making sense of them, which is the only way to move on and leave them behind.

Kristiina Ehin. Emapuhkus (Maternity Leave)
Tallinn, Pandekt, 2009. 107 pp

Maternity Leave is Kristiina Ehin's (b. 1977) fifth collection of poems. All her books have won a great deal of renown and, in addition to a warm reception at home, Ehin's poetry has been recognised internationally as well: in 2007, her collection of poems The Drums of Silence, translated into English by Ilmar Lehtpere, received the Poetry Society Popescu Award. The new English-language collection of Ehin's poetry, The Scent of Your Shadow, received a reputable award – the Poetry Book Society Recommended – when still an unpublished manuscript. The Estonian-language collection Maternity Leave contains the same poems that were included in the English-language The Scent of Your Shadow.

Maternity Leave is an integrated and imaginative book about being a woman and the relations between different generations. The author brings her foremothers into the textual and compositional unity of the book, in the form of old photos and memory fragments: for example, ‘It has been said about my maternal grandmother Tiina that when she was already very old, during an election, some officials took the ballot box to her farm in the forest, and she told them that she would vote for death, but not for them. Tiina had had 13 children, eleven of whom grew up.’

Ehin's poetry is characterised by a fitting together of the everyday and poetic worlds, the search for harmony, the relations between mythical and modern worlds, and the connection of generations through time. For her, this means that there is no special need to search for the meaning of life, as continuity is an answer in itself.

I speed through hundreds of years
I wade through the swamp of generations
Alive and neutral
I pass through all wars

Kristiina Ehin does indeed have the talent of arriving, neutral and alive (discreetly and naturally), not making a big deal, but never diminishing the meaning of her arrival. Her poetry is quiet, but vivid and full of imagery. Her poetry is characterised by fragility and yearning, tied to everyday life. She has no need for provocations or unavoidable exposure. The title of her book, Maternity Leave, hints at a new experience in the author's life, but she does not write about the pain of becoming a mother and the beauty of a new child, but about something more general – about the expectation, about the fulfilment, about something ancient and eternal. Naturally, she writes about the child, too.

Night an honest night
This is our wet, wonderful
slipping out of the net
At the foot of an iceberg

Being a folklorist, Ehin is very familiar with the predominantly feminine tradition of Estonian folk songs, from which she draws motifs to weave into her own poems. Through folk songs, she also feels the support of time-crossing friendship and the solidarity of sisterhood. She is also no stranger to feminist thought.

Rings of dreams slip
Down the bridges
A woman catches freedom with a net
A woman in a boat
There's nothing that she wouldn't give up
For freedom

For Ehin, freedom is not a romantic dream, but a natural state of being. Her work is based on the multifaceted tradition of Estonian poetry and she is able to find poetry in all spheres of life, but she feels especially close to life’s more sublime and elevated spheres.

Leelo Tungal. Seltsimees laps ja suured inimesed. Veel üks jutustus õnnelikust lapsepõlvest (Comrade Child and Grownups. Another Story about a Happy Childhood)
Tallinn, Tänapäev, 2008. 215 pp

Leelo Tungal. Samet ja saepuru ehk seltsimees laps ja kirjatähed (Velvet and Sawdust or Comrade Child and Letters)
Tallinn, Tänapäev, 2009. 215 pp.

Leelo Tungal (1947) has been ‘a writer since her school days’ - she debuted in newspapers in 1958, published her first collection of poems in 1966 and is mostly known as a poet and an author of children's books, but also as a playwright. She has written prose for small children and humorous stories about schoolgirls of the 1980s for teenagers. Today, it seems that memoirs have capped Tungal's long literary career, as two already published volumes enjoy continuing popularity (and the third volume will be published soon). Even now, Tungal has remained true to her main target group. The main hero of her books is a child of four or five years, suggesting that (at least some of) her readers might be from the same age group. But the most appreciative readers are still the adults who are searching for their own lost past.

Comrade Child ... is, actually, not a true memoir, although it presents real events from the author's life. The book is written as if seen through the eyes of a first-person child narrator, but this is still a clearly composed and outlined story (as indicated in the title). Estonian readers do not doubt the authenticity of these memories, because they know that the described events truly took place when the author was a child. The child from the books – Leelo – lives in the country near Tallinn (just as the author did). Her mother is the headmistress of a seven-year middle school. The story begins in 1951, when the mother is jailed as a bourgeois nationalist and she is given the traditional sentence of 25+5 years (25 years of labour camp and five years of exile in Siberia). Two years earlier, Leelo's grandmother Mari – an 84-year-old mistress of a farm and a mother of 14 children, who had been declared an enemy of the Soviet state as an owner of a large farm – had already been deported to Siberia. When her mother is taken away as well, the four-year-old child feels guilty, thinking that she has not been a good enough child.

Tungal's mother has written her own memoirs and recalled the charges she had been sentenced for: ‘At the interrogations: Why had I not been fired during the German occupation? Why had I taught the Estonian national anthem at school (I was a music teacher)? Why had I, when starting to work as a teacher in 1930, signed a paper promising to be honest and true to the Estonian state? Why had my brother been an officer in the Estonian army? Why had my parents had a large farm? And so on and so on. I had been saddled with guilt since my very birth’ (Estonian Life Stories, Vol. 1, 2000).
The title of Tungal's book refers to two paradoxes of the time, connected with the word ‘comrade’ and, even more, with the subtitle Another Story about a Happy Childhood. The latter is heavily ironic, which might not be so easily understood by people who followed the life in the annexed Estonia of the Stalin era from afar. People have also forgotten that Soviet children were obliged to be happy, since theirs was the happiest childhood in the world. To oppose this would have been treasonous towards the Soviet state.

The description of both tragic and comic events in the life of a child who has been left motherless continues in the second book. Little Leelo goes to Tallinn and visits a circus with her aunt (referred to in the title of the book). The first book carries the theme of living without a mother, while the second one describes hope and expectation and ends with the arrival of the first letter from the mother. A number of other events take place in between. Leelo's father is offered the same position of school headmaster that her mother had had. At first, it seems to be a good offer, but then it is explained to him that, in order to get the position, he must divorce his jailed wife, give the child of the public enemy, meaning Leelo, to an orphanage, and join the Communist Party. The adults of the family recall the words of the grandfather: ‘There have never been robbers, murderers or communists in our family.’ The child has altogether different concerns: living in the orphanage, will she have to eat the chicken skin in the chicken soup? The experience of the child brings another dimension into the narrative – depressing events, narrated through the ‘needle's eye’ of a child's viewpoint, acquire new meanings, and the limitation of the child’s understanding creates a comic effect. For example, Aunt Anne declares that poplars are the Russians' favourite trees and even the name of the place where they grow comes from the Russians – Pioneers' Park. But the child thinks that Pioneers' Park is something thrilling because, any minute, a group of pioneers with a red flag could come marching out from behind the bushes to a fanfare. Of course, there are matters that are not talked about and the children are not burdened with secrets. ‘There was no sense in asking the adults about the forest brothers; they only answered “Let’s drop the subject” or “You misheard, we were talking about forest fairies...”’

These stories of the time remembered by a child remind us of a book by another modern Estonian writer, Viivi Luik, The Seventh Spring of Peace, translated into several languages, which also depicts Stalin's regime as seen by a child. Tungal's half-autobiographical trilogy gives a vivid portrayal of this era. The story stretches over quite a large number of pages, and this is both one of the strengths and one of the weaknesses of this mosaic.

Tõnu Õnnepalu: Paradise. Paradiis. Tallinn: Varrak, 2009. 196 pp. ISBN 978-9985-3-1978-9

The novel titled Border State, which appeared in 1993 under the name of Emil Tode, catapulted Tõnu Õnnepalu, previously known as a poet, into the contemporary European literary market. The title acquired the status of a symbol and critics have kept an eye on the writer ever since, with justification. A scene from Border State comes to mind here, where the protagonist is sipping milk from a tall glass in a Parisian bar (NB! Not in a café for some reason, which would be ‘classic’ and expected of Paris!), and senses something depraved in doing this. For him, that glass of milk stands for the ‘final escape from all those revolting glasses of milk that he was forced to drink in his childhood’ – especially if the milk was still warm from milking.

    The depravity of the glass of milk in Border State is only a minor detail, a reference to the rather biblical treatment of sin that Õnnepalu tackles in his subsequent novels as well. In that context, the detail is suitable for marking the enthusiasm of an East-European, freshly released from the Soviet paradise, which has quickly turned into boredom and indifference towards the comforts and benefits of a Western welfare society. Being expelled from paradise and recognising the futility of the escape is gradually replaced by the inevitable nostalgia, a yearning for return.

    In his new book, Paradise, Õnnepalu has formulated that return. In his seven-day writing cycle, he assumes the role of God, who created Paradise as a model of a safe world, which is nevertheless already lost or about to be. It does not matter that Paradise actually exists, at the edge of Hiiumaa Island somewhere in the Baltic Sea. A few decades ago, Õnnepalu worked there as a teacher, before his literary ‘career’ took off. The book is autobiographical, blog-like, consisting of flashbacks, momentary impressions and material from memory; photographs and a map of the area add a documentary aspect. The author does not emphasise the artistic side of his text. On the contrary, this return to the periphery milieu of decades ago seems quite unpretentious. Still, for the writer and the reader, both the book and the place it describes offer a chance for the author to take time out, distance himself from everyday hassles and developments that move in who-knows-which direction, and look at the minutiae of life from a new perspective, which could actually be simply the same old forgotten one.

    The book received the 2009 annual state cultural award; it is successful and widely read. A book like this, written with Õnnepalu’s sensitive pen, was obviously much needed. And an increasing number of people seem to feel that the world is ‘moving faster and faster somewhere, where nobody wants to go,’ quoting from a poem in Õnnepalu’s last collection, spring and summer and. The whole text of Paradise is carried by precisely the same mood. While writing the book, the author spent a week in the very location where the events unravel, although another place where he can withdraw from the world is an old manor house in central Estonia, where the author has been living for the last couple of years.

Regarding the development of Õnnepalu’s work, we can be pretty certain that, without a temporary absence, escape – or even without betrayal and infidelity – the simple brilliance of Paradise would have been unthinkable.