Estonia: the past is another country

The Estonian Literature Centre was one of the first national literature organisations on the web. It launched in 2001, back when Mark Zuckerberg was just starting out at Harvard and tweeting was something only birds did. Judging by my correspondence with it, the organisation is also one of the most efficient of its type: within a few days of my query email, I received a message from Kerti at the centre. She sent me a list of three recommendations and attached the manuscript of a crime novel set in medieval Tallinn, for which the centre is trying to find an English-language publisher.

Tempting though the crime novel was, I decided to go with The Beauty of History by Viivi Luik. This was largely because, from what I could find out, she is one of the country’s most highly acclaimed writers behind Jaan Kross, the Estonian writer most well-known to the rest of the world.

The novel follows a young woman who agrees to pose for a sculptor around the time of the Prague Spring in 1968. With change sweeping across Europe and shivering the Iron Curtain, the woman sees life around her tilting out of alignment as old certainties buckle and the authorities rush to clamp down on underground networks. The sculptor senses it too and is preparing to escape to the West in order to avoid military service, but for his model the events have less tangible and more emotional consequences that send her groping through the past, present and future, trying to locate herself in a world that will never be the same.

This is a book about the power of words – words that forbid, mask and betray, and ‘must be soaked in blood in order to be effective’. With the oppressive Soviet regime necessitating the adoption of a ‘secret language’ for communication about the sculptor’s plans, innocent, everyday terms take on sly, double meanings that mean the heroine ‘can never understand whether the talk is simply of buying butter and cream or of the arrival of fateful news’.

Luik further emphasises the infiltration of terror into daily life through her use of quaint and everyday objects in her imagery: fear ‘flashes like a silver ear-trumpet into which one cannot speak, but only whisper and wheeze’, and ‘glows in naked forty-watt bulbs like an egg’.

In addition, the author’s spiralling of her heroine and her reader through time underlines the interconnectedness of personal and national narratives, revealing how political upheavals change not only the present and the future, but also the way we look at the past. When ‘all ages are flung together’ and ‘years are linked to one another like human vertebrae’, a single shock affects the whole organism.

The blending of myth, memory, past and future has a disorientating effect, which makes the narrative seem to whirl wildly at certain points, flinging the reader into confusion. This was no doubt exacerbated by my ignorance of Estonian political history, which meant that several references that might have provided hand holds slipped through my grasp.

Taken as a whole, though, this was an absorbing and beautiful tribute to the desire for freedom of thought, movement and self-determination. It left me with a powerful impression of what living under occupation might mean and a strange, wistful sense of the secret lives of everyday things.

Thanks, Kerti, for the recommendation – if any English-language publisher is looking for a historical Tallinn crime novel for its list, the Estonian Literature Centre may have just the book.

The Beauty of History (Ajaloo ilu) by Viivi Luik, translated from the Estonian by Hildi Hawkins (Norvil Press, 2007)

17 responses

  1. Hey: Cool – great to hear of some Estonian reads – one of my former grad students is Estonian and it would be fun to surprise him having read one of them.

    So many Chinese and post-USSR artists are so fixated on oppression as a theme. It can make for somewhat tedious reading if you come from a country, like the US, where oppression has been fairly subtle, at least in recent years. Last fall, in preparation for another trip to China, I read a lot of Chinese literature and kept being struck by this singular theme. What I get from it is an even deeper sense of the horror of living with this, day to day. And also a greater understanding of how it must have been for an artist.

    I’m reading Tony Judt’s post war Europe history, just finished the bit where the USSR, US, and Britain carved up Europe post-WWII. The Baltic states were in play – it wasn’t obvious that the USSR would want or get them. And, in nearly every Eastern European country, communism was very unpopular. I can’t then imagine what it must have been like to fall into Soviet hands. I do know that my Lithuanian and Estonian friends have the running joke that any and all problems in their countries are due to Russians… True and not true…

    Thanks for keeping up this great task, very impressive! I hope that you might be able to get a book out of this project – what a great way to bring attention to the world’s literature?!


    • Thanks Ruby – very interesting.

      Any recommendations from your Chinese reading? I still haven’t made up my mind what to choose from there yet.

      Glad to have you along for the ride. The positive comments really help to keep me going.

  2. Hey,
    thanks for that review. The book sounds very interesting But I am actually a bit more interested in that crime novel. Do you happen to have the Estonian author and title? Or did the English manuscript happen to be the original one?

  3. The second I saw this blog existed, I knew: oh my god, my country has to be there too! And it was. This project is awesome, and it’s awesome you took the time to do it.

    And the feeling that you left with after reading… well, that’s pretty much Estonia for you. 🙂

  4. I love this project! It was also incredibly interesting to read a review on an Estonian book done by someone with a different background.
    You’ve definitely inspired me to find some books to read from other countries as well! You’re doing a great job. 🙂

  5. I loved your challenge, so inspiring! Thank you for sharing your journey with the world!
    The crime novel you mentioned was recently published in French (“L’Enigme de Saint-Olav”). It´s a fascinating and entertaining read, set on the winding cobblestoned streets of Medieval Tallinn Old Town. In fact, there are actually three books in total and the first of them discussed to be made into a film.

  6. This is a very good and important book. Estonia’s recent history is really interesting, and to be such a small nation, Estonia has a staggering number of writers and poets. Thank you for posting this!

  7. The crime novel has been published in English!! The first two out of the series, at least, with Peter Owen Publishers

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