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)