Writing from the Edge: Estonian Literature

The borders of Estonia are largely watery, lying in the Baltic Sea, the Gulfs of Finland and Riga, and Lake Peipsi. The briny perimeter of over a thousand islands adds more coastline, while over a thousand lakes hold water inland. Half of the land is covered with dense forest, much of it primeval and untouched by human hand, home to the brown bear, the elk and the flying squirrel; a further quarter is deep and soft with ancient bogs and mires that are rich in wild orchids and amber-colored cloud berries. Space for humans to gain a foothold is limited and nature occupies a large place in people’s minds.

As the ice retreated, the first people moved into the Baltic region. A Finno-Ugric-speaking culture formed in this corner, and later inhabitants settled into farming, trading, and raiding, very much in Viking mode. As trade routes developed to the west and the east, successive waves of conquering and colonizing arrivals from larger domains came to hold sway over what was previously a stepping-stone. Each staked their claim and left their mark on the face of the land and the mindset of the people—including the shaping of literary sensibilities. An early Danish tome, the 1241 Danish Census Book (something akin to the Domesday Book), records the names of Estonian villages and properties, many of which no longer feature on land or map. Of the same period is the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, a Teutonic priest’s eyewitness account of the Northern Crusades to this pagan outpost and meeting point of German, Scandinavian, and Russian cultures and agendas; as such, it has all the makings of tumultuous historical fiction. Estonia’s baptism into letters proceeded with the Polish Jesuits, who were instrumental in translating and printing the first (religious) text in the Estonian language in the sixteenth century; and the Swedes, who introduced education in the Estonian language and an Estonian press in the seventeenth century. Emergent Estonian literature also came under the influence of the Russian literary tradition; for example, most of Tolstoy’s essays were translated into Estonian and published here in his lifetime. But it was the German philosopher and man of letters Johann Gottfried von Herder who promoted the idea that a peasant folklore is as valuable as a classical literature, prompting and participating in the collection of poems, songs, and stories from Estonia’s rich oral tradition. In so doing he was also sowing the seeds for the nineteenth-century “Age of Awakening,” when Estonians capitalized on the notion of one’s own language and literature as giving voice to a distinctive national spirit. Soviet time was a mixed bag: the advancement of literary theory as an academic discipline, which informed translation theory and practice, and the censorship of writers—many of whom channeled their intellectual and creative energies into translation, which in turn informed and enriched subsequent writing in Estonian.

Modern-day literature in Estonia is both aware of and wary of borders—from the 1905 rallying call of the Young Estonia literary movement “Let’s be Estonians, but let’s also become Europeans” to the fact that prose and poetry now appear in three languages: Estonian (a Finno-Ugric language of the same family as Finnish and some one million native speakers), Võru (an aboriginal sister language of South Estonia), and Russian (Indo-European and spoken by a quarter of the population). In the globalizing world more and more writers from Estonia are reading their work at literary and cultural events abroad or seeking print publication in translation–appearing in words that are not in the strictest sense their own. Cue the translators!

From the outset translatorly work on this issue was a collaborative venture. It took shape over a five-day translators’ seminar in March 2015, hosted by the Estonian Literature Center in Tallinn and with the participation of Words without Borders editorial director Susan Harris. As seminar leader, I made a preliminary selection of texts, then began a meeting of minds as we five translators searched through the words on the page to pinpoint how features of the Estonian texts—from word choice and syntax to alliteration and assonance—contributed to our individual interpretations, to the mental construct that each and every reading inevitably is. In sharing and comparing our individual paths to meaning, we were mentally mapping the space of the original texts and taking the first steps toward our goal—to produce in English new texts that would do in English what the originals do in their language. After the seminar the translators continued the journey through their chosen text(s) on their own.

The writers who feature in this issue are not necessarily the best known nor are they part of some perceived canon. If they are representative of anything, it might be their tendency to look at others and reflect on the self, perhaps also a lingering sense that being at the edge, being peripheral, is central to the literary and human endeavor. Individual styles, aesthetics, and preoccupations inevitably stand out, for these are discrete voices. Nonetheless, all are part and parcel of the mosaic of contemporary literature in Estonia. 

Mihkel Mutt is one of the most established writers in the selection, having produced novels, short stories, and essays since the 1980s. Yet this extract from his first novel, Mice in the Wind (1982), is both fresh and topical. Writing out of Soviet-time mores, Mutt reveals himself to be a devastatingly keen observer of human nature who deploys a wit that is sparkling and scathing in equal measure. In this extract, Victor’s pose alone is redolent of many an urbane type that one might encounter in an EU capital today—and after reading Mutt, with greater understanding.

Eeva Parkis an exemplary short story writer–not just on account of her mastery of the dramatic arc, but quite simply because she shows rather than tells. To read “A Dog’s Life” is to look over the shoulder of the I-eye narrator (encountering what her eyes light on) and follow her through the streets and the story (encountering her thoughts and feelings like passersby, barely registered before the next one comes along). Troublesome types and issues—homeless beggars, mafioso ruses, and shady dealings—flit by, not merely part of the human and social landscape of Tallinn city life, but the very texture of the drama and sense-making process that is life—therein lies the psychic tension of the story.

To move from translating to writing poetry, then opera libretti, then short stories surely constitutes a learning curve, but in Maarja Kangro’s case, she was collecting awards in each genre from the outset. Hers is a robust female voice that arrived on the literary scene fully fledged—style is all, dialogue is everywhere. The extract from "At the Manor" revolves around characters who appear to pose for the reader and soundbites plucked from everyday conversation. It would be all too easy to say it is about the current Estonian obsession with manors (there are over a thousand Baltic German manors in the country) or emerging class distinctions or pseudo-intellectual posturing or something else picked up by the eavesdropping reader . . . but that would be jumping to conclusions where Kangro offers none.

Andrei Ivanov creates fiction of fragmentation and alienation; they are the unsettling sum and the substance of his autobiographically-informed writing. In “Jackdaw on a Snowdrift” there are glimpses of a recognizable time and place (coming of age in a Soviet-time suburb in Tallinn) in the accumulated detail that almost amounts to an ethnography. But no such description is sustained. Graspable elements—sentences, images, snippets of conversation or song—are laid side by side, captured and let go in the same instant. Now you see it, now you don’t. What the reader makes of the “insignificant detail” that is “disfigured and disassembled” is fiction, not documentary. Ivanov has said that “literature does not change anything, it has another value,” and that value is what rises off the pages of this story—a figment of reality made anew with each reader and each reading. This is writing that is literally made to endure.

Mehis Heinsaar’s writing is often classified as magic realism, and certainly inexplicable occurrences in familiar settings are commonplace in his work. But there are also streaks of metaphysical musing that add a further unsettling dimension. “Death among the Icebergs” is a twenty-first-century story of loss of love and of identity rooted in the island culture of Hiiumaa (“the land of the giant”). An existential question erupts out of a summer love story: what happens when “home becomes an alien place” and one “a refugee in it”? It is an unanswered question and a story so uncomfortable that it had to be “shut away under seven locks … and never spoken of again”-–until now, that is, when it has been conjured up anew in translation.

Jan Kaus moves as smoothly from poetry to prose as he does from place to place in his two 2014 collections of prose poetry, Tallinn Map. Miniatures and Map and Journey. The four prose poems featured here grow out of a landscape that looms real and familiar, while offering a way of seeing beyond, of transcending the here and now.

There’s no knowing where Triin Soomets’s poetry will lead, for it is spaceless, fearless, and knows no taboos. But this is not a ploy for dramatic effect, for her poems are formally controlled and startlingly insightful. This allows her to handle even the darkest subject matter without diminishing it or alienating the reader.

fs is a straight talker of a poet who uses no special effects to dress up his bleak urban environments and the dilemma of existence in contemporary highly compartmentalized society. It is with a sincere sense of urgency that he questions and unsteadies easy acceptance of the status quo. “[I wish there was a god]” simultaneously denies that there is and reads like a prayer that it were not so–a hopeless paradox.

Kaur Riismaa, at only twenty-nine, has a wealth of writing and life experience. Reading through his six collections of poetry gives the impression that he experiences life more intensely than most. He waxes philosophical naturally—capturing mundane and easily missed moments and imbuing them with meaning, unearthing their significance. Language shapes what his mind’s eye sees, without artifice or pretense: “Turnips and time, pork and posterity, man and his life on the road between day and night” indeed.

Viewed up close, the pieces of a mosaic give little sense of the whole picture—it may even appear messy, unlike a jigsaw where the pieces fit together neatly and where each one has a designated place. Instead, the spaces—the joints—between the pieces remain visible. It is to be hoped that readers will enjoy making their way through the space(s) of Estonian literature.