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from the April 2018 issue

The Human Element: Writing from Estonia

Humans are, in essence, not much more than highly developed mammals. We are scientifically classifiable by Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature, just like the pine tree and the bark beetle. Human intelligence has led our species to marvelous zeniths of technology and an ability to survive in the most punishing habitats imaginable. Yet, just as crucial as respiration and physical endurance are the tasks of reproduction and cooperation. Humans are a social species, but the question of compatibility with genetic fellows remains one of our greatest challenges, one that no gadget can facilitate or perform for us in a failsafe manner. Understanding and managing our own psyches is a gargantuan task in itself, but coordinating and harmonizing our lives with those of others?! Few convincingly master the art. More often than not, modern-day technology seems to actually inhibit our ability to truly interconnect with peers, even though connectivity has reached a dazzling pinnacle. Alienation draws us into a vicious cycle: an insatiable hunger for emotional connection and understanding leads us to ever more pious attempts at communication. We feel lonely in the vastness of the social cosmos, overwhelmed by the many possibilities for interaction; nevertheless, these sensations are nothing new—it’s not as if we humans have ever been flawlessly adept at coexistence in any era!

Estonian authors have not failed to notice and address this quandary, and over the last few decades, several writers in the snowy crown of the Baltic States have delved eagerly into the complexities of human communication and interaction. Frank social critique and a fascination with relationships have been central tropes of classic and contemporary Estonian literature, in spite of—or thanks to—the common perception of Estonians being an emotionally chilly and withdrawn people.

Estonia celebrates its centenary this year, but the birth of Estonian literature came with the period of national awakening in the late nineteenth century. Prior to early Estonian writers such as Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801–22), Lydia Koidula (1843–86), and Juhan Liiv (1864–1913), the oral tradition was the sole vehicle for preserving folklore. In 1861, the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg, similar to the Finnish Kalevala, was published bilingually in German and Estonian by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald as a conclusion of work done originally by Friedrich Robert Faehlmann. However, Estonian literature truly began to flourish in the early twentieth century with the literary group Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia) and the Siuru movement, the name of which was taken from that of a mythical character in Kalevipoeg. The latter of these in particular, the members of which probed the limits of cultural expression under the motto “The joy of creation—may it be our sole driving force,” fostered the popularity of burgeoning Estonian-language literature in the years leading up to the country’s independence, and has had a lasting impact on the local literary tradition. Estonian writers strained to express themselves genuinely under the censorship of Soviet occupation (subsequently perfecting the craft of “writing between the lines,” especially the authors Mati Unt [1944–2005] and Mihkel Mutt [1953]) and struggled to find both footing and funding in the tumultuous years immediately following the restoration of independence. Nevertheless, Estonian literature has since regained its confidence and the status of a bold, vibrant, intellectually stimulating force. Although a mere million or so people claim Estonian as their native language, the list of contemporary Estonian authors who have penned remarkable works well worthy of translation is long.

The authors featured here—Maimu Berg (1945), Urmas Vadi (1977), and Sveta Grigorjeva (1988)—represent three distinct generations of contemporary Estonian writers, and the distinctive qualities their writing possesses are wonderful indicators of the diversity Estonian literature has to offer. 

Berg’s collection of short stories Hitler in Mustjala (Hitler Mustjalas, 2016) was a nominee for the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Prize for Literature. Though Berg published her debut in 1987 at the seasoned age of forty-three, she dove straight into the tense and tangled issues of interethnic relationships in a society that was still steadying itself after momentous political and social transformations. The reimagined histories that constitute roughly half of her latest collection feature a cast of globally recognizable characters such as Hitler, Vladimir Putin, and Angela Merkel. “Stalin in Tallinn” boldly puts readers behind the eyes of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin sometime after the end of World War II, when the persistently paranoid dictator is troubled by growing ennui. Irony has traditionally been a favored instrument of Estonian authors and Berg employs it with a surgeon’s steady hand. Deftly, she exposes the childishly eccentric mental wanderings of a man responsible for the forced relocation and deaths of millions, humorously drawing forth the wholly human fears and nervous reactions of those subject to his everyday whims while still not failing to emphasize the atrocious consequences in which such seemingly innocent actions can result.

Urmas Vadi’s novel Neverland (2016) is his seventh work of prose to date, and arguably his most successful. A playwright, Vadi has likewise published several collections of his original theater works. This background in particular has endowed him with a sharp eye and a keen ability to conjure evocative, complex humanist characters onto both paper and the stage. As the author remarked in an interview with the Estonian cultural weekly Sirp, the title of Neverland (which is in English in its original) provides for “an intellectual space with room for the four protagonists.” In the same interview, Vadi expands upon the statement that is printed on the book’s front cover, “a novel about interhuman relationships”: “I often feel like people are some kinds of social deviants who are unable to communicate, and I feel like I myself am that way, too. It might be one of the reasons why I write. By writing, I’m able to elaborate and precisely word all those life situations where I felt inadequate or scattered. [ . . . ] At some point, the problem of communication becomes outright existential: How much are we actually capable of understanding another human being in the first place? How close can we get to those who are dearest to us? Is it even possible to truly help someone else?”

The untitled poem by Sveta Grigorjeva presented here in translation was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of the Estonian cultural youth journal Värske Rõhk (Fresh Pressure, which is only one letter removed from translating as “Fresh Air”). Grigorjeva is a poet, a choreographer, a modern dancer, and an artist. She is known as one of the “angry young women” of Estonian poetry, an unaffiliated chorus of active, brazen, and uncompromising contemporary female voices. Reviewing her 2013 debut collection, Who’s Afraid of Sveta Grigorjeva? (Kes kardab Sveta Grigorjevat?), the “avant-poet” and literary critic Jürgen Rooste wrote: “What we have here are the inner workings of a woman who seeks and wanders, a Russian-Estonian identity, a young bud, a prefab apartment block resident, someone who mercilessly tears down the curtains and the set.” Speaking not only of Grigorjeva, but of these forceful “angry young women” on the whole, he continues: “This passion is spectacular and amazing: this dangerous passion which blurs art and ’real life’; i.e. which sets new demands and poses a new challenge to the latter.”

Although their observations and interactions unfold in a small society where little can go unnoticed—in a unique, sensitively self-conscious linguistic and cultural environment—Estonian authors do not shy from probing societal scrapes and cuts; from using their writing as a disinfectant that stings and jerks attention to the issues we would more readily ignore, but which must be addressed for healing and understanding to gain ground. At the heart of this lie the most fundamental intentions that define humanity: to express, to understand, and to be understood. In short: to make human contact. With generously applied, balanced doses of irony and critique of modern-day society, many Estonian authors such as the three featured here manage to fluidly draw attention to issues while simultaneously recognizing we are inherently flawed, ultimately encouraging us to practice that most human of acts in regard to ourselves and to others: forgiveness.

© 2018 by Adam Cullen. All rights reserved.

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