A thoroughly modern man in an Early Modern world rises from humble origins to greatness through wit and learning.
Estonian novelist Jaan Kross (1920–2007) began his literary career in the 1950s after returning from the Siberian labor camps where he spent eight years, having been accused by Soviet authorities of Estonian nationalism. Often considered the greatest Estonian novelist of the last quarter of the twentieth century, several of his works have previously been translated into English: The Czar’s Madman (1993) and Professor Martens’ Departure (1994), translated by Finnish-American poet Anselm Hollo; and Treading Air (2003) and Sailing Against the Wind (2012), translated by this reviewer. Until now, however, Kross’s first major work, Between Three Plagues (also his longest novel; originally published in Estonia in 1970), has been unavailable in English translation. MacLehose Press, London, and translator Merike Beecher-Lepasaar rectify that omission with the release of The Ropewalker, the first half of Between Three Plagues.
Kross wrote complex historical and semiautobiographical novels, all of them with Estonian protagonists, and many of them employing texts within texts to obscure or code the politics of the writer (Kross likes to write, for instance, about writers who themselves write about liberation heroes). Such is the case in The Ropewalker, where we meet Balthasar Russow (1536–1600), nicknamed Bal, a real-life urchin and stripling turned clergyman and chronicler of the sixteenth-century Livonian War. Bal begins The Ropewalker as an inquisitive boy who climbs a church tower in the Estonian capital of Tallinn to get a closer look at a group of mysterious tightrope walkers, hence the title, and both tower and tightrope serve as a central metaphor for Bal’s adventures as he rises in society as a young man. An Estonian peasant, Bal’s origins are humble, but he has a knack for languages––first facilitated by a young schoolmaster who recognises Bal’s talent and teaches him German and Latin––and for meeting influential persons, some more scrupulous than others. At one point, Bal reluctantly participates in a blood-soaked peasant revolt. His identity split between background and education—the peasant in him is no German nobleman, yet the educated clergyman in him is no longer a true Estonian peasant—Bal’s feeling of dislocation, of not really belonging anywhere, haunt him throughout the novel.
The Ropewalker ends in media res, with Bal sitting in a Bremen tower similar to the one in which his tale began. A traveler and student of theology, he has decided to return to Tallinn, but has not yet started writing his magnum opus Chronica der Provinz Lyfflandt, the chronicle of the Livonian War (which is extant and has been reprinted several times). By the time this grim war starts, several countries are fighting over Livonia, which was the southern half of modern-day Estonia plus a part of Latvia, including Riga. Major powers Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and Poland, all with their different brands of Christianity and geopolitical and trading needs, end up taking part of the spoils, turning the Baltic countries into a patchwork of vested interests. The reader of this English-language edition will have to wait for the publication of the second half of Between Three Plagues to find out what happens to Bal during this time as he writes his chronicle.
While little is known about the real-life Balthasar Russow, Kross’s lively, adventurous, and occasionally cinematic style breathes flair, ambition, guilt, and doubt into a complex protagonist living in a complex time and place. Through Bal’s eyes Kross introduces us to many characters from all walks of Estonian life: Estonian peasants, Baltic Germans, Russians, Swedes, even people from the Slav minorities around the German city of Stettin (the present-day city of Szczecin in Poland) where Bal studies theology. Kross presents these characters colorfully, both their physiognomy and their conversations and reasoning, and Beecher-Lepasaar’s translation renders the complicated names, everyday objects, implements, weapons, and historical contexts intelligible and alive to a readership that may have little knowledge of the Baltic littoral of the sixteenth century. It bears noting, perhaps, that Kross wrote a film adaptation about Balthasar Russow which was never produced, as the Soviet censors at the time weren’t happy with it, but a television film for an Estonian audience was later made. English critics will compare Kross’s books to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but had his work appeared in English sooner, this would undoubtedly have been the other way round.