by Kajar Prouul and Darlene Reddaway
Translated by Ritva Poom
It is undoubtedly a daunting responsibility to undertake the translation of an author's work. The task is made even more onerous when there are nine different authors involved and the structure of the language itself is that of complex Estonian. In this case however, the translator, Ritva Poom, has taken the challenge in her stride and successfully captured the subtle nuances contained within each of these entertaining and thought provoking short stories.
The complexity of the Estonian language is considerable, being not only structurally different from English, but in omitting articles and prepositions, a word translated from Estonian into English may have an entirely contrary meaning. The onus of responsibility is therefore entirely upon the translator to recognise the respective author's intent and convey this empathically through translation. Ritva Poon has succeeded admirably in this endeavour, providing clarity and depth throughout this collection.
The subjects themselves, while extremely diverse and multi-dimensional in their themes, have one integral concept in common: that of historical ambivalence. Although the stories convey images primarily on a personal level, the sub-plots illude to disenchantment with the former Soviet regime, its dehumanising policies and structures and the complexities involved in searching for, and occasionally regaining one's past in order to control and direct one's future. Under Soviet control , the concept of Socialist Realism, with its emphasis on the bright Communist future, was the required literary tenet in Estonia along with other Soviet satellites. As a result, those authors who rebelled against this stultifying criteria could only emigrate, or publish their work after the thaw in Soviet relations. However, by the 1960s Modernism was accepted as a integral component in Estonian literature. The influences of psychoanalysis, existentialism and the absurd were avidly explored by Estonian writers from this period onward. Nonetheless, certain subjects, such as Estonian recent history, nationalism and Soviet society, were all literacy taboos. In order to present these themes, a number of Estonian authors turned to allegory. This is especially apparent in Valton's 'The Snare 1-111'. In this story the authoritarian Soviet state and its social consequences are sardonically conveyed through the powerlessness of the individual to disengage himself from the State-induced torpor, which ultimately erodes his will to wrest control of the future from the all pervasive 'Big Brother'.
Valton also highlights the entrenched absurdity reflected in everyday transactions within the Soviet marketplace, as exemplified in 'Vernanda Bread', in which the purchaser of a loaf of bread discovers it has suddenly transformed itself into a bomb. He endeavours to exchange the device in a market and an antique shop, but because the bomb has no discernible value, little interest is displayed in its purchase. The fact that none of the characters in the story are disconcerted by the fact that the bomb had formerly been an edible substance simply reinforced the alienation from reality which existed within Soviet Society. Such alienation confirmed in the minds of a number of authors the degree of apathy in relation to an Estonian of a former age, prior to Communist hegemony, and an irresolution regarding the allure of an independent national identity of the future.
Historical ambivalence is also present in the stories by Jaan Knoss, in both 'Hallelujah' and 'The Day His Eyes Are Opened'. Knoss uses the varying perspectives of two or more narrators in order to call into question the reader's 'sense of certainty': thus 'turning history into the questionable reconstruction of disturbed minds.'
The sterility of existence, disconnection with one's past (be it familial or national) and an inability to discern any positive future are themes contained in both Mari Saat's 'Elsa Hermann' and Mainu Bera's 'The Mill Ghost'. In each case, it is acceptance of the confines of one's own reality which brings a degree of resolution, albeit hollow.
This combination of Estonian short stories is not only an extremely satisfying foray into the psyche and imagination of nine talented authors, but is insightful regarding the impact an imposed political and social system can have upon a nation and its perception of itself.