Karl Martin Sinijärv
KMSX: KUIDAS ÖELDA
(KMSX: HOW TO SAY)
Tallinn, Näo Kirik, 2016. 96 pp
Karl Martin Sinijärv (1971, KMS) has been a presence in Estonian poetry for 30 years. Or, to be more exact, poetry has found its place in him. A unique, one-of-a-kind linguistic instinct has revealed itself in Sinijärv. Another Estonian poet who possessed this skill was the literary classic Artur Alliksaar (1923–1966), who utilised the Estonian language to its full extent. He was a magician. The measure of a language’s vitality is indeed the flutter in its peripheries, the manner in which its poetry lives and breathes. Alliksaar lived in a difficult time, and the space for his breathing and expression was very narrow.
Alliksaar handed off the baton to one of the all-time greatest tamers of the Estonian language: Andres Ehin (1940–2011). On occasion, I’ve wondered whether it’s correct to call him a surrealist, which also applies to the greatest ever exile Estonian linguistic experimenter, Ilmar Laaban (1921–2000). They were both alchemists of language in their own distinct ways; the unconscious realm in which they frollicked was a deeper layer of wild, natural language that exists only as a possibility.
One important ability that comes with this fluency in language is a sense of form, a naturalness with which the authors created even their most complex poetic meters, games and structures. Other notable Estonian masters of this fluency have been Ain Kaalep (1926) and Mati Soomre (1944–2015), the latter of whom even managed to translate into Estonian Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (for a while, it was unclear whether it really was a translation, or if it was actually some kind of a mathematical-linguistic game). This kind of formulaic capability must be demanded of translators of poetry from time to time, and I would certainly include Tõnu Õnnepalu’s (1962) free-form translations of Baudelaire.
Just as important as proficiency in form is the ability to create new language or to warp the linguistic world to one’s own whims, whether through syntax, semantics, grammar, word form or word creation. This is an ability as incredible as drawing rain from the sky with a mere glance.
It’s not possible for Estonia to be home to many of these types of people, of course, and right now we have exactly one: Karl Martin Sinijärv. He is the only active Estonian writer who I believe is capable of producing nearly every form of poetry in the Estonian language. On top of that, it’s a piece of cake for him to pull a new word or linguistic mutation out of thin air. Thus, he is a national treasure and should be placed under heritage protection! That may sound like a joke, but I’m completely serious.
This impressive level of competence naturally places obstacles before translators – just try to create a new expression or word in your own language in a way that is pure and acute. You have to be a real genius. Luckily, KMS’ works are extensive enough, sprawling from one extreme of style and form to the other, so there are texts aplenty that can be molded into translation.
Just like some of KMS’ earlier works (such as my personal favorite, Neli sada keelt (Four Hundred Languages, 1997), which is partially English-language and was written in the US), KMSX: kuidas öelda is eclectic. He has more consistent collections, but this work is colorful and intriguing, encompassing slight formulaic bizarreness, punctiliously penned love poetry, almost patriotic verse, poetic-apostolic sermonizing on a par with that of the poet Betty Alver (1906–1989), small-scale absurdity (a series of mini-poems that culminate in questions), classical forms, Juhan Viiding*-like ditties and, of course, wild thundering: a howl which Allen Ginsberg would approve of. Among other styles, he even manages to successfully pull off “entering”, which has been dismissed as a fad in Estonian poetry. In KMS’ variation, a single syllable or a couple of letters are placed on each line (only the king of the most underground of undergrounds in Estonian poetry – the party animal and rogue Raul Velbaum – practices entering with greater severity: a single, sad character was printed on each page of his debut book).
Incidentally, KMS’ collection does not crumble to pieces. Just the opposite: its eclecticism and light distress form a logical and winding progression and, by following it, we find one of the best books written by KMS to date. Or, as he puts it (again, with almost untranslatable simplicity): “do / as / you / will // take / where / you / need”.
The first poem in the work repeats itself meditatively, creating a hypnotic rhythm: “we’re a million we’ve a billion we’re a million we’ve a billion…” What that million might pull off a billion of is discussed throughout the rest of the book, all the way through a 16-page poem that drones at the end, and a final, delicate prayer.
KMS’ poetry possesses a kind of warm humor, as well as a humility regarding his own talent for linguistic play as well as for observing our odd, wonderful world: “my son / won’t be / conscripted // he’s no / astrophysicist, either // he’s read / too few books // he’s also / short on cash / (he’s got as much / as I give) // obviously / a hopeless case // you might tell me / he’s only six // but I’d want / everything / and right away”.
UNISTUSTE TAPPEV KASVAMINE (The Killing Growth of Dreams)
Tallinn, Menu Publishing, 2016. 232 pp
Mehis Heinsaar (1973) is clearly a magical realist, but this doesn’t mean he is in any way a product of 20th-century literary trends, a copier, or an imitator. Rather, he is a journeyer in a magical world, the map of which somehow coincides with Estonia’s own: not so much today’s map as that of some enchanting, bygone, fairy-tale Estonia.
Unistuste tappev kasvamine is Heinsaar’s fifth short-story collection; in addition, he has written one novel, one short-prose work in miniatures, and one collection of poetry. When he made his entrance onto the literary scene, it was clear that a new wonder-child had appeared: even as a very young writer, Heinsaar scooped up almost every Estonian literary award. His first novel, Artur Sandmani lugu (The Story of Artur Sandman, 2005), was treated somewhat unfairly by reviewers in my opinion:
at the time, critics focused on Heinsaar’s fantastical world, which had worked so well in his short stories and miniatures. Reviewers felt that Heinsaar’s dreamlike world, with its constant metamorphoses, did not hold together well enough in a novel, that it insufficiently served the story.
Yet that particular world creation (both then and today’s) is Heinsaar’s inherent way of seeing things. How often we demand that writers have their own voice! And how often we accuse of repetition those who have found that voice. Heinsaar is the kind of writer (alongside other magical realists, perhaps?) who is always clearly recognizable. Quite a few devoted fairy-tale fans are unable to refrain from reading his works. They are like literary LSD or magic mushrooms: a fantastical vision of the world which heals the soul. In Heinsaar’s new work, he has shifted back to a longer form of writing, which lets us be swept away into the enchanting unknown by his very unique current. Has Heinsaar changed significantly or found a completely new linguistic style in Unistuste tappev kasvamine? Nope! His whole former arsenal is present in a special and strong way.
Firstly, there is loneliness. Almost all of the characters in Heinsaar’s world – whether they find true love or fall victim to an old witch – are initially alone. Life’s great questions lie before them like treasure maps or riddles. They don’t gain ultimate closeness or a solution to their troubles from other characters. One of the most beautiful love stories in Heinsaar’s latest book describes how every time after making love a woman falls asleep for several weeks, and her husband knows that in her dream-land the woman is with someone else, that she is the mother of several children somewhere far away in a shepherd family… but she always returns from her dream. The husband waits for her, watches over her, and helps her to readjust again and again. And they are happy, in a strange way. But at the same time, he is also essentially alone. He is in a state of waiting. Many of Heinsaar’s characters are waiting for something, but for the most part they must make the first move for anything to happen. And they must do so in a dream.
Secondly, there is an adventure or journey that may be linked to a curse the character suffers from for his or her whole life, or it may lead us to a smidgen of happiness that has to last a lifetime, or to our lost vitality, or… A large part of Heinsaar’s adventures are kicked off by inner need, by disquiet. His characters are propelled along their paths because something perturbs them, something calls to them. It might simply be a feeling that sends them on their way, some prophecy or a quest for happiness, but it also might be absolutely real interference by the magical world that leaves them no chance and no choice. The adventure might lead them to a fairy tale forest or to bizarre Estonian communities, which even while appearing completely realistic on the surface change into fantastical places inhabited by bizarre people with bizarre maladies, because, yes, loners and roamers are often eccentrics. So, we could say that, on a larger scale, Heinsaar is an eccentrics’ writer.
Thirdly comes his fairy-tale-teller’s style –
a certain calm, poetic observer’s manner, in which the teller (sometimes as the narrator, and sometimes interrupting third-person characters as the author) is never absent. He is a wandering storyteller who truly drifts through those tales. There are questions of human fate. There is a dark, but childish and natural eroticism.
In the book’s title short story, the dream of love helps an electrician infatuated with a woman change into a rain cloud while standing beneath high-voltage wires, thereby (falling as magical rain) allowing him to secretly share his love with his beloved. True, the deception – the illusion –
ultimately ruins lives and leads to failure, i.e. the magic doesn’t last. But occasionally what matters isn’t magic’s persistence – its eternal accessibility – but rather the possibility of it. We love because we know that the magic of love is possible, but it can’t be obtained all the time. We can’t live permanently in a magical high.
In short, Heinsaar’s effect may be like that of a drug that douses the world in bright colors. There are dark moments among his stories: “bad trips”. Still, I am enchanted by his childish belief in fairy tales: everything really is a little magical. In Estonia, Mehis Heinsaar is one of the greatest writers of his generation. One of his characters remarks that the other side of our lives is like the dark side of the Moon: almost like a secret at first, but when we arrive at it…. I certainly feel like I’ve personally arrived at the dark side of my Moon. In order to get by there, among the lunar seas and mountains, one must have one of Heinsaar’s maps – one of his books – in tow… JR
(THE LANGUAGE OF ANGELS)
Tallinn, Varrak, 2016. 208 pp
Meelis Friedenthal (1973) is a prize-winning prose and science-fiction writer. Inglite keel (The Language of Angels) is his third novel, and again features elements of history and fantasy. At every step in the reading process, it is clear that the author is a theologian involved in book and library history, and like his novel Mesilased (Bees, 2012), which has been translated into a number of other languages, the plot of Inglite keel revolves around the university town of Tartu, extending out into the “wider world” by way of historical connections and metaphysics.
If Inglite keel were to be made into a film, it would likely fall into the horror/mystery genre, something akin to The Ninth Gate, only more Nordically restrained and softer, with a more peaceful trajectory – not intentionally veering into thrills, or prying open the locks of evil. It would be a very muted, Estonian (horror-)thriller for library geeks.
I’m unsure whether or not readers should start with the afterword, which gives explanations and is historically intriguing… probably not. It’s always more exciting to find out only at the end of a film: What do you know?! It was all based on “true events”, and is within our reach and in our literary knowledge. This also demonstrates Friedenthal’s seriousness: he writes out of need, out of an urge. Life has sketched visions of escapades for him, a bizarre world, and to refrain from sharing it would be a sin. Yet there have always been dangers in sharing secret knowledge and endeavoring to acquire it, and these are the dangers that Inglite keel addresses.
The novel is structured like an intriguing chess problem, although in the first chapter readers may feel like the writer can’t be bothered to flirt with them right away because he doesn’t immediately throw in a twist, because he doesn’t stoke the thrills from the very start; the following chapters dispel this misunderstanding. They create a network, a knotted system of references and intersections that is occasionally even too well-devised. Nothing transpires purely by chance, which intensifies the reader’s paranoia: how many more nodes or references are there here that I haven’t grasped yet? Will some tiny event turn out to be of crucial importance a couple of chapters later?
In short, there is literary forensic science galore (but not intentionally excessively thrill-ridden) to be found here. Friedenthal’s world is stacked with layers of different periods, as well as devices, events and people that appear and reappear within them. At the core is something very thrilling: a mystical, almost occult 17th-century manuscript, which deals with seeking divine perfection (i.e. the highest form of the human/angelic expression of divinity). Only… isn’t that the catch? Aren’t demons actually those who speak in that indistinct, lusted after and incomprehensible (but gripping) angels’ tongue?
Parenthetically, here lies a broader metaphor: literature as a whole is demonology, in a certain respect. We have convinced ourselves (very deeply and genuinely) that literature possesses some kind of particular manner or opportunity or explanation of existence. And when 20th-century prose reacted to this by ironically warbling about fluff and nonsense, we arrived at the understanding that an ironic way of thinking is a part of that same redeeming force. And we felt that we were a smidgen better and nobler once again, just like Friedenthal’s characters discovering their secret, chasing after an old manuscript, or creating that elusive element, both enthralling and magical.
In this sense, I’m reminded of the magician and metaphysician Paavo Matsin (1970)*, who like Friedenthal can boast of an EU Prize for Literature (not to mention their similar themes and interests). Matsin’s world and writing style likewise echo the delicate search for demonism. The experience of reading Matsin’s texts constitutes a slightly more dangerous teetering on the brink of murky depths, while Friedenthal’s approach is deliberately spiritually whole and clear. It is, in the classical sense, realistic, historical, psychological, plot- and principle-based prose. Still, the novel’s plot leads us out onto thin ice: the world we are shown is a bizarre mirage, although the manner of narration is not. I might add that the good old, safe canon of realism – presented in a very accomplished style in this case – is precisely what enchants the reader.
In the story, the tired old metaphysician and alchemist Michael Maier tells the younger, more ambitious Salomon Maius, who is on a passionate quest for a perfect form of expression to be found in a book: “Right now, I feel more and more that we must agree with Trithemus’ idea. Alchemy is a maiden whore; she yields to no man’s embraces, ever. Those who reach her leave empty-handed. That which you have acquired, you have lost. The fool turns mad, the rich man poor, the philosopher a babbler, and the proper man loses any sort of propriety.”
You could say that Friedenthal’s main characters – the Aaron family, who are kind, wise, and soft-spoken old researchers of paper and print history – indeed embody a quiet rationalism. They knowingly avoid any kind of demons or dim reaches, performing their immense task with solemnity, pecking away at what is seemingly trifling, and in doing so recognizing that ignorance of some things is sometimes better. Or, on the contrary, remembering certain things is better. The story revolves around the Aarons’ lost and re-found archive, as well as an old document within it that is strangely alluring (an archive somewhat similar to this truly did disappear in Estonia), showing how demons (or angels?) attract us, beckon us to join them, and spell out our doom.
Incidentally, the book’s younger, modern-day characters also encounter the inevitable: the library security guards regard physical laborers as somehow better than those who peck away at nothing; irritated for instance by that rare archive being left out in a hallway, in the way of the honest working-man. It seems to me that really is the case, even with reading nowadays! Most of humankind has grown a nice, thick skin, and won’t be drawn by demons or angels into the pages of dusty books anymore. Those who allow themselves to be lured by the flight of shadows or light have to acknowledge on their own what they’re settling for.
Friedenthal has written sensitively, consciously, and with presence, as if penning a fascinating academic study which for some reason couldn’t be submitted as a scholarly work. It is a mild thriller for the reading and thinking person. I certainly can’t say the ending was unexpected (is it an end at all?), but that’s of no consequence. Rather, I was disappointed that the little knot was unraveled so quickly and tossed in with other tangles. JR
- I. Filimonov
LAULIS, KUNI KÕIK LÕPPES
(SHE SANG TO THE END)
Tallinn, Varrak, 2016. 312 pp
Translated into Estonian from the Russian
by Ingrid Velbaum-Staub
For ethnic Russians living in Russia, Russian-Estonian culture isn’t even a proper diaspora. If only it were across the Big Pond –
but right here, in their former colony?! And they’re writing things?! It’s possible that is how Russian-Estonians see it, too. Proper Russian literature is written over in Russia, not here in Estonia. I should ask P. I. Filimonov (1975) himself, but perhaps assuming that his books currently reach Estonian-language readers more than they do Russian-language readers is justified. So, what on Earth is the cultural space in which he lives and breathes?
In any case, P. I. Filimonov is living and breathing just fine, since his novels and poems are widely published in both Russian and in Estonian. Furthermore, he is a remarkable performer – a true performance-poet with his own signature voice and manner, and he occasionally even takes the stage with a band. In some sense, as a result of his sarcastic sideways glance or being at his own level, Filimonov makes the process of categorizing his new book Laulis, kuni kõik lõppes simple, even though the text itself seems to resist any kind of categorization at all. Simply put, it is a sort of postmodern novel in which misleading or guiding allegories constantly jostle us and the protagonist away from the main plot. It is a science-fiction story that also addresses lethargy, intellectual anxiety, and literary being.
The protagonist is 27-year-old Olympius – a young Russian-Estonian whose relatives task him with caring for his dying grandmother. Not that he is against the task: the work is certainly demanding, but it has its bonuses, such as material ease, a certain opportunity to not have to hustle and face the daily grind in competition-based society, a sense of enjoyment from knowing that he is being somehow altruistic, etc. Yet, things aren’t so simple. His grandmother draws him into her surrealistic stories, truly sucking our protagonist into bizarre narratives (is she telling them or showing him magically?); at the end of each, Olympius’ own presence or role in the allegory is always revealed. Or, alternatively, he is engaged in a spirited game of track-covering (does this help the reader catch a whiff of the novel’s secrets, or does it purposely make everything more playful and complicated?). The grandmother simply grabs him by the hand, and he’s instantly gripped tight by the storytelling. All of the tales are a little strange, even brutal. Olympius becomes a character in various eras, in different psychological roles, in alternating nightmares and perversions. In the end, he always finds out who he was in the given story (such as a narrator who is pathologically in love with his twin brother).
On top of all this, it is soon revealed that the building in which Olympius’ grandmother –
who is trapped in the spirit of the communist era – lives (or, to be more precise, dies over the course of the book) is starting to slip into a hole in time together with the nearby blocks; to detach from the world familiar to us. Thus, the characters are in danger of becoming caught in a gap in time.
The novel can be read as an existential literary joke: at some point, it seems like Sartre-like disassociation has been brought to a pinnacle. The main character certainly cares for his grandmother mechanically and through motor memory, but his soul is callous. He is indifferent to everything, which is conveyed through a certain lackadaisical prism: horror forces him to do things; it’s easier that way… But this doesn’t last. In addition to a sense of responsibility, a special kind of caring germinates within him (if it hasn’t been there all along). It is as if he breaks the law he himself has repeatedly confirmed: that we, as humans, are all lackadaisical clods. Filimonov’s book can also be read as an entirely sincere contemplation of existential problems, morals, extreme situations, and isolation; it doesn’t matter that the author provokes us all too often with dark humor and the protagonist’s worldview: one that extends to nihilism, although timidly.
Humor – a cocktail of deep intellectualism and entirely out-of-place crude comedy – is Filimonov’s main tool. So, despite its tortuous agitation, dark events, and nightmarish atmosphere, Laulis, kuni kõik lõppes is also a very funny book.
The work can be read as an existential discussion just as it can be read as science fiction (not that one inherently negates the other): all the good requirements for a work of fantasy have been established. And not only established, but successfully accomplished, too. Although we may interpret the entire story as a bout of madness suffered by the protagonist, signs point more to some kind of Scythe of Time or Steven King-like idea. It is a place with frozen air and energy, “as if time stood still”, and which indeed turns out to be a tumbling off the brink of time, away from our everyday lives… There is also a very significant and unreal note to the book’s “maggot plot-line”. Specifically, it’s revealed that maggot-aliens nest in our brains if given the slightest chance: one part of their grand plan for world domination. Among other tidbits, it turns out that a maggot lives in Putin’s brain, also. There is dimension and breadth to the work; it doesn’t matter that most of its scenes seem to unfold in a stuffy Stalinist apartment, which has furthermore been left out of the stream of time.
Another important part of Filimonov’s writing is the way in which he handles a special aspect of masculinity: the image of manliness. This surfaces repeatedly in both the central plot and in several side-stories: constant emphasis is given to the particular ways characters are a certain type of “real” man. He observes how they think, how they view women, how they interact, become fathers, and buddy up.
Filimonov’s network of references, well-read background, familiarity with history, and ability to approach the “wisdom” scattered throughout it with (self-)irony make the novel quite unique. Still, I would advise translators to keep the Russian-language original at hand and work from it, since the Estonian-language version displays signs of rushed work and possesses influences from Russian-language structure and word order.
In some sense, Laulis, kuni kõik lõppes is an irritating, grating, William Burroughs-like work of absurd fantasy; on the other hand, it is a mellow narrative, a light jab at the topics of status-quo literature, which asks what we are doing here in the first place, how it all appears outwardly, and how pitiful we can be. It’s a shameless book: what else can I say?
Tartu, Elusamus, 2015. 48 pp.
Silvia Urgas (1992) is one of Estonia’s newest poets, whose literary path began with the youth literary journal Värske Rõhk, which perennially unearths new and intriguing authors. Urgas made her debut in the journal with a prose piece which earned her the Tartu Literary Festival’s Prima Vista Debut Award. It is worth adding that, in 2014, Urgas was a nominee for the PEN International New Voices Award.
Siht/koht is Urgas’ debut poetry collection. Lately, the Estonian poetry scene has been stocked with so many mature and unexpectedly talented new writer that her masterful first collection is not surprising in terms of its polished quality. Rather, it is one more sign that young poets are putting more and more effort into their works, and demonstrates that perhaps a tradition of longer writing sessions is gradually taking shape, one in which authors don’t rush straight out to publish the first words they get down on paper. The collection is coherently written and organized with a great degree of care; no doubt a debut book often determines the author’s future creative course and opportunities. One may also state with absolute conviction that Urgas’ first collection has received a positive reception. Estonians are writing and talking about Siht/koht, and it (deservedly) stands out among other works.
Tartu, the city’s various locales, and its unique pace of life radiate through Urgas’ poetry, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes not: “annetown is the gods’ town”, “light of white evenings / on the lot between two apartment blocks”. While the city itself isn’t explicitly mentioned, its atmosphere is evident. Luckily, Urgas’ poetry is not difficult, confusing, or boring to read even if one isn’t familiar with Tartu in great detail. What matters is Urgas’ attitude towards the spirit of Tartu: not specific locational descriptions or local inside jokes. One gets the impression that the place itself isn’t important, that the author’s observations and rapturous drifting from one place to another would be interesting if she were moving about Tallinn or New York.
Urgas has spliced into her poetry a wealth of references to 1990s Estonian culture and pop music. Her poems are characterized by a pop-music quality in general. Several plays on word meant to ease the serious tone can be found, seemingly written as effectively dumb jokes: “I’ve got no sakharov / I haven’t even got sugar substitute”*, “and at the end of every biting remark / a couple more worthy of erich maria”. Urgas is a good poet, but at the same time does not appear to regard writing as incredibly sacred and does not set “serious” writers apart from the rest. “I’m really annoyed by that class difference between pop culture and the ‘real’ arts. It seems very narrow-minded when somebody who sees him- or herself as intelligent writes off a person’s entire past and future because the individuals’ hits are played on mainstream stations, or because that person posted a naked selfie on Instagram,” Urgas said in an interview in Värske Rõhk. Even so, that doesn’t mean she believes writing itself is unremarkable: “but if I don’t have to write poems / then why’ve I a head at all”. Urgas simply approaches writing with a certain idiosyncratic sarcasm.
The young author’s poems are colored by her strong sense of self-irony, modesty, and self-dismissal: “and the price stuck to me / is so ridiculously small”, “fold me up and take me along / from march-heat to may-malaria / the creases are already there”. In contrast, though, the author ascribes importance to the world and everything else around her: “I’m afraid the universe / actually couldn’t care less about me”, “I slip past before the patriarch pushes the shutter release / I don’t see how I’d fit in the picture”. It’s very pleasant to see a poet with a more intriguing take on life at a time when others are generally experimenting with form and themes or merely churning out pretty words without having a unique, exciting view of the world. Siht/koht is Urgas’ emotional drifting (or outright delaying) through life: memories of moments which seem simple on paper but may be important in the shadow of their ordinariness, and stay with the reader. In any case, new and increasingly better works can be expected from Silvia Urgas. Although “all letters / that we use / are long since dead” and “we can’t understand / how short a t i m e can be”, Urgas herself still has a few letters and a little more time. PR
(THE BOOK OF CLOSENESS)
Tallinn, Verb, 2016. 72 pp
The miniature, just like many other forms of short prose, is underappreciated in both Estonian and global literature. Authors who write novels – not novellas, short stories, or miniatures – are chiefly regarded as “serious” writers. Therefore, in the context of Estonian literature, Jan Kaus (1971) proves that good writers can also handle concise forms, and can receive prominent awards for such texts. Kaus won the 2014 Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Award for Prose not only for his latest novel Ma olen elus (I Am Alive), but also for his second collection of miniatures, Tallinna kaart (Map of Tallinn).
Various forms of short prose comprise a very large part of Kaus’ works. The short-story collections Üle ja ümber (Over and Around, 2000) and Õndsate tund (Hour of the Blessed, 2003) came at the very start of his career. Kaus’ recently published tiny book Tõrv (Tar, 2015) was classified as short prose. However, the roots of his miniatures lie more in the prose poems found in his collection Aeg on vaha (Time is Wax, 2005). His first collection of miniatures, Miniatuurid (Miniatures), was published in 2009, and stood out for the form used. The next miniatures were Tallinna kaart in 2014 and Läheduste raamat in 2016. It certainly may not be a universal opinion, but in my view Kaus is a master of literature’s short forms. Everything in his novellas and miniatures is in exactly the right quantity, while in his novels, there is just a little too much of that “something”.
Läheduste raamat differs from its two older brothers in several respects: firstly, in terms of the choice of topics. Miniatuurid is thematically divided into several parts, with the author alternating between writing about anonymous towns, museums, the media, people close to him, and different sites around Estonia. Kaus’ second collection Tallinna kaart is not as fragmented: every compact text tells about a place in Tallinn that any experienced resident of the capital has visited, as well as the author’s feelings or thoughts associated with that location. Läheduste raamat is an exception in the sense that every text addresses the phenomenon of closeness, which Kaus defines rather vaguely.
Concluding the author’s latest work is the much longer text Kiri (Letter), which is informal and which Kaus describes as “not a love letter, but a letter about love”. In it, he clarifies the closeness of focus throughout the work as follows: “Maybe there exists some kind of objective spirit, an invisible field which we occasionally share. We share it when we feel closeness: not only love, which is one form of closeness. We share it when we feel something instinctive, a need for another person’s closeness, which leaves a deep mark. And here, all possibilities are open.” Every one of Kaus’ miniatures is indeed this type of manifestation that describes instances of closeness, whether they are associated with a particular person, place, memory, or something entirely different. Many readers often wonder whether that which Kaus details in his texts has actually taken place in reality. This is not important, in my opinion, and is especially unimportant in the case of Kaus’ miniatures. What matters is that the text has an effect. The focus in the author’s earlier collections of miniatures was on provoking and emotional moments, although the framing was more precise. Because of its thematic liberty, Läheduste raamat probably allowed Kaus more freedom in his writing; at the same time, it may startle readers already familiar with his short prose, and necessitate a more thorough reading than of earlier works.
This all clearly implies that Läheduste raamat was written for particular readers who enjoy slow contemplation and a narrator’s inner monologue, and who are not seeking blood-curdling excitement. Kaus even has his imaginary companion speak up on the topic: “…they could have a touch more spark and spice – why don’t you write stories that might train the reader’s gaze like a burning fuse until the climax explodes in their face?” Re-reading the author’s earlier novellas might evoke this same question in many readers, but Kaus offers a response: “I don’t know. I’ll say that life is ordinarily a much paler, homogenous mass; something like plain cottage cheese. In life, stories mostly end with a sizzle or a hiss; things are left unfinished and unresolved.” A little later, he continues: “But there seems to be one problem with realism: it expends itself too quickly.” This last statement seems to be generally true.
Läheduste raamat demonstrates that Kaus’ style continues to be polished and provocative. His metaphorical and nuance-rich language is some of the most masterful to be found in Estonian literature. So many writers have exhausted themselves handling the same topics, but not Kaus. Even the most unremarkable details become meaningful and evocative in his expressive manner. Kaus’ prose continues to develop and improve with each and every work. PR
Jürgen Rooste (1979) is a poet, journalist, and one of the most renowned writers of his generation. He has published fourteen collections of poetry and received the Cultural Endowment of Estonia’s Award for Poetry on two occasions, among many other recognitions.
Paul Raud (1999) is a literary critic who has also written short stories. Raud runs the cultural youth blog Kaktus.