In February 2016, compelling news came out: Jaan Kaplinski had been awarded the European Prize for Literature. The award, which is sponsored by the city of Strasbourg and the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, has been presented annually for eleven years.

Laureates are selected for works that have impacted European culture as a whole. The fact that it is an august award is confirmed by the list of recipients, which includes Bo Carpelan, Tony Harrison, Tadeusz Róz·ewicz, Jon Fosse, and Tankred Dorst. Since any international recognition is a banner event for the relatively modest-sized field of Estonian literature, the Estonian Literature Magazine felt compelled to ask Kaplinski a few pertinent questions.

ELM: The European Prize for Literature sounds prestigious; it has even been compared to the Nobel Prize for Literature. What does this kind of recognition really mean to you; i.e. what has the award brought you? Has it changed your life, and how?

JK: It’s hard to believe that this award is so prestigious. There’s been exceptionally little talk of it in European journalism. Comparing it to the Nobel is certainly blowing it way out of proportion. And now, more likely than not, the award will be done away with entirely. So, I will be the last laureate, and while the award previously came with a modest sum of money and was presented at a formal ceremony in Strasbourg, in my case, both the money and the ceremony were cancelled. Only after I pressed the jury on the issue did they inform me that it was very possible that I was the very last laureate. I’d already been told for two years that I was to be the next recipient, and it was lamentable when it all ended with only an e-mail from the jury saying sorry, the award won’t be given out at a ceremony. It’s nice that the notice came, regardless; maybe it will help one of my books to be published somewhere in Europe.

The diversity of your works certainly played a great part in you being awarded the European Prize for Literature. You’ve written masterful poetry, short stories, novels, essays, philosophical texts, memoirs, and plays. What part of your writing –
either a work or a genre – is closest to your heart, personally? What type of form fascinates you the most right now? Or, looking at it in a different way, when addressing your works to what have critics paid the most attention, and what should they have focused on?

It’s difficult to observe and define yourself from a distance. Perhaps I could say that I’m an essayist and a poet with a philosophical slant. I suppose I’ve worked on that aspect the very most and put the most effort into it. I myself don’t see my plays as being that much of a success. Right now, I’m simply working on translating my poems into Russian, and editing my existing translations; at the same time, I’m writing poems in Russian, too. Unfortunately, there’s little time for anything else. I suppose that reviewers have noticed the rather frequent irony in my texts too infrequently.

Readers become aware of your Polish roots in your 2013 memoirs To Father. In your blog Ummamuudu (In One’s Own Way [Võru language – Trans.]), you’ve written in other languages besides Estonian, including in English and Russian. What role does an author’s national or cultural background play in their writing, in your opinion? Or, more specifically: what does being an Estonian writer mean to you?

My mother and father were true Europeans who studied, lived, and worked in several countries. This might also be the source of my own relative cosmopolitanism. And my education in linguistics has, in its own way, inspired me to write in Russian, as well as in English to some extent. As a last resort, I’ve also had to translate the majority of my poems for my two collections published in English. And I’ve had an affinity for Russian poetry since childhood. The notion of an “Estonian writer” is very hazy, and I personally am not going to bother defining it. I am who I am; I write in the language which I feel close to at the given moment, and I suppose others can decide whether or not it’s Estonian literature.

What sort of literature do you keep your eye on?

I try to stay up-to-date with the newer and more interesting works in Estonian and Russian literature. And, as time permits, I read the Russian literature that wasn’t accessible during the Soviet era (written by Russian emigrants). And, of course, I follow science news very closely: I’ve written a thing or two about linguistics and ecology, and even a book on astronomy.