Kai Aareleid, Holger Kaints and Ilmar Taska deal with the 1940s
in their newest novels.
Discussing the relationship between memories and history somewhat resembles the debate over which came first, the chicken or the egg. Although there is no point in trying to reach a final conclusion, nor is it worthwhile taking the debate too seriously, it is nevertheless clear that history and memories depend on each other. You could probably say that, on the one hand, history is reflected in memories and, on the other, memories help to construct history. Memory without history is simply storytelling, but history without memories is dry, factual crumbs.
Thus, it is not strange that historians of all eras have striven to embellish their works with true-to-life details, while fiction writers conversely tend to rely on the work of historians in order to weave together with facts that which makes history the story of us all: life itself.
It is astonishing that in the spring of 2016 three novels were published in Estonia that all speak of the grimmest times in 20th-century Estonian history: the annexation of the Estonian state, World War II, and the Stalinist era. Holger Kaints (1957) begins at the earliest point; his Uinuv maa (Drowsy Land) starts in 1938. The starting point for the central narrative of Kai Aareleid’s (1972) Linnade põletamine (We All Fall Down) is the pivotal 1941, although there are flashbacks to the era of Estonia’s first independence. Ilmar Taska’s (1953) Pobeda 1946 (A Car Called Victory) commences in the year included in the Estonian-language title, which is also the year that Kaints’ work ends. Aareleid’s chronological reach is broader: the novel begins and ends in 2013, but the main plot extends from the early 1940s to the early 1960s.
Thus, the three authors all handle basically the same years, each focusing on different perspectives in their equally tragic stories.
The title of Holger Kaints’ novel is programmatic. In one respect, “Drowsy Land” alludes to the perception of one of the book’s central characters: a young communist recently released from prison, who sees Estonia as a lethargic little pond ignorant of its own fate. However, Kaints’ book has a more serious historical-political dimension: it establishes a direct connection between the autocratic rule of Estonian President Konstantin Päts – termed the Era of Silence – and the two occupations that followed. Kaints’ message is merciless: the former caused the latter, and society’s submissive and compliant transition from independence to occupation became possible in thanks to political “drowsiness”.
Kaints’ perspective is relatively unexpected: the protagonist is a young woman unconcerned with the events that are transpiring. She marries a staunch communist, giving the author an opportunity to address the fateful last years of Estonian independence from the standpoint of communists enraged by authoritarianism.
At the center of Ilmar Taska’s Pobeda 1946, conversely, is a relatively naive but sharp-minded boy who registers everything happening around him in detail, but is unable to competently differentiate between good and bad. As a result, the work’s main characters – an NKVD1 agent, the boy’s mother, who has nationalist sympathies, and his mother’s former prima donna half-sister, who despises the regime –
as well as secondary characters, including orphanage wards and workers, feature more as embodiments of different principles than they do as individuals.
The protagonist in Kai Aareleid’s Linnade põletamine is likewise a child: a girl named Tiina, who grows to adulthood over the course of the novel. Since the unfolding and development of her personality is framed by a time predisposed to silence, Tiina’s primary traits are her attentiveness to minor details, good memory, and skill at perceiving the causes behind events, even though she lacks the knowledge and experience needed to rationally interpret them.
Although the three works share great contextual similarities, Taska’s and Aareleid’s novels intersect more with each other, while Kaints’ stands at a slight distance in many senses. Particularly striking in both Pobeda 1946 and Linnade põletamine is the child’s perspective, which not only connects these two books, but also brings to mind a legendary work of Estonian literature: Viivi Luik’s (1946) Seitsmes rahukevad (The Seventh Spring of Peace, 1985). It likewise contains a view of the world through the eyes of a child and, as one might suspect from the title, its plot runs until the early 1950s.
One question forcefully arises: why have Estonian writers returned to that period now, during the latter half of the second decade of the 21st century? And why from a child’s perspective? Did Luik leave anything out? Had the Soviet era pressed its stamp on Seitsmes rahukevad, forbidding the author to speak candidly?
Perhaps, surprisingly, an answer to these questions can be found in the one novel of the three that features not a child, but an adult woman at the center of the plot: Holger Kaints’ Uinuv maa.
When speaking about writing Pobeda 1946, Ilmar Taska (whose background is in film-making) has admitted that he basically proceeded from the rules of cinema, which demand a coherent plot and characters with whom anyone can identify (one of the novel’s main characters is a British BBC journalist, so that Western readers can find something and someone familiar in the story, set behind the Iron Curtain). Similarly, much of Taska’s and his family’s own personal history can be found in the book: the author was born to deportee parents in 1953 in Kirov, Siberia.
Kai Aareleid has likewise said that much of Linnade põletamine is her own family history and, although the work contains mainly micro-historical material and post-war Tartu folklore, the focus is not on history in the wider sense, but on one family, seen through the eyes first of a child, then a teenage girl, and ultimately a young woman.
In the epilogue of Holger Kaints’ Uinuv maa, the author mentions stories heard in his childhood, and so the book is also connected to a particular family history. But at the same time, the author cites historians and reference works, of which Jaak Valge’s extensive study Punased I (The Reds I, which addresses the Estonian Marxist movement and its leading figures) especially stands out. Reading this and other historical volumes gave Kaints an opportunity to delve into the projects and activities of Estonia’s former communist elite, as well as to describe with psychological conviction and empathy the characters who had their first success in 1940, and beginning in the autumn of 1944 applied themselves with merciless determination to building communism in Estonia. “Bourgeoisie manure will be the fertilizer of our bright future,” one says with satisfaction, a phrase with which Kaints certainly captures his characters’ mentality.
Although Kai Aareleid’s book – whose misery-rich post-war Tartu is shown with extreme realism – is not short on abstractions, a convincing milieu, or compelling, true-to-the-era characters (nor is Ilmar Taska’s, who manages to convey the paranoid atmosphere of 1946 with terrifying clarity), diverging goals are nevertheless apparent between the two and Kaints. Specifically, Aareleid and Taska focus more on plot: for the former, the content is of equal importance to the way in which it is presented; for the latter, scenes with tremendous impact, memorable backdrops, and a rapidly branching storyline are what are important. It probably would be an exaggeration to say that Kaints is intrigued by the historical-political dimension, but his book can truly be read as a polemical commentary on the works of Estonian historians, and on a particular debate that has been going on in Estonian society since the late 1980s, fading from time to time, only to surface again with greater intensity. It is a debate that can be condensed into a single agonizing question: was the silent surrender of 1939 right and inevitable, or could an alternative have been found?
This same agonizing question also offers an indirect answer to why any Estonian author would, in the early 21st century, turn back to Stalin, Hitler, deportations, and genocide in the first place. It is obvious that we will never know whether Taska, Aareleid, and Kaints would have been able to write these books in 1985. At the same time, it is also clear that every generation not only wishes to tell its own story in its own particular way, but in a broader sense every era needs that. And this is true not only in regard to the problems that directly impact the given era, but more generally.
Perhaps now, when those who were children during World War II and the Stalinist terrors are becoming ever more important as we think back on the events, it is the right time to allow children’s voices to speak. And authors for whom this isn’t enough, who wish to do something more (such as focus on the psyches of communist collaborators, as in Kaints’ case), must seek out other sources than those that are written or passed down orally in families. And this is precisely where the complicated interplay between history and memories comes in: a game in which it is impossible and, in truth, pointless to choose sides. Memory, with its passionate closeness, trumps the chilliness of a scholarly historical treatment, but we are nevertheless only able to conjecture about the greatest abstractions thanks to the factual work of historians.
Considering the very unique position of a child as witness to an era (children may register uncomfortable minute details of the adult world, and comprehend them only decades later, in adulthood), the Chairman of the Estonian Writers’ Union Tiit Aleksejev raised an excellent question during a radio program: if the depiction of war and post-war life through the eyes of a child has now been dissected in the settings of Tallinn (Taska), Tartu (Aareleid), and the countryside (Luik), then can we expect the 1960s, for instance, to be handled next? Perhaps. The Estonian classic Mati Unt’s 1963 novel Hüvasti, kollane kass (Goodbye, Yellow Cat) accompanied several generations of young Estonians through their teenage years, but it would be exciting if someone tackled that decade in all its upheaval, contradiction, and of course romanticism anew. There’s enough material to go around. And just as Kai Aareleid and Ilmar Taska have proven as memory writers and Holger Kaints as a history writer, Estonia certainly boasts authors capable of crossing the divide between decades, each reviving with their own unique styles and methods a time which hasn’t actually disappeared but is merely forgotten, in both its pain and its beauty.
Peeter Helme (1978) is an Estonian writer and journalist, and anchors the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s literary radio programs. Helme has published five novels. The latest of these, Sügaval läänes (Deep in the West, 2015), is a crime story set in the industrial Ruhr Valley.