While the topic of confession and a deluge of biographies were items of discussion in Estonian literature during the first decade of this century, the next wave can now be noted: contemporary Estonian literature is undergoing a boom in landscape-centric self-presentation and works that center on the individual. Numerous works describe landscape experiences that are clearly based on autobiographical material, at the core of which are subjects that share biographical details identical to those of the authors. These experiences form a unique subjective model world, a literary mindscape that allows dreams and fantasies to exist alongside realistic details. For the most part, this mindscape is constructed in the immediate vicinity of the author’s home or in a place that is meaningful to him or her for some other reason, such as the site of the writer’s former home, a country cabin, or a grandparent’s home. Thus, the landscape transferred into the literature always possesses a geographical referent that is familiar to the author and recognizable to the native reader. At the same time, locational descriptions also encompass dreams, sensory manifestations, personal emotions, memory threads, poetizations of a site’s inherent features, a very selective attitude towards details of terrain, and the imposition of subjective meanings on the environment, and described just as sharply in the realistic sections are the region’s geography, structures, everyday life, documented events, personal thoughts, locals’ fates, etc. This is a unique interweaving of documentary and fiction, which carries the author’s need to explain his or her ordinary environment and map out meaningful landscapes.
Not only places and landscapes have come into focus, the depiction of mindscapes set somewhere in the periphery has become a distinct trend in contemporary Estonian literature. In this way, literature has seemingly antedated the recent grass-roots campaign Maale elama (Move to the Country), which aims to encourage youth to find suitable living environments not in cities, but on the periphery, nestled among nature. Thus, even literary creativity has fled to a simple and wild environment, to a quiet idyll, demonstrating a forceful detachment from globalization, urban anxiety, and social criticism or socio-urban representation, which dominated Estonian literature until just recently. The search for a genuine, pure and – in a way – elusive world is underway: a sense of perfection found in emptiness is expressed in depictions of the periphery; the most pronounced particularities, coziest qualities, and grounded values of tangled fringes are recorded. With the intertwining of these quiddities, creatively vital images are formed, ones which an outsider’s eyes and prejudices have been accustomed to perceiving as hopeless, gloomy, and restrictive. I will provide a few examples of this fresh phenomenon. In doing so, we should note that a circle can be traced around Estonia by placing literary peripheries’ and landscapes’ geographical mentions on the map of the country and connecting the dots.
In 2008, Andrus Kasemaa made his debut with a work of poetry that bears a manifest-like title: Poeedirahu (The Poet’s Peace). Poeedirahu is an imaginary toponym Kasemaa has given to a subjective image of the world, which stands for places in the writer’s home region that have become meaningful, necessary, sensorially pleasing, and steeped in experiences. The archetype for this literary landscape is situated on the eastern edge of Estonia, between Lake Peipus and the forests of Välgi, which is corroborated by mentions of geographical features, distances, and places bearing realistic facts and names. Over the years 2008–2012, Kasemaa delineated and expanded his Poeedirahu in three books of poetry and one book of prose, which makes it one of the most systematic geneses in newer Estonian literature. At the same time, it has become clear that it is impossible to fully and clearly determine the bounds and extent of Poeedirahu’s creative-subjective world: these have validity only in the autobiographical subject’s mind and may shift since they are formed according to his preferences, likings, and the uniting of places meaningful to him. Additionally, Kasemaa has defined Poeedirahu’s central objects and features systematically: it is an out-of-the-way village full of abandoned houses, wandering foxes, and widows. Still, this kind of composition does not come entirely in the form of woeful and marginal place images. Rather, the author sculpts them into a virtue of the site, binding to these elements an attractive and mysterious genius loci that poeticizes the manifestations of ruin. While Poeedirahu is depicted as an empty periphery that contains nothing apart from decay and old women, it is these same old women, the widows, who still remember golden days of the past. Their memories have not been tarnished by the racket of the modern world, and within them still flickers something of lost times of happiness, when the beautiful landscapes that surround them were still utilized in a variety of ways and the village was full of lively activity. Kasemaa revives and maps out this lost world; throughout his ramblings across the dreamscape, he discovers merits in this genuine periphery with its emptiness and silence. The location favors the opening of the senses to any and all environmental experiences, to lazing around in a summery place, doing nothing but simply watching the clouds go by, to realizing one’s own endless freedom, which is not broken by the drudgery of
Intersecting Kasemaa’s Poeedirahu landscape is Vahur Afanasjev’s poetry collection Tünsamäe tigu (Tünsamäe Snail, 2015), which maps out, both geographically and historically, the very same swath of countryside, bounded on one side by Estonia’s largest lake and on the other by an immensity of dense forests. However, Afanasjev does not employ imaginary toponyms in his depiction of the periphery: Tünsamäe is an actual place. Neither does the writer live year-round in this real place, but only summers there. Another significant difference is that the subject (or observer/actor) of Afanasjev’s poetic world is not the lyrical self, which enables the drawing of parallels to the author, but rather a snail encountering the landscape. Nevertheless, locals’ fates (perhaps also those of a widow or two?), buildings’ histories, nexuses chosen from the landscape’s history, and natural entities emerge from the vicinity of Tünsamäe and bind it into a congruous image of the terrain. Despite the fact that everything is seen from the perspective of a snail, it is all geographically accurate, vividly attested to by the maps and land surveys used as illustrations.
The types of people occupying the periphery largely harmonize with the region’s qualities: they are marginalized, somewhat dirty, and are often afflicted by poverty, health problems and vices, particularly a fondness for drink. The events that take place in the periphery are unusual and mainly impossible to imagine transpiring in an urban environment, due to their exotic and repellent nature. They are all the more compelling when observed against the backdrop of everyday rural life, since truly great events happen there very rarely. These qualities are greatly amplified, taken to the extreme, in Ott Kilusk’s Bildungsroman titled Veidrikud ja võpatused (Screwballs and Shocks, 2012), which portrays the atmosphere in a tiny village at the farthest edge of the world, placing on the literary map the settlement of Meremäe, in the far southwestern corner of Estonia. There the writer grew up, and there his protagonist does as well, remarking on all kinds of reclamations by nature and degradations both in terms of landscape and village life. It is all the more interesting to read in comparison with this story an entirely different kind of tale set in southwestern or, more precisely, in southern Estonia, one which adjoins the region Kilusk depicts, but which lacks his alienating shocks and dread: in Räestu raamat (The Räestu Record, 2012), Lauri Sommer tells of a place named Räestu in Võru County. The narrative is a quite lengthy, landscape-based history that begins with the grandparents’ search for a home, the creation of ancient footpaths, the gradual development of meaningful area, etc. Due to the warm, empathetic tone of the description and the narrator’s enthusiasm, every minute detail of rural living acquires unique poetic value; life in the countryside is filled with bright contentment and quiet, happy progress. Sommer’s characters are also bright and warm: he offers sweeping sketches of the more important individuals’ lives; i.e. those who possess a particular emotional significance. The author’s little world of Räestu is far from Kilusk’s marginality and discomfort. On the contrary, it is brimming with a mystical enthrallment, an uncommon life philosophy that is linked to the land, with vitality and a poetic interpretation of mundane life.
Tõnu Õnnepalu also titled his place-portraying work as manifestly as Poeedirahu: Paradiis (Paradise, 2009). The autobiographical novel maps out a place called „Paradiis” in Kaleste Village on the western coast of Estonia’s second-largest island, Hiiumaa, where the author lived for a dozen years. It is, of course, a subjective portrayal of the place, in which the author includes only the necessary and personally meaningful part of the landscape. The region called Paradiis is a geographically recognizable location with particular features and distances, but it is also a space of emotions, self-observations and memories, in which reflections of the geographical landscapes blend with fantasies and apparitions. As a result, Paradiis (which in a purely geographical sense is the most peripheral of all these aforementioned sites, set next to the sea and on the western fringe of an island beyond which lie only immense open waters) is a brighter place than the other peripheries. Pervading it is nostalgia, the finding of inner peace, as well as the freedom and joy derived from simple things. Unlike the other works, it is physical labor in particular that holds great importance. Perhaps the fact that elements of the literary space include, to a large degree, farming, caring for sheep and fruit trees, fence-building, etc. (all activities that demand time and dedication) results in the image being one of peaceful solitude and concentration, and it is also clearly more idyllic than any of the other peripheries.
Lauri Pilter’s landscape depictions are also characterized by a seaside location. Pilter has focused on Estonia’s Noarootsi Peninsula – the site of his summer cabin and childhood games – mapping out creative and mental spaces and calling the subjective and condensed result Airootsi in his works dating between 2010–2014. In it, we of course recognize references to actual terrains and places, although unlike the other works mentioned here, Pilter has also re-named other locations at a farther distance from his Airootsi. In addition to the subject’s own activities, included in the depiction of landscape are digressions that describe people who are unusual and meaningful to the author –
stories that explore the individuals’ routines and endeavors – as well as the autobiographical narrator’s family history. Still, a very important factor that sets the rhythm for the life framed by landscape (aside from the descriptions of simple rural living) is the author’s recognition of Airootsi/Noarootsi’s geographical history, in which the site’s peripheral nature is emphasized: now a peninsula, Airootsi/Noarootsi was once a separate island, and the terrain betrays signs of this to this day. A soggy, unusable flood meadow now stretches across the former seabed that divided the island and the mainland, which contributes to characteristics of the place and the inhabitants’ mentality.
Moving along the fringes towards Estonia’s northern reaches, it is our last chance to note that the selective and subject-centric representation of autobiographical locational experiences as a noteworthy tendency in contemporary Estonian literature is not solely the domain of male writers. Kristiina Ehin, for instance, has depicted with clear documentary elements her own personal peripheral site, which is just as isolated as Õnnepalu’s Paradiis: namely, the poet wrote her collection Kaitseala (Sanctuary, 2005) on the small, empty, unpopulated island of Mohni, while working as a lighthouse keeper. The work contains observations of nature and of self, yearnings, and fragments of memory recorded in isolation. Spliced between the poems is a “place-diary”: dated notes about significant moments on the island. These sketch a rather clear picture of the location and, by pointing out environmental problems, they establish the foremost issue as the pristine quality that is expected of such a place. Kaja Kann has written a straightforward place-diary about a place named Pardimäe in Kanguristi Village, located in the northernmost reaches of Estonia. Her work is titled Eratee (Private Road, 2013), and in it she describes in detail her everyday activities and goals. What materializes before the reader’s eye is a place at least as devoid of human population as Ehin’s Mohni Island: Kann is completely alone in “her Pardimäe”, and the setting is primarily limited to her home and yard, describing house maintenance, preserve-making, knitting, garden care, splitting firewood, etc. The location itself may not lie exactly on the fringe, but it is almost as isolated as a small island: the road to it is difficult to find and often impassable due to either rain or snow. This guarantees a quiet life.
It is truly remarkable how newer Estonian literature has discovered, opened up, and even awakened the peripheries, bestowing mental spaciousness and intimate meanings upon the very places that lie at a distance from urban centers and are typically invisible. Peripheries are valued as creative, mysterious, and pristine landscapes, into which purely personal strands of meaning, suggestive snapshots of memory, sources of intimate visions, yearnings, and a poeticized sense of belonging can be planted. It is in this way that subjective, out-of-the-way idylls have materialized from the peripheries of Estonian literature: model worlds forged on the basis of the authors’ moods, dreams, and wishes; worlds, which clash with globalization and urban space.
Brita Melts (1984) is a literary
scholar and critic, and the literary
history and folklore editor for
the academic journal Keel ja kirjandus (Language and Literature).